“I can do it myself.”
“I could never go to dinner alone.”
“I’m fine on my own.”
“I want to be loved.”
“I love being single.”
“I wish I had someone to share my life with.”
We’ve all felt similar, seemingly opposite feelings. Sometimes simultaneously.
Being loved and accepted by others is a human need, yet we bristle at feeling controlled or losing our sense of self. We all want to be a part of a group, but also want to be an individual. These different needs can create extremes. We can be like dogs: living in social packs with hierarchy, roles, and community. Or we can be like cats: alone, aloof, and independent. Both are good; both feel necessary.
In the context of a relationship, this pull to either position can be where much conflict arises. When do we feel smothered and controlled? When do we feel independent and private?
In her book Mating in Captivity Esther Perel says, “Love rests on two pillars: surrender and autonomy. Our need for togetherness exists alongside our need for separateness. One does not exist without the other.”
In conflict, we might be reacting to, “What if I completely lose who I am in this relationship?” or “What if I’m utterly alone for the rest of my life?” Neither position may become true, but deeper feelings may be triggered when our partner wants to spend the evening in making dinner together or states they would like to go to a movie alone.
What to do?
It may be helpful to try listening to our partner from a position of understanding this universal pull to extremes, rather than listening for threats of control or abandonment. Maybe they are expressing a need for connection? Or a need for individuality? Listening for our partner’s needs around these “two pillars,” may shift us toward understanding more about how this universal struggle shows up for each of us. This understanding can erase fear and feelings of suffocation or desertion. Then, we can have more considerate and thoughtful communication around our needs. This leads to kindness and respect, which creates less volatility. Mutual respect and understanding is why you’ll sometimes see dogs and cats living together in harmony.