He’s stingy. Stingy with his loving reassurance. When she needs it is when he’s least likely to offer it. He scolds her for being insecure.
She insists she has every reason to be insecure. Because he’s stingy with his loving reassurance. She scolds him for being withdrawn and distant.
He insists he has every reason to be withdrawn and distant. Because she’s insecure.
She insists he was withdrawn and distant before she was insecure. In others words, he started it.
He disagrees, and sa-
That’s when I interrupt. (I’m the most interrupting therapist I know.)
I get out the befuddled beginnings of a few thoughts, then I make the mistake of pausing for a breath. And, vrroom, these two are off to the races again.
“He’s never insecure,” she says, like an indictment.
“Of course not,” he says, like he’s assuring me. Like he and I are agreeing upon some private alliance, right there in front of his wife. “Don’t you think it’s crazy to be insecure?”
Well, he asked. “Only to the extent I think it’s crazy to be madly in love,” I say.
Ah, silence. That worked better than a tranquilizer dart. Which I was considering.
See, I’m just not a nod, hmm, take notes kinda counselor. I assume couples arrive in therapy already highly skilled at pride, self-justification, infinite loops of argument, and paralyzed, bitter impasse. I don’t grant a passive audience to a couple’s endless rehearsal of marital Hatfield and McCoy. Seems wrong to take folks’ money for that. They can do that on their own time for free. Why pay me?
So, instead, I interrupt a lot.
Here’s something you’ll never find in a Hallmark card: Thriving, growing love affairs are, at regular intervals, terrifying. Unsettling. Disquieting. They make us intensely vulnerable. If you seek a thriving, growing love affair, you had better find a way to make friends with some occasional bouts of insecurity.
Why? Because love, if it is love, demands interdependence. A loosening of our grasp on fierce, unilateral self-reliance, and toward an ever-deepening embrace of reciprocal other-reliance. Trust in the partnership. If your marriage is working, it will, over time, demand that you take the next steps on the ladder. With each step to a new height, there’s farther to fall.
Of course we get anxious.
People tend to think of great love affairs as a contribution toward feeling more secure. Well, yes. But it is the nature of great love to upend our tidy little world of security, just about as often.
So, the goal is not to rid ourselves of insecurity. Rather, the goal is to find a healthy balance of strategies for managing the gaping, breathless nakedness of allowing another human being to continue to grow in importance to you.
The balance? On the one hand, healthy mates must find a way to soothe their own insecurities. To get a hold of themselves. To confront and stare down their fears. To participate in a great love, we have to “grow” a sufficiently solid, separate self. A self that has the strength to remain vulnerable but not panic.
No love affair can survive a partner whose median mood is a clamoring, anxious need for constant reassurance.
But, on the other hand, possession of a solid, separate self allows us in turn not to panic when, on occasion, our partner is insecure and seeking reassurance. Some mates are like a cruel mother who will only prepare food for you if you promise never to say you’re hungry. These mates talk like they are defending some principle of maturity. I think they are dodging how scary it can be to know you’ve become this important to someone.
I tell this husband a story …
When my eldest son was 4, he took his first plane ride. Ugly turbulence. He was scared, and I helped him compose a note to the pilot, which the attendant delivered for us.
The pilot did not, in fact, write back: “Leave me alone! I don’t want to talk about it! You’re just gonna have to deal with the fact that we might crash!”
Nope, the overhead speaker came on. And in a soothing, ultraprofessional, calming voice, our pilot expressed regret for the uncomfortable ride. He said, “To get where you wanna go, you have to fly through storms sometimes.” He described the storm system, said a few words about how this plane was “built for this,” and assured us of his commitment to our safety.
My boy smiled, and breathed a sigh of relief.
Never been crazy insecure? Then there’s a good bet you’ve never been crazy in love.
(Steven Kalas is a therapist, an author and an Episcopal priest. He writes a weekly column for this newspaper and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.