What Do You Want in a Relationship? A Partner or Parent?

What happens when we realize our partner is not the parent we wished for?

If we’re very fortunate, we have a parent who is 100% devoted to us, unconditionally.  We experience a caretaker whom we believe (whether true or not), is entirely selfless and exists only to take care of our wants and needs, whose needs are indeed synonymous with our own.

Many of us get some part of this parent: the one who gets up at 3 a.m. to comfort us, even though they have not slept in weeks.  The parent who spends her weekends shuttling us to ice skating and soccer practice, because our wants and needs are also her wants and needs, or at least more important than hers.  This time in our life, when another human being exists only for us, is a time of relationship perfection—a time when we are, ultimately, not alone in the universe.   

As we get older, we start to see our parents more as fleshed-out human beings than invisible need-providers.  Life slowly divvies out the hard truths, including the reality that our parents are individuals who have their own experience, wounds, limitations, and even their own wants and needs, which, shockingly, may be different from our own.  We learn that our parents do not dematerialize when we, their children, leave the room.  This awareness is natural, healthy, and can occur without too much suffering, particularly if we’ve received enough of the first kind of love, in which the relationship is all about and for us. 

But the truth is, for many people, there remains a deep longing — and sometimes even a demand for — our intimate partner to play the part of the selfless parent, to be that person for whom only our needs exist.  Within each of us, there exists a primitive desire to remain at the center of someone else’s universe — to be someone else’s entire universe — as we believed we were for our parent at one time. 

Abby and Ken had been married for about five years.  Abby had always referred to herself as the free spirit in the relationship, the traveler, the one who would always pick up and go at a moment’s notice, the one for whom continual change was required for a good life.  Ken, on the other hand, was someone who was nourished by friends and family, and for whom the simple rhythms of daily life and familiarity were thrilling. 

Abby had just told her husband that, after a long period of struggle and contemplation, she had thankfully found clarity.  What she wanted most for her life was to travel the world, for a year—alone.  And, possibly, for Ken to join her every few months in different locations around the globe.  She was thrilled by this self-discovery.  Upon hearing this, Ken paused and took a long breath.  His face then morphed into a smile that seemed to contain sweetness, pain, and anger, all at once.  After a bit of silence, he said that he was happy Abby now knew what she wanted.  And (or maybe but), he was also hurt, angry, and betrayed.  He wanted a wife who wanted to be with him, physically and emotionally.  Upon hearing her husband’s response to her important discovery, Abby too felt hurt, angry, and betrayed. 

It had been a year since Nina’s father died.  It was a long, slow and painful death, one that ended with three weeks in the ICU, and with the family having to eventually take her father off life support.  It was a huge and difficult loss for Nina, one that she was still processing for sure.  Several months after her father died, I met with Nina and her partner of two years, Andrew.

During that meeting, Andrew said that he wished Nina’s father hadn’t died in the first year of their dating.  At first blush, it sounded like a benign comment, but there was more.  He went on to say that he wished her father hadn’t died because it happened so early in their relationship.  As a result, it made everything heavier, and his girlfriend sadder and less fun than the girl he had first met. The death of her father, for Andrew, had been a damper on the excitement of his new relationship.  Upon hearing Andrew share his experience of her father’s death, Nina decided to end the relationship.

When we share our truth with our partner, there’s a part of us that just wants unconditional support.  It can feel painful and even angering when our partner has their own separate experience of something we want or need or an experience of us that’s different from our experience of ourselves.  At a primitive level, we want our partner to see it our way, to just want what we want — because we want it.  This part of us doesn’t want to know or have to consider our partner’s wants and needs, and sometimes doesn’t want them to exist at all.  In this very young place, which never entirely goes away, we want a relationship with that parent who existed completely and only for us. 

No matter how much we want to be the only person whose experience matters, the reality of this other human being’s separate experience is unavoidable.  In such moments when this reality forces itself into our awareness, we need to step back, pause, and offer ourselves compassion.  It is not okay to shame or attack ourselves for what we feel in these moments, no matter how irrational or whatever else our feelings might be.  It is natural to rationally understand our partner’s experience and at the same time, feel profound loss, betrayal, and even outrage.  How dare our partner have their own experience of something so important to us.

What is happening inside us is that we are discovering, again, that our parent (now represented by our partner) is actually separate from us, not us.  While, of course, we know this on an intellectual level, to realize it on an emotional level can trigger unfathomable grief.  This is the moment when we realize that we are fundamentally alone in the universe, that our experience is not shared by anyone.  In these moments of intense emotion, we want to figuratively (and literally) place our hand on our own heart,  to acknowledge and comfort that part of us that is grieving the loss of the one person who existed only for us (or the one that we wish had existed solely for us). 

On a practical level, what’s most important is that you are careful not to react to your partner from this young place, and not to engage and foment the thoughts that ask how your partner could dare to have (much less express) their own experience.  You can, however, ask your partner to be mindful and sensitive as to how and when they share their own experience.  This is fair.  But you must stay aware of what’s happening inside you at the deepest level, so as to keep from falling into blame, and from attacking your partner for having their own reality. 

What’s called for (difficult though it may be) is that you make space for your own shattered illusions and longing for union, and also, simultaneously, for your partner’s existence.  Ultimately, you might even be able to recognize that your partner faces and struggles with the same existential human aloneness as you.  And therefore, in reality, in the absolute — you are in fact wholly united.

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