Self-soothing or auto regulating your emotions has long been seen as an important part of independence and maturity. It’s the idea that we should be able to deal with our emotions on our own and not require comfort from other people to feel better. Some therapist like to call it differentiation, and clients who are not fully differentiated are labeled co-dependent. So, is this strongly held American belief that we should be able to make it on our own, without any help from others really what our brains thrive on? Is this how the human brain is wired?
According to research on this very topic (Love Sense by Sue Johnson) the answer is no. Our brains were wired to function in tribes, not independent or isolated. According to Johnson, being emotionally isolated is as bad for our health as smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. She even has research that shows cuts on people’s hands will heal faster when they are a part of a healthy relationship. What she is trying to prove is that the human brain is wired to require the comfort of another individual. We already knew this about children, but what Johnson is proving is that we need it as adults also “from the cradle to the grave” she likes to say. She is going against the cultural norm that we need to be independent adults that do not rely on anyone, and instead saying people who can depend on a significant other are healthier, happier, and more successful.
So, the important question is “how do I know if I am in an emotionally healthy relationship”? And the problem with this question is that most people instinctually know the answer, but our society tells us we should be independent enough to not care. If our fear comes up about not getting our needs met in our relationship we instantly think “there must be something wrong with me, why am I so needy” It’s even worse for men, because they have the desire to be emotionally close with their partner, but the only skill they were ever taught to express their desire for emotional closeness was sex. So they ask for it often and wear their partner out, making her feel like a means to an end or get rejected by her and completely shut down emotionally. My personal opinion is that this is why porn addiction is so prevalent in our culture. And porn is just one example of self-soothing. If a man’s only way of emotionally bonding with his partner is going to get shot down, of course he is going to turn to an imitation of it. Unfortunately, like any drug that rapidly releases dopamine, the reward chemical in the brain, over time his brain will become desensitized and require more and more to get the same result. Eventually, making love to his partner will no longer be sufficient, causing all kinds of sexual dysfunction and feelings of shame. Not to mention the havoc this will create in his relationship and in his partner.
Porn may be one of the most devastating self-soothing techniques to a relationship, but it is far from the only. Really, addiction of any kind is going to devastate a relationship. A key indicator to an emotionally healthy relationship is the ability to turn to your partner in a vulnerable way in time of need. Using the man above as an example, when his partner turns him down when he asks for sex, he would be able to say “it is so hurtful when I want to be close to you and you reject me, I feel like you don’t desire me and don’t want to be close to me, and I just can’t think of anything worse than you not wanting to be with me.” Another example could be of a woman who is feeling hurt by her partner who seems to be spending most of his time on the computer or out in the garage. In an emotionally healthy relationship she could say to him “I really miss you, it feels like you are not that interested in just spending quality time with me and I am getting really lonely here.” In an emotionally healthy relationship the partners would be able to respond in a way that shows they are accessible, responsive and engaged. Sue Johnson calls this a “Hold Me Tight” conversation. The acronym ARE represents the most basic question couples ask “Are you there for me”? Are you accessible, are you responsive, and will you engage with me emotionally?
So you can see how addictions or any self-soothing behavior would get in the way of creating an emotionally healthy relationship. First, because instead of turning towards their partners when they have a need, they turn towards an addiction to calm their fears and satisfy their need. So this could block any possibility of creating emotional intimacy. Second, if an individual turns towards his or her partner, asking ARE you there for me, and the partner is drinking or disconnected because of other self-soothing behaviors the answer is going to be no. This will keep the individual from asking this question in a vulnerable way, and instead the next time they ask it, it is going to be in a defensive guarded way. The partner is not going to hear there is a need being asked to be met, but instead they are going to hear how they have disappointed and failed in some way and respond accordingly with their own defenses up. I’m sure you can see how quickly and devastatingly this is going to take a toll on the relationship.
So, because culture is telling us we should be able to handle our emotions without the comfort of another individual and that we should not depend on other people, we are fighting our natural wiring to be in emotionally intimate relationships. A man should be able to say to his partner “I want you to hold me tonight.” And a woman should be able to request that the rest of the world just melt away so she can have all of her partner’s attention on just her. I think addictions are being created because we need this at the deepest level but feel weak and ashamed about it, so we drown out our natural tendencies so we don’t have to face our true vulnerability.
If you are interested in learning more about this, sign up for my January Hold Me Tight weekend workshop at The Attach Place.