If life sometimes seems a little hard to understand, maybe it's because life is so often a paradox.
This quality in ourselves occasionally surprises us. Equally often, we surprise and confound our loved ones when we change from expressing one aspect to another, perhaps its' seeming opposite.
A normally calm person becomes suddenly agitated. A kind and respectful partner unleashes a cruel, heartless comment. Or, how about this one: a loving and supportive spouse abruptly decides to take some distance and express his independence.
Hanging in there with another human being demands flexibility and self-possession that can be hard to conjure and maintain.
We usually don't have much warning when the shift appears. Taken aback, we shoot from the hip, reactively, feeling wounded and resentful of the uncertainty introduced by a whimsical or deliberate change in our partner's demeanor. This can be especially disconcerting when the shift is along the dimension of belonging and separation. Our love partner has the unique power to make us feel lonely and unimportant. Alternatively, they can make us feel overwhelmed and burdened by demands.
Much of this is nothing more than an adult version of a game we've played since we were children: peek-a-boo, the original game of loss and recovery.
In peek-a-boo, the child ducks out of sight and temporarily loses the mother's image, delighting in the knowledge that he's not really fused with her, but has the ability to exist independently. He doesn't want too much separation though. He's just playing a separation game. He quickly re-establishes visual contact. He's practicing a real-life skill: the ability to be separate and together, to go away and come back, to tolerate isolation and renegotiate contact. It's the primal rhythm of relationships.
A slightly later version is the runaway game. The child takes off in a random
direction. He has no intention of leaving permanently. He knows what will happen. Mother will run up behind him before he gets into any danger and scoop him up in her protective embrace. He's just playing at being free.
Of course, at that age the child has no understanding of what freedom means or the dangers that await him in the street or at the top of the basement stairs. He's also testing mother's reliability. Mother, aware of the cars rushing by just beyond the yard, has her own agenda, nothing to do with the separation game. It's the child who starts this and he'll play it when it suits him. His purpose is to flirt with independence and then achieve reconciliation.
Adults do this, too. People have differing appetites for togetherness and separation, that is, they have varying abilities to tolerate them.
A person who has too much of togetherness will make a play for separation. One who has had too much separation longs for connection. It's entirely normal for a couple to continually adjust themselves along this dimension. But as they do so, they threaten each other by introducing too much of one quality or the other.
The partner is likely to feel abandoned (or maybe relieved) when their mate seeks separation; then crowded (or maybe delighted) when they seek closeness. Most of the time, when they go far enough one way it triggers an urge to go back the other way.
The partner, meanwhile and unfortunately, lacks the confidence the mother takes for granted in the game of peek-a-boo; that baby will reappear before long because he never really went away. He's just playing his "freedom" game.
We are creatures who continually establish and dis-establish our homeostasis. We seek equilibrium, but almost as reliably, we act to unbalance ourselves. We don't always do this on purpose but we do it fairly regularly. So, we have to keep making adjustments. Those who love us may not always understand or appreciate the gestures we make either to stay in balance or to un-balance (when we get too bored or anxious.) And yet, those who are close to us are forced to accommodate us even when they don't really want to.
Let's suppose, for example, that we find ourselves in a "committed" relationship. Perhaps we've already stood up in front of God and everyone else and said that we mean to stay together until one of us is carried out on a slab.
Nevertheless, each time we have a bad fight one of us calls an end to the marriage. This may be a reasoned response to a genuinely unworkable relationship. More likely, it's an emotional over-reaction to a felt need for distance. We've simply had too much closeness, perhaps in the form of honest confrontation.
What we'd really like is to take a few days off, to get away from each other for a while. But maybe that's not possible (because we don't allow that; it makes us too scared or it's not convenient for one of us.) So we call the whole thing off. Thus, a play for distance turns into a "life-threatening" catastrophe.
If we later make up, then this whole drama was likely an adult game of peek-a-boo and runaway. Whee! Isn't this fun?
Hugh R. Leavell has been a marriage and family therapist in Palm Beach County for 18 years. He offers free seminars on couples communication and conflict management. The next one will be Jan. 6 at 4 p.m. in Palm Beach Gardens. Call him at (561) 471-0067 or visit his Web site www.oneminutetherapist.com.