Have you ever felt stuck in a relationship where part of you wants to take a risk and move closer to your person, but part of you wants to protect yourself from that same person? If you’re breathing, the answer will be a definitive yes. It’s because you are human. And in our humanness, we hold an interesting dilemma of trying to hold two parts of ourselves in one space. Part of us has a longing to be connected to another person, to be loved, accepted, comforted, and safe while the other part of us feels the need to protect ourselves from the pain of feeling alone, rejected, disconnected, and hurt by the people we love. This presents a dilemma for our closest relationships whether it’s dating, marriage, parent and child, and/or close friendships. The closer we are, the more inevitable it becomes for this dilemma to present itself.
Partners, like past attachment figures, are then simultaneously a source of safety and a source of threat, and every interaction is a potentially impossible choice between isolation and dangerous connection.
– Sue Johnson
We feel the tension between this source of safety and this source of threat as we live alongside others. We don’t live in a bubble; instead, we are forced to live out these two very important parts of ourselves. I sometimes relate it to a parent and child going to the fair. I remember my first experience of going to the fair with my children. They wanted to run from one ride to another so quickly that they didn’t want to wait for mom and dad to hold their hands. I can remember the fear I had when one time they moved too quickly into a sea of people and I couldn’t see them. My children longed to experience all of the fun and excitement of the rides and all-you-can-eat funnel cakes without a care in the world. My children didn’t think about if there were dangerous people lurking or if the rides were put together safely with all of the screws. But my husband and I, as protective parents, saw the possible dangers as we looked for the threats that our children could not see. When you think of this scenario, is there a right one and a wrong one? Of course not! There’s nothing wrong with having a longing to ride rides and eat funnel cakes and there’s also nothing wrong with wanting to protect our children.
If we only allowed the protective part to have a voice, we would have been too afraid to risk our children getting on any ride or eating food from a fair concession stand. Who wants to go to a fair and not experience the rides and food? If we only allowed the longing part to have a voice, our children would have run from one ride to another without any supervision and eaten anything and everything that appealed to their eyes and stomach. The beauty occurred when we, as the parents, saw the longing our children had and embraced that part while our children saw the need to be protected and embraced that part. The longing and protective parts were both seen as healthy and vital by all of us and the holding of both parts allowed us to enjoy the experience in a safe and fun way with rides and funnel cakes along the way.
It is the same way for us in our relationships. We all want to learn to hold both the longing part of us and the protective part of us in a way that helps us experience love and connection with our people in safe ways. If you are struggling in finding this balance in your relationships, please know you are not alone. We all struggle holding both. You are only human. As therapists, we want to offer a safe place for you to be able to find healthy ways to hold both in your current relationships.