Eric has been single for five years. As a relationship-oriented guy he longs to connect with someone new, but he won’t let himself do it because he believes he isn’t “ready.” “Until I’m completely secure and whole in myself, and not dependent on anyone else to complete me, I won’t be able to be healthy in a relationship,” he says. He “knows” that real happiness only comes from “within” and that “mature” relationships are only possible between independent people who unite in mutual respect while maintaining “appropriate boundaries.” He “knows” that if your partner behaves in a way that disturbs you, you should be able to avoid being “enmeshed” or “codependent” and “keep the focus on yourself.” He “knows” that if you do become dependent on your partner you’re deficient in “self-esteem” and need to do some work on yourself; and that if you actually feel “needy” toward a partner then you may have an “addiction” to him or her.
Many intelligent people believe ideas like these, but I’ve never actually met anyone who even comes close to being a living example of this kind of magnificent self-sufficiency. I’m not surprised, because everything science has learned about human evolution, personality development, and neuropsychology strongly suggests that such a person cannot exist.
Humans survived as a species because we evolved to be social animals, hard-wired to attach emotionally to one another. Our “dependency needs” are neither choices nor pathologies; they’re built into the structure of our brains. Studies show, for instance, that once we become attached to someone, we actually form a single physiological unit. Our partners regulate our blood pressure, heart rate, breathing, and even the level of hormones in our blood. How could we ever maintain clear boundaries between ourselves and our partners when we’re literally not separate entities? Is Eric trying to become something no one can ever be?
Psychologists have observed that infants begin to venture out into their surroundings only when they feel that they have a secure base in the form of a protective parent who makes it possible for them to feel safe in the world. Adults aren’t much different. Relationships with loving partners, and/or supportive connections with family and friends, form the psychological basis for loving ourselves, believing in ourselves, and developing the confidence and resilience we need to go out and pursue our hopes and dreams. So while it may sound paradoxical, it’s our dependencies that make our independence possible. We become strong and autonomous within the context of ongoing deep, loving, and stable relationships with other people.
My advice to Eric, then, is: Don’t hold out for mythical ideal of emotional maturity before you let love back into your life. The inner strength that you’re seeking in solitude is much more likely to grow out of your commitments to, and loving connections with, other people.