When Your Partner’s Love Isn’t Enough
Are there limits to your partner’s love?
By the time she had her third panic attack in two weeks, I’d been seeing Paula, a bright, adventurous graduate student from Colombia, for the better part of a year. I was, frankly, puzzled by the episodes. Exploring her earlier history and her present life unearthed no real clues as to why she’d still be suffering such a powerful, persistent feeling of dread. Her daily regimen now included running, weight-training, relaxation exercises, and yoga, and still, even with all her hard work, she constantly battled feelings of overwhelm and fear.
When Your Partner’s Love Isn’t Enough
Are there limits to your partner’s love?
By Craig Malkin, Ph.D.
Aug 11 2011
By the time she had her third panic attack in two weeks, I’d been seeing Paula, a bright, adventurous graduate student from Colombia, for the better part of a year. I was, frankly, puzzled by the episodes. Exploring her earlier history and her present life unearthed no real clues as to why she’d still be suffering such a powerful, persistent feeling of dread. Her daily regimen now included running, weight-training, relaxation exercises, and yoga, and still, even with all her hard work, she constantly battled feelings of overwhelm and fear. She’d even begun medication–an antidepressant–but her symptoms didn’t seem ready to leave without a fight. Her boyfriend, Ricardo, also from Latin America, had been nothing but supportive as far as I could tell (and based on what Paula reported). One week earlier, in fact, he’d volunteered to attend a meeting, during which he asked astute questions about panic and anxiety and passed Paula tissues. Their brief exchange gave me my first clue that I’d missed something big in my attempts to help.
“What can I do to help?” he asked.
“You’ve done all you can,” she said. “It’s just when you’re not around, I feel alone. You’re all I’ve got now – a family of two.”
The Secret to Longer Life, Just a Hug Away
In recent years, there’s been an explosion in research and popular books about the importance of a secure attachment – that delicious feeling of well-being and emotional stability that comes from knowing that your partner not only loves and cares about you, but that, barring accident, illness, or injury, he or she plans to stick around and keep loving you, now and well into the future. Thanks to the secure attachment model, “dependency” is no longer a four-letter word.
Healthy adult love, we’re now told, means having the maturity to accept that needs for reassurance and help are as important between partners as they are between a parent and a child. Books like Sue Johnson’s Hold Me Tight, devoted to helping couples nurture a more secure attachment style, have done much to enrich our understanding of the power of feeling free to say “I need you.” Everyday, researchers add to the list of benefits seen in a healthy, loving relationship: lower stress, improved physical and mental health–even lower mortality rates. In the end, our growing ability to teach the tools for healthy intimacy just might save lives.
Which is all great news, really, but it didn’t seem to be helping Paula in the least. As secure as she felt, that is, in her relationship with her boyfriend (and she did), she was still decidedly insecure, much of the time, when he wasn’t around. Why didn’t her feeling last?
To answer that question, I had to expand my whole understanding of what a “secure attachment” is. In Western culture–at least most of it–we’ve tended to place most of our emphasis on separation, individual growth, “self-actualization,” and personal development. The self has become the key to unlocking the secrets of the universe, and we’ve made a religion out of it. Secure attachment models have shaken us out of our arrogant belief in “man” as an island and opened our minds to the brute fact that not only is it impossible to survive on our own, but we probably weren’t even meant to. But, despite my knowing this–and for all my training in cross-cultural psychology–I’d forgotten that not all cultures view separation from family and home as the hallmark of adult maturity. My bias in considering Paula and her anxiety stemmed from another distinctly Western (and arguably, American) assumption–namely, that one person, somehow, is enough.
Secure Cultural Attachments
For some people, just having an adoring partner, as important as it is, will never take the place of belonging to a larger group. That’s because their whole notion of what constitutes a “self” may be subtly, but importantly, different. And because of that, what the self needs, in order to feel secure, may be very different as well. Psychologists Hazel Rose Markus and Shinobu Kityama have argued that in more communal (or “interdependent”) cultures, like Paula’s, where the self emerges in a larger extended family, or culture or group, a person’s thoughts, feelings, motivations, and identity are based more on their connection to others than they are in a more “individualist” culture. Paula thought of herself as a daughter, a sister, a loving niece, before she viewed herself, simply and starkly, as Paula. At home, for instance, her house was constantly alive with people, chatting and laughing, or cooking and playing games. To some of us in America, more used to spending hours by ourselves, this might sound overwhelming. But to her, the din of a crowded room was deeply comforting. She felt a serenity, “like being held,” that she had never known anywhere else. She was, in short, securely attached–until she arrived in America. Now that she’d lost that context, she not only struggled to feel clear about what she needed, but– in a deeply fundamental way–who she was. It made no more sense to talk about her “self” and her needs apart from her culture and family, than it would to lift a drop from a larger body of water and call it a lake.
After I met with her and her boyfriend, I realized my mistake with Paula. And as I finally shifted my focus, working with her to reclaim some of the connections she’d lost, helping her think about what home and family had meant, her dread began to subside. In retrospect, her fears made perfect sense. She’d lost her safe haven. Her boyfriend could never completely make up for that. The only thing that he could do was to help her find some semblance of a community again. So she searched the internet for groups and community centers, where she could find a crowd of people who reminded her of home. She looked for a local church (religion had been an important part of her life in Colombia), and after some shopping around, she found one, where she actually met another woman from her hometown. Her boyfriend, too, benefited from her efforts. “I didn’t realize how much I missed this,” he said, after they’d found a bar with chairs outside, where he and Paula and their friends could watch soccer and cheer and eat. As her community grew, Paula’s anxieties loosened their grip on her psyche, until by the end of the year, her panic attacks had all but disappeared. Paula, it seems, had found her safe haven again. And I’d remembered that not all security is based on the love of a single person. It was a lesson that helped me understand everyone’s pain a little better. After all, we all emerge from a family culture, each with its own characteristic form of longing and connection. Is it any wonder that, sometimes, lasting security can only be found by reaching for love beyond the family of two?
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Note: The individuals depicted are a composite of many people and experiences. All names and identities have been disguised to preserve confidentiality.
Source URL: http://www.psychologytoday.com/node/71708