When my newborn son lets out a shrill cry at 3 in the morning, my body has a very visceral reaction. My husband and I both wake up alert and spring into action to pick him up, check him out, and quickly diagnose what’s ailing him. Hungry? Someone scrambles to the kitchen to grab a bottle. Dirty diaper (again!)? We draw short sticks to see who’s changing it. Regardless of the need, we know as his parents it’s our job to meet it right now.
It’s funny though, as obvious as a baby’s need for a parent is, our need for responsive, attentive partners is considered controversial. If we rely too heavily on others we’re at risk of being dubbed dependent…a “stage 5 clinger”. As adults, we don’t need someone else to make us happy, make us a sandwich, or help us make the rent necessarily. But there’s plenty of research that points to emotional safety and needing/relying on one another as key components of healthy relationships. Just like children need to live in a loving, supportive environment free from harm, so do adults. Emotional safety means you can share your heart and speak your mind freely with your partner. Dr. Sue Johnson uses the acronym A-R-E to capture the underlying question we need answered in our relationships: “Are you there for me?”
Attuned. Responsive. Engaged.
In our close adult relationships, we want to know we can count on our partners…that when we reach out, they will be responsive to what Dr. John Gottman calls our bids for emotional connection. If we walk in and let out an exasperated sigh after a long day, we’re making a subtle bid…we’re telling our partners, “Hey, today sucked. Notice me. Ask me about it. I need a hug, bubble bath, and a Hershey bar – stat.”
At the end of the day, physical and emotional safety with our partners provide the foundation from which the rest flows. I heard Dr. Johnson talking about sex on a podcast a while back. She explained sex can be thrilling, like ziplining, but only when we trust the person holding the line. In our most intimate moments, whether in the bedroom, discussing finances, sharing dreams, or talking fears, we have to trust the person we’re in it with to honor us by making it physically safe to be there, and emotionally safe not to be criticized, mocked, or dismissed when we open up. When we have that level of connection, we can explore our feelings, what motivates us, and what we really need without fear of it being used against us. We’re being deeply and diligently cared for, and we love that…crave that…and fundamentally NEED that.
If you think back on an especially hard break-up, one thing that made severing that tie so difficult was the emotional connection that was suddenly lost. The person we texted each morning or sat with at lunch or woke up next to wasn’t “our person” anymore. We built rituals around them. When we break-up, even when the relationship needs to end, we are left with a void to fill: how we spend our time, who we vent to, who we laugh with, who we confide in. At that point, we may reconnect with friends we put on the backburner while we were in the relationship, or we may rush into a new relationship, desperately hoping to fill that hole…to feel that emotional safety and connection with someone again. But we rarely admit that’s what we’re doing. Instead, we proudly declare we’re “moving on.”
Self-reliance is often put on a pedestal. Because of the desire to feel/seem self-sufficient, many people won’t apologize or take ownership when things go awry. They have trouble asking for help. They may not show emotion and let their guard down, even with their closest friends and family. Folks like this view vulnerability as weakness, and they aren’t letting anyone gain the upper hand on them. While I totally get how past hurts drive many people to this place, it’s no way to live. If you’re in this boat, I will tell you unequivocally that personally and professionally I believe what Dr. Johnson preaches: “being able…to turn to others for emotional support is a sign and source of strength.”
Building walls keeps people who can hurt you out AND people who can help you and love you deeply from getting in. So, do we stop vetting people entirely and trust just anyone with our deepest secrets, fears, and insecurities? Not a chance. But we should handpick a select few who have the privilege of seeing behind the curtain. We let them see the ugly parts of us and learn they stick and love us in spite of ourselves sometimes. We realize that even without a full face of make-up or big wad of cash they see beauty in us. When we fail, they see our gifts and potential as clear as day, even when we struggle to.
There is no greater assurance than being truly known and fully loved. No games, no facades, no lies. It is liberating to be that honest and open and have people in your life to share the truest parts of yourself with. Tall, impenetrable walls can’t stave off heartbreak. They can mute your capacity for intimacy and connection and undercut your potential for happiness in a major way. Once we can admit we are not in it alone and it’s OK to need each other, real, authentic, big love is on the table for us. It’s our job to pull up a chair.
“True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are.”
-Dr. Brene Brown