“I don’t want to be needy,” I heard for the umpteenth time in a couples therapy session. The reality is that sometimes we just need our partners to hold us up…and that’s actually a good thing.
At the risk of expressing an unpopular viewpoint, I think our societal views of independence often negatively impact our close intimate relationships. Our western society highly values independence. Independence can be practical in many contexts. The concept of relying on others is frequently considered a weakness. However, in intimate couple relationships, too much focus on individuality can work someone right out of a relationship, or precipitate anxious emotions, diminishing relationship happiness.
I have observed in clinical practice that many couples don’t understand that there is a concept called “effective dependence,” in which partners actually become more functional and exploratory in the world when they feel safe and secure in their close intimate relationships. When couples don’t understand this and how it works, they often end up seeking independence at a level that paradoxically perpetuates the clingy behavior which can be smothering.
In other words, people think that if they respond to their partners’ emotional needs, then their partners will become more dependent and just want more. Because of this fear, they push their partners away.
In fact, there is research showing just the opposite—that if a partner is responsive to dependency needs, the partner functions more autonomously likely because they feel more secure. As human beings, we are wired to depend on one another.
Additionally, current research indicates that in the presence of a close supportive partner, the actual perceived experience of physical pain can decrease. Predictable support from a partner helps us regulate emotion more efficiently.
In the words of study author Brooke Feeney, “Because dependence on close relationship partners, particularly in times of need, is an intrinsic part of human nature, relationship partners who are sensitive and responsive to this behavior actually serve to promote independence and self-sufficiency, not inhibit it.” She further explains that “Attachment figures promote healthy functioning by providing a safe haven to which a relationship partner can retreat for comfort, support, reassurance, assistance, and protection, and by providing a secure base from which a relationship partner can explore the world and strive to meet his or her full potential.”
This is great news for close couple relationships, because it means there is a built-in mechanism for potentially enhancing individual well-being. Famous psychologist and marriage expert Sue Johnson wrote, “It is easier to be completely yourself if you are securely connected to those you depend on.” We actually individuate more readily in the environment of an accepting partner.
How needing your partner can be good
Couples don’t always recognize this benefit, however, and actually end up eliciting the type of anxiety associated with clingy behavior. Some partners think they are doing their companions a favor by being completely independent without ever needing anything without realizing that “if my partner is always perfectly fine without me and needs me for nothing, it in essence means that he/she could leave me.”
Effective dependence has two parts
Many people in relationships haven’t learned that it is beneficial to reach out overtly to a partner for support, or they haven’t learned how important their responsiveness can be. I often spend time helping couples understand effective dependence. There are two sides to this concept—learning to reach out to a partner and learning to show up for a partner. Many people haven’t learned to do either one.
Sometimes when a partner has dependency needs, a spouse can even get triggered to withdraw. They get the idea that they aren’t good at meeting those needs or they don’t know how, or they don’t recognize needs, and so they push it away, generating relationship distress. It is very common.
In a very typical example, I recall once having a wife in therapy tell her husband that sometimes she just needed reassurance that he still loved her. He looked at her for a moment without responding, and then turned to me and began explaining that as a surgeon, when he completed a particular procedure, that procedure was expected to stay functional for at least 15 years. “If something goes wrong before then,” he added, “then it means I must have done something wrong.”
I remember watching him very carefully with furrowed brows, trying to discern what he was really trying to tell me by explaining this surgical procedure. I checked in with him, “So, are you saying that if your wife has insecure moments when she needs reassurance that you still love her, it’s like saying you’re a bad husband or you aren’t doing your job of loving her correctly?” “Essentially, yes,” he fired back.
“Oh, okay, so at those moments when she is reaching out to you for reassurance, you don’t see it as her reaching out because you are the antidote….you actually see it as her implying that you are a bad husband?” “Yep,” he nodded. I continued, “So it sounds like you also need some kind of reassurance from her that you are the person she wants to be with and that you actually help her in those moments…it’s important to you to feel effective?” “Yes,” he added, “When she keeps coming back to me needing reassurance, I just end up thinking I can’t ever fix it so why does she keep coming to me? I just want it to go away.”
A possible gender effect
This is a routine pattern in therapy, and while I observe this reaction with both genders, I actually see it more in males who have been socialized to be independent and solution-oriented, and who can actually be shamed by their wife’s emotions, because they have been socialized away from attuning to vulnerable emotions. I can’t exaggerate how often I have seen men in very powerful career positions who are absolutely terrified of disappointing their wives and causing a perceived emotional firestorm.
It’s not uncommon for husbands to be completely freaked out by crying wives. If their wives are crying about something they have done, they feel even more shame. They often miss the cue that they are wanted. They experience it as being pushed away. It can be experienced as rejection. They commonly withdraw in those moments when they are actually needed the most, and end up rejecting their partners in return. They don’t realize how important their presence can be, even if negative emotion doesn’t immediately dissipate.
I once asked my own husband if he experienced my tears as shaming, because I observed it so much in therapy, and it comes up in therapist trainings. “Absolutely!” he answered just a little too quickly, “If you are crying, then I feel like a lousy husband.”
How to do effective dependency
SOOO….in light of the research indicating that we are wired to reach out to someone for support in this big bad world, and that getting comfort from a partner in a high quality relationship is actually an efficient way of regulating emotion, how do we make the most of effective dependency in a close bonded relationship?
- Take turns. In a healthy partnership, couples take turns needing each other and being there for each other. This is important, because sometimes one partner will stop withdrawing and stay more present to meet a partner’s needs, but he/she won’t reach out with their own needs because they don’t want to risk upsetting the system. This happens a lot with men who are disconnected from any emotional need and who don’t want to exacerbate any kind of emotional response in their wives. They will often (not always) reach out for sex because it’s a way to get both physical and emotional needs met. It doesn’t even occur to many people (especially men) to have emotional needs, but they have them. We all have them. Remember the surgeon who felt like a failure when his wife was insecure about whether or not he loved her? That implies an unspoken emotional need on his part, for example, to be enough.
- Have a conversation about what your emotional needs are. I am often trying to help couples uncover these needs, which are usually related to some form of acceptance, support, and reassurance of love. There are many ways to language these needs. A common one is knowing that your partner would choose you again if given the chance.
- If you don’t know how to meet the need, reassure your partner that you are trying to figure it out, but you might need help. You might also need to balance your own emotional need (e.g. to be “enough,”) with your partner’s, and have an overt conversation about it. My husband hates feeling like a failure. If I am crying about something and he is processing it with me and my emotion stays high, he starts feeling ineffective. I have to sometimes reassure him that even though I’m still upset, it helps me that he’s still there with me.
- Recognize how sexuality can be entwined with emotional needs. Many people don’t know how to verbalize emotional need, either because they don’t have the awareness or language, or they are shamed by having emotional needs because they think they shouldn’t need anyone, or they fear rejection. It’s not uncommon for sexuality to be a way to get emotional needs for love and acceptance met. It’s often a form of, “If you’ll let me get that close to you, then I know you still want me, love me, etc. I’m still good.”
- Realize that learning to both reach out for and to meet emotional needs can be a learned behavior. I have had lots of couples in therapy get better at this process, and as a result, grow a more secure relationship. It’s as important to be able to take in someone’s offer of support as it is to ask or offer support oneself. People forget this sometimes and reject the support they are actually wanting. Accepting support matters a lot.
A.A. Milne, creator of children’s classic storybook character Winnie the Pooh, seemed to understand attachment relationships very well. In one exchange, Pooh expresses, “If ever there is tomorrow when we’re not together… there is something you must always remember. You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think. But the most important thing is, even if we’re apart… I’ll always be with you.” And THAT is how relationships promote independent functioning.
The Dependency Paradox in Close Relationships: Accepting Dependence Promotes Independence by Brooke C. Feeney. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2007, 92(2), 268-285.
Lending a Hand: Social Regulation of the Neural Response to Threat by James A. Coan, Hillary S. Schaefer, and Richard J. Davidson. Psychological Science, 2006, 17(12), 1032-1039.
The Practice of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy by Susan M. Johnson, 2004, New York: Brunner Routledge.