In any relationship, our two most significant human needs compete with one another and create tension. These two human needs are:
- Our need for an independent sense of self.
- Our need to feel closely connected and bonded to others.
All human relationships form a dance where the need for a self and the need for connection are juggled and balanced as we negotiate our way through our lives. Your boss may ask you to stay late to finish an important project, but you have had a migraine all day and have been just waiting to go home and lay down. Do you take care of yourself, or do you sacrifice for the sake of others?
Your spouse asks you to go see a romantic comedy with her. Do you say no because you don’t like romantic comedies, or do you say yes because you know it is important to her and you want to connect with her? We thread the needle of holding onto our sense of self while also being relationally connected all day long every day.
This tension increases the more important the relational connection is to our well-being. Our most difficult challenges with balancing these needs are experienced with our romantic partner because they are our most significant other.
These two human needs – for connection and independence – can be seen in the different behaviors that we manifest in our romantic relationships. We may sometimes pursue connection with our partner, advocating for closeness, companionship, shared experiences, shared values, and connection. At other times we may pursue independence from our partner, advocating for our self-identity, space to pursue individual goals, hobbies and passions or room to think, believe and behave in ways congruent with our sense of self. Most of us move from role to role, sometimes advocating for connection and sometimes advocating for space for our self.
This is where our attachment styles come in. If we are securely attached, we have often been given the gift of flexibility. Flexibility is the ability to move from connection with our partner to connection with self with ease. When we seek connection and our partner is unavailable because they are otherwise occupied, we may be disappointed, but we are able to tolerate the momentary disconnection because our assumption is that our partner will be available to us again shortly.
We feel secure in the understanding that our partner’s absence is only temporary, is not a rejection of us and is not a reflection of our worth or value. This allows us to weather these moments where the needs of the self, compete with the relationship needs without it sending us into high distress and coping behaviors that heighten relational tension and conflict.
If our partner is also securely attached, they can be available to us when we need them. For example, if our partner is busy but we are experiencing a crisis where our need for partner support is acute, they will be able to hear our need, shift their priorities and focus on us and the relationship. If our partner is securely attached, they know that prioritizing the relationship needs over the self-needs is temporary and that there will be room and space for them to tend to their self needs later. They have the flexibility to assess which need is most important in any given moment and respond accordingly without creating a negative narrative in their head about themselves or their partner.
Secure attachment gives us flexibility to determine which needs are most important in any given moment and to shift our attention and energies in that direction without falling prey to anxiety or frustration about whichever needs are going unmet at the time. Secure attachment provides us with the assumption that our needs will be met enough for us to be OK on both sides of the equation. We will benefit from relational connection with our partner, and we will also be able to maintain a sense of self.
In next week’s blog post we will look at what happens to our two human needs for connection and independence if we have an insecure attachment style.