There are sweet moments – early on in relationships – when one person can’t quite work up the courage to let another know just how much they like them. They’d love to touch the other’s hand and find a place in their life; but their fear of rejection is so intense, they hesitate and falter. Our culture has a lot of sympathy for this awkward and intensely vulnerable stage of love.
We’re taught to be patient about the way people might get a bit odd when trying to express their needs early on. They might become somewhat flustered or tongue-tied. Or they might act sarcastically or coldly, not from indifference, but as a way to disguise a disturbingly powerful enthusiasm.
The assumption, however, is that the terror of rejection will be limited in scope, focused on one particular phase of a relationship: its beginning. Once a partner finally accepts us and the union gets underway, the assumption is that the fear must come to an end. It would be peculiar for anxieties to continue even after two people had made some thoroughly explicit commitments to one another, after they had secured a joint mortgage, bought a house together, made vows, had a few children and named each other in their wills.
And yet one of the odder features of relationships is that in truth, the fear of rejection never ends. It continues, even in quite sane people, on a daily basis, and has some devastating consequences – chiefly because we refuse to pay it sufficient attention and aren’t trained to spot its counter-intuitive symptoms in others. We haven’t found a stigma-free, winning way to keep admitting just how much reassurance we need.
Within our psyches, acceptance is never a given, reciprocity is never assured; there can always be new threats, real or perceived, to love’s integrity. The trigger to insecurity can be apparently miniscule. Perhaps the other has been away at work for unusual amounts of time; or they were pretty animated talking to a stranger at a party; or it’s been a while since sex took place. Perhaps they weren’t very warm to us when we walked into the kitchen. Or they’ve been rather silent for the last half an hour.
Yet even after years with someone, there can be a hurdle of fear about asking for proof that we are wanted. But with a horrible, added complication: we now assume that any such anxiety couldn’t possibly exist.
This makes it very difficult to recognise our feelings, let alone communicate them to others in ways that would stand a chance of securing us the understanding and sympathy we crave. Rather than asking for reassurance endearingly and laying out our longing with charm, we might instead mask our needs beneath some brusque and plain hurtful behaviours guaranteed to frustrate our aims. Within established relationships, when the fear of rejection is denied, three major symptoms tend to show up:
One: We get distant
We want to get close to our partners but feel so anxious that we may be unwanted, we freeze them out instead. We say we’re busy, we pretend our thoughts are elsewhere, we imply that a need for reassurance would be the last thing on our minds.
We might even have an affair, the ultimate face-saving attempt to be distant – as a perverse attempt to assert that we don’t require the partner’s love (that we have been too reserved to ask for). Affairs can turn out to be the oddest of compliments; arduous proofs of indifference that we reserve for, and secretly address to, those we truly care about.
Two: We get controlling
We feel they are escaping us emotionally, and respond by trying to pin them down administratively. We get unduly cross that they are a bit late, we chastise them heavily for not having done certain chores, we ask them constantly if they’ve completed a task they had agreed to undertake. All this rather than admit: ‘I’m worried I don’t matter to you…’
We can’t (we believe) force them to be generous and warm. We can’t force them to want us (even if we haven’t asked them to…). So we try to control them procedurally. The goal isn’t really to be in charge all the time, it’s just that we can’t admit to our terror about how much of ourselves we have surrendered. A tragic cycle then unfolds. We become shrill and unpleasant. To the other person, it feels like we can’t possibly love them anymore. Yet the truth is we do: we just fear rather too much that they don’t love us.
Three: We get nasty
As a final recourse, we ward off our vulnerability by denigrating the person who eludes us. We pick up on their weaknesses and complain about shortcomings. Anything rather than ask the question which so much disturbs us: does this person love me? And yet, if this harsh, graceless behaviour could be truly understood for what it is, it would be revealed not as rejection, but as a strangely distorted – yet very real – plea for tenderness.
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The solution to all this trouble is to normalise a new, and more accurate picture of emotional functioning: to make it clear just how healthy and mature it is to be fragile and in repeated need of reassurance.
© National Geographic/Getty
We suffer because adult life posits too robust a picture of how we operate. It tries to teach us to be implausibly independent and invulnerable. It suggests it might not be right to want a partner to show us they still really like us after they have been away for only a few hours. Or to want them to reassure us that they haven’t gone off us – just on the basis that they haven’t paid us much attention at a party and didn’t want to leave when we did.
And yet it is precisely this sort of reassurance that we constantly stand in need of. We can never be through with the requirement for acceptance. This isn’t a curse limited to the weak and the inadequate. Insecurity is, in this area, a sign of well-being. It means we haven’t allowed ourselves to take other people for granted. It means we remain realistic enough to see that things could genuinely turn out badly – and are invested enough to care.
We should create room for regular moments, perhaps as often as every few hours, when we can feel unembarrassed and legitimate about asking for confirmation. ‘I really need you; do you still want me?’ should be the most normal of enquiries. We should uncouple the admission of need from any associations with the unfortunate and punitively macho term, ‘neediness’. We must get better at seeing the love and longing that lurk behind some of our and our partner’s most frosty, managerial and brutish moments.