Do you ever give to yourself what you so desperately seek from your spouse or partner?
When we are children, our psychological and emotional development overwhelmingly depends upon others—our caregivers need to feed us literally and emotionally. The emotional feeding is hopefully delivered through predictable/consistent love, attention and responsiveness. Our caregivers’ part in the unfolding relationship molds us in profound ways, setting the stage for how we relate to ourselves and, ultimately, how we relate to others.
So from the beginning of life our emotional comfort comes initially from outside sources (the attention, words and touch from our parents act as an emotional balm that soothes and quiets our longing for connection as well as our distress). When others are experienced as reliably available during our childhood, we form deep-seated expectations that others are (or can be) emotionally safe, that they are a potential source of comfort for us when we’re in need.
You see this level of emotional security in people who comfortably (non-anxiously) reach out and say to their spouses/partners or friends, “Something happened that is troubling me and I need to talk… Are you available?” Here the expectation exists that one’s needs will be listened to, taken seriously and possibly met by the other.
In psychology this type of relating is called secure attachment (by and large you feel emotionally secure in your relationship).
Emotional Comfort from Others Leads to the Ability for Self-Comfort
Ideally, the emotional attunement and comfort offered by others early on in our lives allows us, over time, to attend to our own needs and emotions—we internalize the comforting and loving presence of others; they become an integral part of our own inner emotional landscape. So when we feel something intensely, their inner presence offers the same type of comfort that was once offered by them while relating to us.
Increasing emotional self-reliance does not, of course, replace the need or desire for others, but it does give us more options and greater flexibility in how we act and react.
Without the capacity to make sense of our own feelings and without the capacity to self-soothe, the potential for emotional reactivity is always close at hand—in a sense we remain prisoners of our own reactions without the ability to take perspective and step back from what is unfolding around us and within us. Mindfulness is one means to achieve this—to observe our experiences without being pulled under by their intensity.
Relationship Advice: Finding the Right Balance for Your Relationship
Too often couples relate to each other in a state of emotional reactivity or overwhelm—rather than taking the time to self-soothe and find one’s emotional footing (and therefore gain perspective). Marital and relationship conflicts are often the result of us quickly reacting and interacting out of emotional insecurities (and anxieties) in a desperate attempt to get our partner/spouse to comfort us the way our parents once did.
Most of us are probably familiar with this way of relating—during states of heightened emotional need, our partners become more central in helping us reclaim the calm waters of emotional stability. But too often, our approach pushes our partner further away, building distance between us that deepens our relationship insecurities.
The more intense our distress or insecurities, the greater our need for comfort. We all have preferred ways of coping with stress and distress: Some of us favor going inward to find our emotional footing, while for others, seeking comfort and reassurance from another is the fallback position.
Achieving balance between self-reliance (e.g., self-soothing) and other-reliance (emotionally leaning on your partner/spouse for emotional comfort) allows greater flexibility that allows couples the ability to navigate the relationship challenges and stresses of life we all face. To never rely on your partner for emotional comfort or to exclusively rely on him/her at the exclusion of self-care, creates an imbalance that can tax the relationship.
The goal is to find what works best for you and your partner (there is no one-size-fits-all approach—some couples utilize self-reliant strategies more frequently, some prefer relying more exclusively on their partner for comfort, yet others go back and forth between self-and-other comfort depending on the life circumstances faced).
Strengthen Your Marriage/Relationship Action Step:
Have you achieved what feels like a healthy balance between self-soothing and reaching out to your spouse/partner for emotional comfort?
What allows you greater emotional footing and the ability to take perspective rather than emotional reactivity and defensiveness?