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Modern Intimacy: Coping with Neediness

COLUMN: In the third of a four-part series on modern intimacy, psychiatrist Dr. Mark Banschick explores why we can feel so needy in intimate relationships, and offers several tips for addressing neediness in a healthy, productive way.
Modern Intimacy: Coping with Neediness
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This post is the third in a four-part series written by Dr. Mark Banschick, a Greatist Expert, practicing psychiatrist, author of The Intelligent Divorce, and creator of The Online Family Stabilization Course. The views expressed herein are his and his alone. Read his first piece here and his second piece here.

In the first and second installments of this series, we’ve learned that the world of physics can teach us about relationships: It’s called The Field of Intimacy. When people are outside of this Field, they act normally. But when they’re in the Field, the rules change.

In physics, a field influences the way objects react to each other — just think of a gravitational or magnetic field. In the same way, the Field of Intimacy can prompt us to relate differently to other people than we normally would, or in ways that surprise even ourselves. When The Field of Intimacy works in your favor, a relationship can be enchanting. When it triggers neurotic symptoms, it can sting. Once in the Field’s grasp, some people may find themselves asking: Why am I so angry?  Why is he so controlling? Why can’t she ever commit?

Or — the question of today: Why am I so needy?

Case Study: Regina and Paul

The Scene: It’s been twenty minutes since Regina last heard from her boyfriend, Paul. Regina had texted him to see what’s up, but now she’s getting anxious about the lack of response. As more and more time passes, she starts to feel nervous, even agitated. She wonders, Should I text him again? Why isn’t he getting back to me?

Unable to stand the suspense, Regina texts Paul again, this time not-so-subtly: WHERE ARE YOU?

A few minutes later, Paul writes back: What’s the problem?

Regina accuses Paul of never being available, and he responds defensively. After just a few text exchanges, Paul ends the conversation: I can’t deal with this right now. GOODBYE.

What just happened?

Let’s meet Regina and Paul

Regina’s Back Story

Since graduating college, Regina, age 26, has enjoyed a swift and successful career. Smart and attractive, Regina has never been short on men. Still, Paul managed to grab her attention. He’s a guy she actually likes — which is why she’s so annoyed with herself for being demanding.

Growing up, Regina’s mom dedicated herself to creating a great life for her kids, caring for them and shuttling them to a seemingly endless list of sporting events and performances. Regina’s Dad, on the other hand, was narcissistic, entirely absorbed in running his successful business, and not all that interested in Regina, despite her successes.

In the back of her head, Regina still hopes (even to this day) that her dad will finally see and appreciate her for all that she’s accomplished. Whether she’s aware of it or not, this unresolved childhood issue affects her love interests as well.

Paul’s Back Story

Growing up, life was pretty tough on Paul. His mom had narcissistic tendencies, and always needed to be in control. His father left the marriage early and relocated. Paul and his father kept in touch, but Paul lived nearly all of the time with his mom and older sister. His mom tried to care for him, but she often caved to self-preoccupation, vanity, and a reactive sensitivity to criticism. Since Paul was no weakling, they battled incessantly. Dad was of little help. In essence, Paul raised himself.

At 32, Paul’s the youngest partner in his law firm, and well-respected. He tends to keep his distance from women, preferring a long line of non-committed flings.

Entering the Field of Intimacy

When Regina and Paul met, fireworks went off. Regina was thrilled by this self-sufficient, capable older man, and found herself wanting more and more time with him. They could talk about anything — business, politics, life — and the sex was great. 

Paul felt the same way. Regina was something else: professional, worldly, and confident. He started spending more and more time with her, and texting a lot when they aren’t together.

A few months go by, and they’re blissful lovers. They’ve officially entered the Field of Intimacy, with its own set of rules. Every day is infused with the magic of being in a loving relationship.

Things Start to Change

Soon, Regina and Paul start to enter more deeply into the Field of Intimacy. Only now, it’s not so pretty.

When they’re apart, Regina finds herself wondering who Paul sees and what he’s doing. A call missed or a text message left unanswered can trigger fears of rejection. Regina feels crazy, but she can’t help herself, even though she knows she’s not behaving like her best self.

Paul is also struggling with his own issues. Even though he can’t get enough of Regina, he finds himself needing distance. He’s crazy about her, but the relationship is starting to feel suffocating. He starts to use his free time to catch up with old friends at the expense of time with Regina. He feels like he doesn’t have the energy any more to answer all of Regina’s calls and texts. He starts to wonder what’s changed. Is the problem Regina, or him?  

From the Couch

What this couple is experiencing is the first test of their fabulous love affair. Once a couple enters the Field of Intimacy, psychological dances like this are the norm.

One of the obstacles this couple needs to address is the triggering of Regina’s inner child. Her father was more interested in other people — really anyone outside of the house — and now that Paul seems more interested in his friends, all of a sudden Regina feels like she’s back to where she was at nine years old. She’s clingy and feels like she can’t stop it. It’s as if her adult mind has been overrun by events that happened years ago. Paul is no longer her boyfriend; instead, he’s “Daddy” — the unavailable narcissist — and Regina feels like she’s second best.

Then there’s Paul’s inner child; he feels like he’s back in a relationship with his demanding mother. So he starts to avoid Regina — when what he’s really avoiding are his own feelings. So Paul calls on friends, avoids Regina’s texts, and gets angry at her when she keeps reaching out.

Both Paul and Regina are equally culpable in the dynamic that’s developing. Paul’s compulsive need to escape triggers Regina, while her need to pursue triggers Paul. They both feel trapped.

What can they do about it?

The Layers of Love — Overcoming Neediness

To help clients navigate the Field of Intimacy, I encourage them (and everyone) to keep the following points in mind:

  • Enjoy the bliss of early love. Early love is a combination of hormones, connection, and hope. Enjoy the ride, but also use this time to be honest with the other person about who you really are. If they can’t take it, they’re not the one for you — and it’s better to know this sooner rather than later.
  • Old relationships are a guide. Our past relationships can teach us a lot about our patterns of behavior when we’re in the Field of Intimacy. Do you tend to run away, or get clingy? Do you pick fights or compulsively withdraw? Do you just get bored easily? Take ownership of past triggers, and give new partners a fighting chance. If you’re not sure how to start letting go of triggers, therapy is always a good place to start.
  • Don’t take everything so seriously. Even if you and your partner enter into a bad place, that doesn’t mean you both have to stay there. Take notice of repeating patterns, particularly when it comes to conflicts. Challenge yourself to forgive. Let it go. Little regressions are bound to happen; what matters is that you’re generally making forward progress.
  • Consider the roles we all play. We all embody different characteristics at different times. Sometimes we’re needy. Sometimes we distance ourselves from our partners, and sometimes we can’t get enough of each other. Accept that good relationships incorporate many roles — don’t expect them to be constantly the same; rather, work with the love you’ve got at any given time.
  • Healthy intimacy is layered. When we first dip into the Field of Intimacy, we feel enamored. But sooner or later, just like Regina and Paul, we start to dip further into our baggage, whether it’s a narcissistic parent or an ancient hurt. It’s all real. It’s all true. And, if the relationship works, it’s all, eventually, for the good. By acknowledging issues and working to overcome them, we grow as individuals and as a couple.

The Takeaways

The intensity of love brings us into the Field of Intimacy, which offers both fantastic opportunity and real challenges.

The best chance of success comes from viewing a relationship in its totality. Sometimes we regress, like Regina and Paul. If we get stuck there, the relationship will wither away, because it was based only on a neurotic bond. If, on the other hand, we see the regression for what it is — the result of vulnerability that arises when we enter the Field — we can learn to address issues and avoid the cycle of triggering each other without end.

Work on yourself. Get to know what triggers you and why. Get to know what triggers your partner, as well. Let your adult selves run the show again. Regina tells him: Oops, I’m getting needy again. Paul tells her: No worries. Sorry I’ve been distant. I’m working on it.  

Sometimes, that’s all it takes.

And then it’s back to luscious love.

What are your tips for coping with neediness? Share in the comments below!

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