In today’s relationships we have much more freedom and choice than the generations before us. That freedom, however, has come at a price; we lose a sense of certainty in belonging and identity. Now, we turn to our romantic partners to help us with our sense of belonging, our aloneness, our need for continuity in connection. We still want many of the things relationships of the past provided: we want family life, companionship, economic support, and even social status. In addition to all these relationship values, we look to our partners and say, I want you to be my best friend, my most trusted confidant, plus my most passionate lover –all for the long haul – and the long haul keeps getting longer.
To do all of this, to maintain this ideal is ambitious for our modern romantic relationships. And yet, this is what we want. This isn’t a relationship dilemma that we solve overnight, but you can learn to communicate your needs in a way that conveys ownership, not blame. You can, together, learn to create an atmosphere were sharing and asking for your deepest longings and needs with your partner feels less risky. You can learn to hear your partner’s protests for connection as less demanding and less critical.
We have come to expect that our partners will help us overcome what is – most likely – one of the most amazing challenges of relationships today: collectively bringing together our fundamental sets of contradictory human needs of change and stability. On one hand we want our partner to satisfy our need for security, belonging, safety and predictability. And on the other hand, we want our partner to satisfy our need for adventure, novelty, mystery, and exploration.
You may notice in your relationship that there is likely one person who is more in touch with fearing the loss of their partner while the other is more in touch with being afraid of losing themselves. In other words, one more afraid of abandonment and one more afraid of suffocation. Reconciling these polar needs for safety and adventure has become one of the greatest challenges to navigate in relationships today—especially when your partner has a varying degree of need compared with your own.
So, what is the answer? How do we get all that we want in our relationships and give our partners what they long for as well? Such a delicate balance. Sometimes it takes a skilled and neutral third party (like a therapist) to help each partner understand and communicate their yearnings and desires to their partner in a way that can not only be heard but also received and reciprocated. Other times it may take a collective of other couples who are struggling with the same communication issues to see and know that what they are feeling and longing for is normal, that you are not alone in your desire to feel important to another, to belong, to feel loved—in the way that you need to feel loved.
Ask yourself, “How do you show up in your relationship? What are some of the things that you do to disconnect from others? When was the last time you searched out ways to learn to be a better partner, a better lover? These questions and others are the kind explored in couples therapy.