Being Safe at the Expense of Being Happy

Dear Neil: Eight years ago I walked out on a very special man: my lover, best friend, protector and provider. It seemed the perfect relationship. Only now do I realize that he loved me unconditionally.

Walking through Hyde Park, my reasons for leaving hit me in the face: I was so scared that one day I’d wake up and it wouldn’t be real. He would be gone, and my happiness would be destroyed, so I left him before he had the chance to leave me.

I find it difficult to commit myself to men in an intimate relationship. I screwed up because I couldn’t accept true happiness. I rejected it before I got hurt. I learned at an early age that if I show any sign of weakness or vulnerability, the vultures will move in for the kill. There’s no way I was going to let that happen. It is painful to admit the truth about myself.

Guarded in London, England

Dear Guarded: As a child, if we learned not to trust people—because they hurt, betrayed, rejected or otherwise disappointed us—we are likely to develop an attitude of defensive self-protection in our dealings with other people.

That means as adults, we are likely to go out into the world looking to keep ourselves safe, rather than trying to get our emotional needs met in our relationships with others. Thus, we do not allow ourselves to trust or to love very deeply, and we don’t let our guard down long enough to get too attached or vulnerable.

If, for fear of getting hurt, we do not allow ourselves to become vulnerable to another person, we enter and intimate relationship with an extremely guarded heart, which is an ineffective way to attempt to have a close, loving relationship with someone else. This stance precludes us from feeling very nurtured or cared for by other people, because if we’re not emotionally open and do not trust them, we will find it very difficult to believe that they are acting trustworthy and loving toward us, and that they have our best interest at heart.

In all of our relationships, we have a choice to protect ourselves so we won’t get hurt, or to keep ourselves open and risk pain in order to get the closeness and intimacy we seek. To know whether you are responding protectively or not, Jordan and Margaret Paul, in the book Do I Have To Give Up Me To Be Loved By You? offer the following exercise:

In conversations or conflicts with an intimate other, do you:

  • Ask leading questions
  • Condescend
  • Give advice
  • Disagree
  • Explain
  • Placate
  • Discount
  • Make helpful suggestions
  • Change the subject
  • Joke
  • Deny your feelings or behavior
  • Exaggerate
  • Tell the other how he/she feels
  • Distract
  • Problem solve
  • Compare
  • Lecture
  • Defend
  • Interrogate
  • Analyze
  • Excuse
  • Interpret
  • Try to find error in the other person’s thinking

All of the above behaviors are protective responses, and they all serve to sabotage or distance your important relationships.

At some point you must ask yourself: “Do I want to be protective, or do I want to build the relationship? Is there a better way for me to feel safe without emotionally disconnecting from the other person? What is the best way for resolving this conflict or disagreement and  feeling close and intimate afterwards? How can I be open—and even risk getting hurt—in order to have the intimacy I seek?”

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