The Importance of Importance

Dearest reader:

I’m sorry to be the one to have to tell you this but, when it comes to your relationship…

Everything you do matters.

Every exchange either strengthens or weakens your emotional bond.

Every strategy moves you either closer to intimacy or farther from it.

Every action either supports or undercuts your values.

Every decision is either unifying or divisive.

I speak to you, of course, through my professional experience working with couples. But like most great lessons, I learned this one the hard way, not from a book or seminar, but from my most insightful relationships teacher: my wife.

Close, but No Cigar

My lesson came soon after moving in together. The conflict du jour was our shared finances, and after painstaking negotiations, we finally committed to a budget we both agreed on. Personally, I couldn’t have been more thrilled. I was tired of the drudgery and determined to prove our discord on this issue was behind us.

A noble goal.

With several weeks of “good behavior” under my belt, I was well on my way to winning the proverbial husband-of-the-year award. Or so I thought. Eventually, my entitlement circuitry kicked in and I began to feel deserving of a cheat day. One evening after a particularly taxing day at work (possibly counseling stubborn husbands on the importance of emotional labor, openness, and integrity), I stopped off for a pricey dinner without first discussing it with my spouse. And topped it off with a nice cigar.

Upon seeing the receipt, my wife grew indignant. How could you throw our money away on frivolities! I pled my case, arguing that the totality of my efforts had produced a substantial improvement from the previous month. I even had the bank statement to prove it! What that statement did not reveal, however, was the fact that I had made a conscious decision to go against our agreement. Partial credit seemed unlikely.

When appealing to the big picture failed, I reverted to my tried-and-true argument tactic: minimizing.

“It’s not that big of a deal,” I said with a nonchalance that would make any woman crazy. I knew this dance well.

“You’re just so irresponsible!” she fired back, falling right into my trap. Feeling attacked at the character level, I could now justify any and all forms of retaliation.

“Why do you have to be so negative! Why can’t you just appreciate what I do right? Isn’t that what matters?”

She grew silent. I’ve got her on the ropes, I thought to myself. This one’s as good as mine. I’ll let her calm down, and then she can apologize for blowing this all out of proportion. And just as I was getting ready to pat myself on the back, her beautiful lips let lose those damnable words:

“Hayden, everything you do matters.”

I was stunned. How could I argue with that? What possible response could I offer?

I disagree. I find my actions to be quite insignificant. The meaninglessness of my deeds and in fact my existence on the whole cannot be overstated. My impact on you, dear wife, should be negligible at best.”

As absurd as it would have sounded to say that out loud, I immediately realized that I was operating under this belief, and had been for quite some time. Despite the entitlement and over-inflated self-importance I projected outwardly, inwardly I felt a deep-rooted sense that most of what I did was inconsequential. What emerged as a nasty argument about finances could more accurately be characterized as my resistance to owning my own importance.

Questions of Import

This was not my first tangle with personal significance in relationships. I had sensed this theme countless times before in the therapy room. One partner would look at me with a straight face and say “it doesn’t matter what I do, he still won’t X.” Another would declare “I’m done caring about Y, she can do that herself.” Still another would lament “what difference does it make if I Z!”

It struck me that my toughest cases were those in which a sense of significance had become a commodity. When one or both partners has concluded that nothing they do matters, all bets are off. Erratic behaviors, withdrawal, aggression, and spitefulness can all become fixtures of the relationship. In the worst cases, interactions begin to feel like a game of emotional chicken. Unconvinced of their own importance, partners hurtle towards one another with no regard for themselves, each other, or the innocent bystanders (usually children) they are involving. I call these interactions relating with abandon, and they are a far cry from the intentional relationships we hope to craft.

The behaviors in these significance deficient relationships were not only extreme, they were tough to change. Appealing to rationality didn’t help much, nor were my clients particularly receptive to my long-winded sermons on the virtues of healthy self-esteem. Even operating at the emotional level, long-since thought to be the change agent in therapy, yielded little progress at home. I’d bombard them with warm regard, to no avail. In fact, these partners didn’t seem to care much at all what I thought about them!

It was clear to me that the health of these partnerships hinged on each individual’s ability to own their own value, but I was at a loss to explain why this was so difficult. It was not until I truly grasped the power of our attachment needs that I began to understand how to help them (and why my wife was so upset over the dinner bill!) These clients were desperate for a very particular kind of significance. They were seeking validation, approval, and acceptance from a very specific person. And it sure as heck wasn’t me. These partners weren’t just struggling to feel like they mattered. They were struggling to feel like they mattered to each other.

The Operative Word is ‘Significant’

We often use the term significant other to describe the person most important to us, but what does this mean, exactly? Our lives are filled with important people, yet we reserve this title for a specific, special someone. What is it about this particular person that seems so compelling?

Most people, when asked what makes their partner so significant, would respond with a list of qualities about that person: he or she is generous, kind-hearted, and compassionate. Or they might detail the things about that person that they appreciate: thoughtful gestures, back rubs, or work ethic. These lists, endearing though it may be, still do not tell the whole story. They describe an individual but say little about what makes their role in our lives so critical.

To really understand why our partners take on such monumental significance, we have to turn to attachment theory. Attachment theory, first formulated by British psychiatrist John Bowlby in the mid-1900’s, proposed that human infants are wired by evolution to keep precious others close by. His ideas, wholeheartedly rejected by proponents of rational, detached parenting, picked up steam in the 1960’s when Mary Ainsworth’s famous “Strange Situation” experiment demonstrated that children of warm and responsive mothers were more emotionally resilient. The work of Bowlby, Ainsworth, and others would soon revolutionize parenting. But what about adult relationships?

Research on adult attachments did not begin in earnest until the 1980s, but since then study after study has confirmed what Bowlby himself long-suspected: adults have the same attachment needs as infants, and we deny this only to our detriment. Bowlby’s talk of “effective dependency” still flies in the face of common wisdom that suggests that adults are mature, independent, and self-sufficient. Science from all fields, including psychology, sociology, and neurobiology, points very clearly to a need for emotional attachments with a few irreplaceable others. In short, our significant other seems so significant because the emotional bond that emerges between us is part of our survival program.

Cause for Alarm

When we do not feel significant to our significant other, our attachment alarm goes off. If we are in a secure relationship, the signal is more like a warning bell that prompts us to move back into connection; we are able to ask for support and feel reasonably confident that our partner will deliver. If we are in an insecure relationship, it sounds like a five-alarm fire. Although we might respond to the alarm in any number of ways, the underlying questions are the same: Do you see me? Do you hear me? Do I matter?

For some partners, an attachment alarm is the beginning of a cascade of anxious demands that can quickly escalate into attack. These partners are responding to a need for connection by pursuing it, albeit ineffectively. They might:

  • Yell and scream
  • Criticize and complain
  • Call their partner names
  • Become desperate and clingy
  • Overpursue
  • Attempt to control their partner

Other partners respond to the attachment alarm by going into self-protection mode. Feeling insignificant to their partner, they opt to keep themselves safe by withdrawing. These partners might:

  • Stonewall
  • Deflect
  • Self-medicate
  • Avoid confrontation
  • Shut down emotionally and/or sexually

The reason these behaviors look so extreme is that the emotional needs behind them are some of the most powerful on the planet. Our brains interpret a subjective feeling of worthlessness as a literal threat to survival. When our attachment alarms go off, we cannot be appeased by rationality and problem-solving. We must find our way back into preciousness, either by ourselves or, more preferably, with the help of our partners. Conversely, we must learn to recognize and respond when our partners’ alarms are going off. We must see beyond the behavior in front of us and recognize the powerful emotional need that underpins it.

Partners get stuck when each becomes so bound up in their own hurt that they literally cannot move themselves to respond to one another. Neither feels particularly valued by their beloved, and because we use our partners as mirrors to get a sense of who we are, neither feels particularly valuable to themselves. This subjective experience of insignificance fuels desperate behaviors that negatively impact the relationship, driving partners even further apart and making it harder for either to feel important. As a therapist, my role is to help partners transform their intense emotions into attachment signals. This means I have to drag some folks kicking and screaming back into their own significance.

Owning Importance

So why is it so hard to own our own importance?

For starters, it’s scary. For many of us, the thought of having such an impact on another person borders on terrifying. To be the person they reach for when they are unsure or upset, the person they count on, the person they miss when we are apart; all of these things open us up to new realms of failure and inadequacy that are wholly unavailable when we are solo. (These “things,” by the way, are our biologically-based attachment needs).

If you’re paying close attention, you’ve probably noticed the main culprit, a usual suspect as far as therapy goes: shame. Shame informs us, in no uncertain terms, that we are not good enough. A partner struggling with shame will struggle with feeling important and behave accordingly. When we feel as though we don’t matter, the natural corollary is that nothing we do matters. Yet, we often hear from those closest to us that it does. Confronting our shame and the shameless behaviors that medicate it is a key step in becoming significant.

Shame is certainly a big player, but it alone does not account for all our struggles. The other big reason we resist importance is that it can feel limiting. This one is easy. The reason it feels limiting is because it is. As my mentor Terry Real says, “All important relationships constrain our reality.” Accepting these constraints, not because we have to but because it’s worth it, is a part of mature love.

To be more blunt, the simplest reason for our reluctance to own our importance in relationships is that it’s a pain in the ass. We have to challenge ourselves to do things we wouldn’t have to do if we were insignificant.

Although every relationship is unique, it’s possible to identify a few common patterns that point to significant struggles:

One-Down and Walled-Off

When our feelings of shame and insignificance cause us to wall off, we might appear resigned, depressed, or hopeless. Outwardly, we have disowned our own value and we no longer involve ourselves much in the relationship. Inwardly, we are trying desperately to protect ourselves, to hold onto the last shred of self-worth. We might be caught in a pattern with our partner that creates feelings of guilt or shame. Feeling rejected, we hide from each other more. Walling off can masquerade as indifference when in fact it is a desperate call for an emotional response.

Often, the impulse to wall off is adaptive, and I frequently tell my clients that I am not in the business of tearing down walls. Walls work just fine in many situations. In love relationships, however, prolonged walling-off creates feelings of emotional deprivation in our partners. When we are “unreachable,” our partners begin to feel helpless, and the primordial panic that ensues fuels ill-conceived attempts to break through our defenses. The response in these cases is typically to wall off further, or go on the offensive. Neither of these reactions give us what we want because we have not addressed the underlying emotional needs. The most heartbreaking consequence of long-term walling off is that our partners will almost inevitably grieve what they are not getting. Salvaging a relationship that has already been grieved by one partner is extraordinarily difficult, even with professional help.

One-down and Boundaryless

When instead of putting up a wall we allow our boundaries to fail, our subjective unimportance might be expressed as desperation, clinginess, or over-pursuit. Feeling unvalued, either by something that has been done to us or by a feeling we’ve created in ourselves, we might try any number of strategies to draw comfort from our partner:  Feeling unsafe, our reasonable requests may be transformed into preposterous demands that are unlikely to get us the reassurance we so desperately crave.

The tricky thing about boundarylessness is that it can parade as authenticity. It is critical to realize that saying the first thing that pops into our heads when we are hurt or angry will not, in most cases, empower our partners to respond.  The main reason we don’t get what we want is because we aren’t asking for it. Our disguised and distorted messages keep us from being fully exposed, but they also make it harder for our partners to give us what we are so desperately needing.

Medicating through Grandiosity

When our shame becomes intolerable, we often want to medicate it. Improperly held, shame can morph into recklessness, entitlement, or license. We might begin to act without much thought about how we affect other people. Extreme grandiosity moves beyond “I don’t matter” and “you don’t matter” into “none of it matters.”

At its worst, grandiosity can be extraordinarily damaging. I have personally worked with partners who have conveyed the following:

What does it matter if I….

  • Have unprotected sex with this stranger
  • Get arrested for fighting
  • Drive drunk with a child in the back seat
  • Smash this window
  • Publicly humiliate you
  • Solicit prostitutes
  • Gamble with our savings

Terry Real notes two defining qualities of grandiosity: 1) It feels good and 2) it impairs judgment. When in a state of shame, we naturally want to move out of it because it feels bad. When in a state of grandiosity, we are far less motivated because it feels good. Owning the impact our actions have not just on our own lives, but on the lives of those we care about, is a good first step out of grandiosity. We must also work to realize that our behaviors will not get our emotional needs met.

New Significance

Common wisdom suggests that healthy adults do not depend on others for emotional nourishment. In fact, we have come up with any number of words (codependent, merged, fused, enmeshed) to describe the “dysfunctional” state of “needing” someone too much. The role of couples therapy has long been to help people differentiate, disentangle, and “stand on their own two feet.” We wanted to help people own their own significance so that they wouldn’t need one another so much.

But the science tells a different story. We are born into relationships and we need attachments to survive. A mountain of research now confirms that we do best when we live in authentic relationship, and although our attachments might change from childhood to adulthood, the nature of the emotional needs remains the same. My goal now is to help people own their own significance so that they can respond to one another.

The unmistakable takeaway is this:

If we fail to own our own importance we will inevitably communicate to our partners that they are unimportant. So if we want to matter to someone, we have to accept that we matter.

And what we do matters, too.

 

Go be important today. There is no other choice.

-Hayden

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