For most of us who have been in or are currently in relationships, there is a constant struggle between two opposite forces. A struggle between wanting to be independent and wanting intimacy. This seemingly opposite tension plays out constantly in our lives and is the source of great misery for most of us. It would be prudent to understand the dynamics of two of our greatest challenges – The need for independence and The need for intimacy.
Let’s start by looking at the need for independence. As humans we all need to see that our lives have some impact – at least on the people closest to us. This exertion of influence brings us confidence and helps close feedback loops between actions and results. As children this is critical in developing our self-confidence. When we receive gentle positive affirmation from our parents, we start developing a sense of what we are good at. But as we grow older, this need for affirmation should ideally reduce. However, what usually happens is that the need for affirmation shifts from our parents to our peer group – our friends, our schoolmates and kids in the neighborhood. This then shifts to college mates, best friends and then work mates. Later on, as our friends start becoming busy in their lives, it may shift back to the family and our partner. In essence though, we are constantly looking for affirmation to keep our self-image. This self-image is the ego. The ego is essentially our identity that we seek to preserve. When we are praised and affirmed, there is a sense of ballooning expansion in us. When we are criticized, our ego feels crushed and deflated.
The concern here is that our self-confidence is based on this identity, which in turn in based on what other people tell us. This sets up a recipe for disaster. The key here is to have an identity, but independent of external affirmations. How do we go about developing a healthy identity that comes from within? Once again, our childhood plays a critical role. If we have been nurtured in love, care and affection (not smothering love); if we have been taught how to be independent – not from a harsh parent but from gentle yet firm parents – then we already have a sense of self-confidence. We ‘feel’ confident being who we are. However, if some of us have not had the opportunity of having parents who have been nurturing, we will need to work on ourselves. Introspection – on what we like, who we are, what resonates with our innermost self – is critical in understanding ourselves. Thanks to society and the media, we often form our self-image based on what others want or the current social trends. This has to be avoided at all costs. Next time you get pulled to like something just because somebody posted in on facebook, take a moment’s pause – reflect on what your values are – and see if it fits into your scheme of things. If yes, adopt it. If not, drop it. By constant reflection you slowly begin to develop a strong sense of who you are devoid of external trends and peer pressure. Journaling helps tremendously as it brings in the perspective of time to your actions, decisions and innermost yearnings.
A well grounded person does not need to assert themselves. They are confident in who they are. They realize that they are already free from any external compulsions and influences that deviates from their core values. When we don’t have a well developed of self-identity, we seek to preserve it. This manifests as the need of independence. The need for independence is strange. You only need independence when we have a sense that we are bound. But if we are secure in ourselves, if we feel free, then we don’t need to seek independence. Understand that the need for independence simply means that one feels the need to be in control of their lives, that we have a perception that we are free to choose our path in lives. This need to be separate – to have an “identity” in society is the need for independence. Understand why this comes about. On one side there is a healthy need to be alone, to think, to do what one likes and to engage in hobbies or a vocation that one chooses. On the other side, some people feel the persistent need to assert their independence. And such a need that arises out of insecurity and is dangerous for a relationship.
People who have a strong need for independence are usually afraid of intimacy. They are afraid to lose themselves, because they haven’t found themselves in the first place. In any relationship, one gives up a part of themself to the other – not out of a sense that I have to give but out of a sense that I want to give. In my view, this is the basis of love. Love manifests itself as a beautiful state where I am available for the other. I am ready to give. People with a strong sense of independence usually put their needs ahead of the other. This isn’t really a good basis for a relationship. Extreme versions of this are people with narcissistic personality syndrome, where the relationship revolves around them. On the other extreme, we have people pleasers who will go out of their way to impress on the other partner. This too is an extremity and must be avoided.
However someone who is well established within themselves, does not assert their need for independence, for they already know they are free from undue influences from society and their partner. These people can give because they have found a sense of stability, peace and joy within themselves. And when they give, they do not lose their identity – they only grow from giving more and more.
The second aspect of any relationship is the need for intimacy – the need for closeness. This is an innate human need. To feel like coming close to someone. To give yourself fully to some person. To feel understood and feel loved. Intimacy is a form of being absolutely naked in one’s innermost feelings, vulnerabilities, fears and aspirations to the other. This is a form of total acceptance that we want to feel especially from another human being. Psychology tells us that intimacy is born from our close associations with our parents early on in our life. And as we grow independent, we somehow bury this need deep within ourselves. In today’s westernized materialistic culture, the need for intimacy is almost seen as a weakness. Even in relationships, most people struggle hard to build walls and stay a safe distance from the other. Being intimate and being vulnerable go hand in hand.
However, you can be intimate only when both partners are non-judgemental and accepting of the others weaknesses. If one uses the others weaknesses as a weapon to put the other down, then intimacy cannot thrive. In order for one to accept the weaknesses of the other, they must recognize their own weaknesses and come to terms with it. Most of us are taught to put up a strong face and push on in life. This implies that we do not face our inadequacies. And when we flee from our own flaws, we begin to dislike the other’s flaws. Therefore, when we are accepting of our own selves, we can begin to appreciate the others flaws and weaknesses. Then both work together to help and assist each other in addressing these core issues. The need for intimacy must not be confused with being “needy”. Being needy is an obsessive need to be loved, taken care of and be in constant touch with the other. No. Intimacy is openness, acceptance and vulnerability.
How do we start balancing these two needs?
First, know yourself. Know your weaknesses. Know your strengths. Adopt an attitude of learning about your own character. Ask your loved ones. Ask your friends. Get feedback on what they think your strengths and weaknesses are. See how it vibes with the image you have of yourself. Next, begin to face your own mortality. We are going to die. And in the time remaining, what is it that we want to do. This helps us touch that part in ourselves that is beyond social conventions and trends. By coming closer to who we are we begin to realize that we are so much more than the ego. The ego is this petty little thing that we want to protect at all costs. And it leads us astray. By getting a wider perspective on who we are, we begin to let go of this false identity we want to hold up in society. One saves so much time and energy by letting go of how we are perceived by others. Once the veil of the ego begins to diminish, our true form – our true self begins to shine through. Then, we need not assert our independence because we know that in reality no one can bind us. They may limit our choices. They may hurt us. They may hate us. They may cheat us. But they cannot take away what we possess and who we are. They cannot dent the sense of deep connection to ourselves. Knowing we have nothing to lose, we put our walls down and are ready to share our sense of joy and happiness with others. This transforms a relationship. Next, intimacy comes naturally to such people – because they are open about their flaws and vulnerabilities. They have found so much stability and love in life – within themselves, that sharing it is a natural process.
For this to work, both partners need to be aligned. If not, the relationship becomes one sided. Not that it is bad per se, but then it would be about one compassionate person helping the other know themselves. This has a place too. But when both are sensitive to the other, then the need of independence transmutes itself to interdependency and the need for intimacy truly flowers. Such a relationship is based on intimate interdependency.
This would be a kind of relationship that we all should aspire for.