As a therapist, I spend a good amount of time exploring the push and pull that occurs in relationships. For example, between couples, a lot of friction occurs when one person is wanting more closeness, while the other is seeking more space. With individuals, I observe many people who say they want love and intimacy, then take directly opposing actions to create emotional distance. What people often don’t realize is that all that pushing and pulling we do in our romantic lives often has less to do with our present circumstances and more to do with our personal story.
The way we behave in relationships as well as our actual tolerance for love and connection is heavily informed by our attachment history and the psychological defenses we formed very early in our lives. The ways we were hurt and adapted as children go on to shape how we see ourselves, our partners, and relationships in general. Although we may think we want lasting love, for many of us, a healthy and equal relationship poses a threat to the way we see ourselves and the world.
Because our fear of intimacy ties so deeply to our (often painful) past, many of us fail to see it for what it is. Rather than understanding the root of our anxiety around being open and vulnerable to another person, we find all kinds of reasons and excuses to resist going all-in our relationships. So, how can we start to let down our guard and let someone in without feeling like we’re giving up or losing important aspects of who we are?
1. Get to Know Your Own Defense System
The first thing to wrap our heads around is the idea that we can be both “all in” and independent in a relationship. Our individuality and independence are actually fundamental to maintaining a satisfying long-term relationship. Being willing to be completely ourselves and to express love to another person are acts of vulnerability but also acts of self-expression and self-discovery. Opening ourselves up to someone allows us to uncover new things about them as well as ourselves. Hearing their ideas, trying their activities, and feeling for their experience can expand our world.
For many of us, this concept sounds good in theory, but we often convince ourselves that we’d have to sacrifice our sense of self in order to invest in someone else. We may start to listen to a “critical inner voice” inside our head that critiques potential partners or tells us to hold back. “She likes you too much,” it may say. Or “Don’t trust what he says. He can’t be for real.” This “voice” may give us advice like, “You should just be alone right now.” “Tell her you’re just not the commitment type.” “You should take a break. You’ll wind up getting hurt.” “This will never work out.”
This inner critic is like a terrible life coach undermining what we want. Its primary goal is to maintain the status quo, keeping us in a negative, albeit familiar, headspace by recreating dynamics from our past and recommitting us to our defenses even when they hurt or limit us. Remember this voice is shaped from our own painful past experiences, so it often feeds us terrible advice and warns us not to get too close to other people.
Part of going all-in in a relationship means getting to know this inner critic and the defenses it drives us to employ. Get curious about why a voice inside your head might be telling you to run from a nice situation, why you’re starting to pick apart your partner, or why you’re engaging in sabotaging behavior you later regret. When we start to see where and why we may be driven to pull away from love itself, we can take proactive steps to exit our comfort zone but find a new kind of happiness.
2. Avoid a Fantasy Bond
While it’s true that we need to be open in order to let someone else in, it’s also true that people who give up too much of themselves often wind up resenting their partner, or feeling deadened by the relationship itself.
This may sound counterintuitive, but at the point when two people fall in love, they are usually at their most independent. In these initial stages of a relationship, we may be spending a great amount of time with our partner and connecting in ways that feel central to our lives, but we’re still getting to know and regarding the other person as a completely separate and autonomous individual. We’re attentive and attracted to their unique qualities. We appreciate how they treat us, but we do not see them as part of us. Our ability to really see our partner in this way is what allows us to fall in love with them, rather than just falling into a fantasy of being in love.
As time goes by, many couples may stop seeing each other as separate and may stop treating each other with that same regard and respect. They may be seeking a sense of safety in routine or playing out roles, or they may find a feeling of security in operating as a unit. Of course, sharing life is one of the most worthy rewards of being in a relationship, but very often, when we start to rely more on the form of being a couple rather than the substance of loving someone else for who they are, the relationship itself starts to deteriorate.
When we give up key aspects of our identity or ask our partner to do the same, both parties feel deadened. We start to let our insecurities and defenses impede upon each other and create expectations for how the other person should act and react. Each person often stops feeling seen, and we tend to feel more disconnected from ourselves or each other. The problem with this dynamic, which my father, psychologist, and author Robert Firestone, has termed a “fantasy bond” is that the couple chooses a fantasy of connection over the fulfillment of really relating to each other.
Many people avoid going all in for fear of losing themselves in a relationship. Yet, maintaining our individuality and avoiding a fantasy bond is actually one of the most powerful ways to keep love alive. When we stay open and vulnerable to our partner without getting carried away by our critical inner voice or trying to mold ourselves into a “we” rather than a “you and me,” we can stay ourselves and stay in love. We can continue to find ourselves within the relationship rather than believing we can only find ourselves outside of one.