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Feeling abandoned vs. feeling invaded: a couple's game

"I feel selfish for asking him to spend more time with me, but he’s never around! We are a couple, aren’t we." "She gets very insistent that we do everything together. I feel overwhelmed because it seems that what I do is never enough." "I have said several times that we have to be serious about us and there is no way I can do this with him, he’s always avoiding the issue" "Every time we talk I get blamed for things that I don’t know how to solve, I always end up feeling terrible. I prefer not to talk ."

These phrases or similar phrases may be familiar to some readers. They are a part of the relationship dynamics that emerge in a relationship and they make us suffer a lot. It touches two main fears that all human beings experience at greater or lesser degree: the fear of being abandoned and the fear of being invaded. What are these fears?

Fear of abandonment is the fear that we have towards people who are important to us. It connects us with strong feelings of helplessness and loneliness. We need to be with others, in friendship, in couples and in families. Being with others gives us peace of mind and this make us feel safe and the feeling that we are taken care of. It makes us feel that we belong to our reference groups and that we are part of something bigger than us. But we also know that these bonds may be fragile and may be broken. We know, perhaps since we were kids, that we can be abandoned. Abandonment makes us feel like the ground sinks beneath our feet. It’s a difficult emotion to handle.

The fear of being invaded relates to the lack of respect for our identity. " Being invaded " means that we do not feel accepted as we are and we have to adapt to others systematically. This can also be experienced when were kids. Other peoples desires, their thoughts and intentions occupy lots of space leaving no room for ourselves. We feel we must like what the other person likes, that we must want to do what the other person wants to do. In a way, we cease existing and experience loss of freedom, it’s not even clear for us who who we are. It´s a harrowing experience and the fear that comes with it can be summed up in something like: " if I'm with the other I can not be myself ."

So, we spend our lives combining our need for others with the need to be autonomous. We are all afraid of being abandoned or afraid of being invaded. These emotions, like many other things, rise intens when we are in a relationship. In a relationships we seek intimacy, to share personal areas of our lives and complicity. There's more to lose if we are abandoned. There is more freedom to loose if the relationship takes up all the space. Relationships give us the best, but they also can bring up many fears.

How does all this combine in couples? Very often both partners feel fear but each member polarizes to one side. One feels abandoned and the other feels like burden. In fact, both of them feel the fear of being in a relationship, fear of feeling vulnerable when we express our desires and needs. But each one of them expresses this in different ways. I have the fear of being engulfed, you're afraid of being abandoned. You want to come closer to me and I'm afraid you will invade me and I walk away to get some air. My departure awakens you fear that I might leave you and you approach me again and again I am overwhelmed and I walk away ... This can go on and on. Each of these two fears increase the other fear and this produces a spiral of discomfort on both partners. “I think you are more distant,” one says. “I feel like you are a pain in the neck,” says the other.

Sometimes the tables are turned and the game continues in reverse: pursuer becomes the pursued and vice versa. Suddenly, the member of the couple who was more elusive becomes affectionate and the one that had too little begins to feel that s/he has too much." At first it seemed like he didn’t care about me and now he’s always around and I don’t have any space for myself." Or, " at first we were always cuddling and now it seems that nothing is working right.”

How can we untangle this confusion? It’s not easy because when we enter a vicious circle and we begin to lose perspective we can only see what is hurting us. In these cases, its helpful to broaden our point of view and become more aware of what is going on. Things can get more complicated if we think there is a bad and good character in this movie. No one is comfortable in a relationship thinking there the bad one, being an abandoner or a pursuer. Its very difficult to meet each other as equals if there is a bad one and good one. In order to come closer to each other we need to realize that each one of us is contributing with our own fear. If I know you fear the loss of freedom I will try not to interpret your departures as abandonment. If you know that what I fear is abandonment, you can interpret my approach as a need for closeness, not as an attempt to drown you. We can both can come closer if we show our fears and try to understand and support them. If I know how you feel and you know how I feel we can help each other so our relationship makes us feel stronger and not weaker.

Here lies the greatest difficulty, because sharing fears and desires implies that we show ourselves vulnerable to the other and this is even more fearful that the fear of being abandoned or invaded. Gestalt psychotherapist Michael V. Miller speaks in his book, Intimate Terrorism, how couples tend to relate as if two people were connected by a rigid rod/stick that rotates easily in either direction, chasing, fleeing and keeping each other at a certain distance all the time, but where its very difficult to find a movement toward each other. This movement is the most nourishing and it makes us happy, it's the way to intimacy, to get to know each other, to share what we like but also our difficulties and troubles. It´s worth while.

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