Being their "everything"– the expressway to disaster.
“Jess” and “Kate” are both feeling frustrated and angry. Kate believes that Jess isn’t working hard enough to make her happy and wants them to spend all of their free time together. Without saying it, she believes that Jess should be responsible for everything she needs in life for her personal satisfaction. This notion is often fed by the “happily ever after” fairy tales that we learn as children. Music also tells us that we don’t need “Anyone but you.” While very romantic thoughts, these mistaken beliefs set couples up for repeated failures and disappointment.
In my practice, I have observed that it is not uncommon for one partner to lose their autonomy within a relationship. The idea that one partner is completely responsible for the well-being of another is based on a social (and cultural) lie. In a relationship, your partner should never be viewed as your “everything.” It is unhealthy and destructive to not be your own differentiated person, or to define yourself by either your partner or the relationship itself.
When romantic partners “couple up”, they often give up the attributes that made them interesting and unique when they were single. They may believe that all of their activities, and their free time, should be 100% focused on their partner. This can result in feelings of boredom or resentment. Partners can also feel increasingly isolated, particularly when their social circle shrinks. In counseling, I often hear that one partner does not like the other’s partner’s friends. When they feel that these friends are a threat to their desire to want to be the sole focus of their partner, they strive to isolate their partner from their pre-couple social circle. While this is not always intentional, it can be very counterproductive to both partners. Making yourself happy at your partner’s expense almost always back-fires—causing more problems.
The late Dr. Murray Bowen once wrote: “People solicit each other’s attention, approval, and support and react to each other’s needs, expectations, and upsets. A change in one person’s functioning is predictably followed by reciprocal changes in the functioning of others.”(1) Another way of saying this is that the way couples interact is often based on their early “attachments.” A term first coined by psychologist John Bowlby, attachment theory is a developmental psychology concept that centers on how we form (or do not form) “attachments” to others during childhood. These attachments can positively (or negatively) impact our feelings of stability or security, both as children and as adults.(2)
Dr. Susan M. Johnson has authored several excellent books about attachment theory, including Hold Me Tight, Love Sense, and Attachment Theory in Practice. She blogs about healthy, effective dependency strategies where couples can “accept and acknowledge their attachment vulnerabilities and needs and reach for others in a way that evokes connection, rather than using the two less affective strategies of pushing and coercively demanding caring or avoidantly turning away from others and denying attachment vulnerabilities.”(3) This is not easy. Couples will need a skilled therapist who can help them see how their early attachments are driving their dissatisfaction within their current relationships. While this takes some time, the positive effect on relationships can be long-lasting.
1. Kerr, Michael E. One Family’s Story: A Primer on Bowen Theory. The Bowen Center for the Study of the Family. 2000. http://www.thebowencenter.org.
2. Attachment Theory. https://www.psychologistworld.com/developmental/attachment-theory.
Johnson S. The Future of Couple and Family Therapy: Attachment Science in Action. http://www.drsuejohnson.com/emotionally-focused-therapy-2/the-future-of-couple-and-family-therapy-attachment-science-in-action/#more-2297