Note: this is the first of a two-part series.
Dear Neil: What does it mean when my girlfriend says she is very independent, fears being controlled and doesn’t trust easily? Isn’t the idea of being in an adult relationship for both people to trust, rely on and depend on each other?
Feeling Pushed Away in Westminster, Colorado
Dear Feeling Pushed Away: Trust is gained when you count on someone else, and they come through for you consistently and reliably. But if, as a child, I learned that I could not depend on my caregivers, now as an adult I fear depending on others—and I fear others depending on me—because I have learned that people I get close to can’t be counted on, and they can hurt me as well.
In an intimate relationship, I might communicate that fear by declaring my desire to be independent: I can do it myself, I don’t need to rely on you. But it’s really about me having poor trust in other people. More often than not, it’s about my fear of letting you in and permitting you to get close enough to me in order for you to see the places where I’m truly vulnerable, insecure, unstable, immature or where I don’t have my act together. If you compound that by ever lying to me, misleading me, betraying me or otherwise not being 100% trustworthy all the time, it’s not difficult for me to just not trust you at all.
Independence is valued by our culture. Self-reliance is considered a virtue. Needing others speaks to me not being able to make it on my own. From there, it’s a short journey to confuse closeness and intimacy with being dependent and weak. I begin thinking I have to choose between being cared for—dependence—and caring for myself—independence. I especially fear getting swallowed up by others, of losing myself.
If I fear being controlled, I’ll equate being loved with being dominated, and then I’ll value my independence above all else. So I’ll keep myself apart, away from merging lives and blending identities with you. I’ll develop what I’ve heard someone recently label closetrophobia—the fear of being too close to you or of letting you too close to me.
How does it happen that we who want to be liked, loved and accepted by others behave in such a way that our intimate relationships get sabotaged and dismantled? This paradox puzzles those who must live outside its curious logic, and is well articulated in Joseph Santoro and Ronald Cohen’s excellent book The Angry Heart (New Harbinger): “I want to be accepted by you. I want you to like me and be devoted to me. But I don’t know what it feels like to be accepted and loved. Everyone that has loved me has hurt me, so I assume that if you say you love me, you are lying to me so you can exploit me. I hate you because I believe you will betray me the way I’ve been betrayed in the past, so I will pick up on even the slightest signs of your non-acceptance (or use) of me, react with anger and mistrust—then use and reject you. You will respond by rejecting me. But I need you and I don’t want you to reject me. I’m confused.”
This brain numbing logic creates a cycle of failure from one relationship to the next, so I learn to take whatever I can get from my intimate partners, because I have learned that relationships end badly for me.
There is a way out of this dilemma. I will talk about how in next week’s column.