WHEN THE NEEDY PERSON MASQUERADES AS THE CARETAKER
Dependent/needy people mold themselves to their partners, admiring and revering most things they do and secretly (or not-so-secretly) thinking the other person is better than they are, though finding a way to believe “but I’m more giving; I care more”. So they’ll say things like, “I’m so there for you”, “I do so much for you”, “why don’t you do more for me?” And they will indeed do all sorts of things they believe their partner needs or will appreciate. Throughout, however, they build resentment toward their partners, thinking “this is so unfair; why can’t s/he be with me more?”. As the needy one expresses these sentiments, the other partner, in turn, begins setting more limits – on time together, talking etc. – and not always knowing why, but just knows that he’s feeling crowded. What’s happening at a deeper level is that he’s feeling manipulated into appreciating the other “for all s/he does”, but concomitantly coming to feel both annoyed and guilty, and thus developing a sense of cognitive-dissonance – which tends to seal the deal toward pulling away. These dependents often bring up ‘wrongs’ that the other has committed, which only serves to exacerbate the other’s guilt and makes him wonder why he can’t love his partner.
Grace, a psychologist herself, came into the first therapy session saying (pretty incisively) “Not only does Alex tell me he does everything for me and that I do nothing for him, but he even includes the fact that all he wants in sex is to make me orgasm; can’t he ever realize that I want to also feel the excitement of making him come?!!”
When Alex met Grace he was instantly enamored by her qualities; he called and emailed often and quickly wanted more time together. But Grace goes more slowly in the beginning, spacing out the frequency of visits and electronic communication; she instinctively knows this the very thing that helps her to begin to want more. It gives her time to relish aspects of their time together, so that when she is with him, she really wants to be there.
But as the relationship continued, Alex escalated his pursuing and his ‘need-making’ behavior; one Saturday morning, Grace awoke to him cleaning her entire apartment, which actually upset her the more she thought about it. He’d also avoid making any other plans during the week, fearing that if he did and Grace were busy on the other days, he’d lose out on seeing her. Or he’d be the one to drive the hour to her place. He’d ‘give’ by offering his time and help in everything, not understanding that the behavior was a way to get to see her – and thus also self-serving in nature. And ‘self-serving’ isn’t taboo; we need to do that to survive to some extent. It only becomes a problem when it’s not recognized for what it is – and turned around instead to appear as if it’s for the other. Had he realized this, he’d have been less likely to take on this martyred role, and thus less likely to drive Grace away.
Problem-solving and Solutions
There is an almost infinite array of perceptual ‘re-attributions’, tools and strategies for change. The following are just a few, in no particular order:
-Alex can re-frame his narrative about what Grace’s ‘slow beginning’ means. That is, rather than perceive it as her not liking him enough, he can remind himself that some people need the time and space to get close, and that it’s more likely his anxiety and ‘rejection-sensitivity’ that’s making him scared.
-He can take notice of the data; i.e., acknowledge that whenever he meets up with Grace again, she’s invariably excited to see him.
-Alex might remind himself that this was a model he saw occurring in his own family, wherein the parents told each other (and the kids) “you should be grateful for all that I do for you”; and here he is repeating it.
-Alex has to learn to ‘wait’; i.e., finding a way to calm himself (self-soothe) when he gets worried about what feels like a threat to his security.
-He can have a meta-conversation with Grace, asking her calmly what her most comfortable pace is when starting a relationship. He can also ask that she let him know when she feels ready to step it up a bit.
-Alex can learn more about how the ostensible caretaking is a way of creating a need for himself – when deep down he doesn’t really believe people will see him as important or attractive.
-As well, he’ll have to gradually take the risk of making some plans for himself, even if it means foregoing a chance to see Grace on a particular weekend; in fact, it’s the very behavior that will allow Grace to feel a stronger desire to reach out to him (see upcoming Post on “Creating a Vacuum”)
-Grace can learn to identify that her very gradual start-up in relationships is about her own skittishness about being made to feel claustrophobic – and that she needn’t just assume all men will do that to her (if she feels like delving a bit, she may recognize it as similar to the feeling while growing up and taking care of a sick father while her mother was absent).
-She can recognize that the hesitancy to commit to plans early on might give the man the impression that she’s not very engaged.
-Grace can remind herself that when she starts to feel guilty with Alex’s comments about her selfishness, she has to think through whether she’s actually done something ‘wrong’ or whether she’s simply trying to soothe her own anxieties – and explain it as such.
-Setting some boundaries with Alex will be critical; she can kindly but assertively let him know that scolding her for her non-involvement is guilt-provoking and will push her away rather than pull her closer…. and that she’d prefer to feel able to get closer.
-She also has to tell him when some of his behavior upsets her. For example, though realizing his intentions are good, his cleaning her apartment makes her uneasy at this point. Avoiding these kinds of meta-convos by either person originates in a fear of alienating or making the other person angry or less interested. But it’s a risk that has to be taken.
-Grace can recognize that if she begins to do some of the initiating, Alex may in fact lay back a bit. And she can experiment with this in small ways, e.g., telling him she’d like to train it up to his place the following weekend.