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Clingy Intimacy

Is someone you know too clingy?

Emotional intimacy is a double-edged sword; it brings joy, but it can also make you clingy.

In the past few posts we’ve been dealing with people who have problems trusting and truly opening themselves to intimacy. Good sex and warm romance make us happy, but for some it’s a trigger leading to strange fears, a need for control and even, sometimes, rage.

You see, problems in the field of intimacy sneak up on you in a number of ways.

Abandonment: Many of us become afraid that if the person we are intimate with leaves, they will never return. We are afraid that if our partner talks to a member of the opposite sex, all is over. And, this is all in the context of a relationship in which you truly feel loved. It makes no sense because neediness is less often about the present and more often about the past. Plus, it’s no fun for you — or for your partner.

The irony, of course, it that the more you worry, the more he or she can't stand it. The more you hold on, the more he or she will want to escape. Love requires trust in order to work.

Child Development and Basic Trust: If you adjusted well to childhood, you learned that when your parent left for a bit of time, they would invariably come back. Imagine yourself as an infant whose parent was in the adjoining room; you could play quietly or cry uncontrollably. Most kids fit somewhere in the middle.

For those who have internalized an image of mom or dad, they can self soothe knowing that sooner or later, they will see their beloved parent again. For some, a baby blanket will suffice to keep them comforted. In psychology we call this Basic Trust.

Or think about when you were a toddler and wandered away from your mother to explore the world. If you had a healthy adjustment to childhood, you would explore and then run back for a hug — only to go out once again. Margaret Mahler called this refueling. Yet, for some of us, the fear that mom or dad wouldn’t be there is crippling. Such toddlers have trouble leaving mom’s side; they are just too anxious.

This neediness can infect future relationships.

Children like this are usually “high maintenance” from a young age. They cry a lot, and don't usually sleep through the night right away. They strongly dislike babysitters, and have trouble starting pre-school. Some get a diagnosis of Separation Anxiety Disorder; others are just considered needy. (Note: not every problematic emotion gets a diagnosis!)

These youngsters generally don’t feel better once their mom or dad returns. This can make their parents pretty exasperated, as it seems like nothing they do is what their child needs. But the majority of these kids grow up to live a normal life — until these early fears are triggered by entering an intimate relationship.

The sad fact: Adult love can reawaken childhood complexes. Yes, love can make us crazy.

Example: This was true of Janet; a young woman in her early 20s who began seeing a therapist for depression and anxiety. She reported that her boyfriend, Richard, had enough of her antics. Janet was extremely needy and tended to self medicate with drugs. She lacked motivation and was almost unable to hold down a job. Janet tired easily and constantly battled health issues — like recurrent headaches, chronic fatigue and irritable bowel syndrome. She wanted Richard to take care of her, and he was tired of attending to Janet and seeing no changes in her behavior.

Janet was a lot of work as a child. Her parents remember that she required tons of attention, and every morning before school was a battle just to get her out of the house. Like most parents of kids like this, they were exasperated, but did not seek psychiatric help.

Janet eventually "got over it" and did well in school, pleased her parents and found employment, but she failed time and again in relationships.

An Adult Therapy: After a string of ineffective therapies, Janet's new therapist tried something radical; she made a pact with her. Let’s not turn this therapy into another dependent relationship. Let’s deal with the adult self in you that actually wants to be independent. And, let’s find a way for your adult self to take care of your needy child self, even if it means that Richard may be disappointed because you’ve become stronger.

The therapist put a time limit on progress: she would not simply replace a needy childhood with a needy therapeutic alliance. This therapist was less interested in a dependent patient and more intent on giving Janet tools to handle surges of neediness. It helped.

Janet agreed and soon discovered that she was rather severely depressed, and this had gone untreated for a long time. The depression made Janet feel entitled to act the way she did around Richard and her parents. Her drug use perpetuated the problem. She saw life as an arduous task and not as an exciting adventure. Everything seemed impossible to Janet. She thought it was impossible to pursue her education, hold down a job, or even be happy with herself.

Yet, in therapy, she discovered that these thoughts were very old and linked back to an insecure childhood, where her mom and dad had been inconsistently available. Her need for safety seemed to emerge from her need for love; and in therapy she realized that this was a backwards way of thinking. After all, if a person wants to be parented by their partner, what are they bringing to the table?

A self-limiting belief: Janet believed that the only thing that would make her happy was to be loved by Richard. As absurd as it sounds, self-limiting beliefs like this one are not uncommon.

Janet’s treatment involved some medication and talk therapy. Her mood improved, and she was able to return to work. She started to eat healthier and take better care of herself. For instance, sobriety soon became appealing. Soon, Richard wanted to be around Janet all the time.

It turns out that Richard was a lot like Janet. He had trouble moving forward in his life and was a chronic Marijuana smoker. Richard worked at a dead-end job, lived with his parents, and did not go to college, despite being extremely smart.

As Janet began to take better care of herself, she started to question her relationship with Richard. He was going nowhere fast, and he had no intention of changing.

The tables had turned entirely.

From the Couch: Clingy people are often in relationships with other insecure people who want to be needed. When one gets better, the other can be thrown off balance. This happens a lot when one person in a relationship commits themselves to getting better. Sometimes, when one person changes it drives their partner forward. Janet was driven by the notion that she might lose Richard. Unfortunately, the thought of losing Janet wasn’t enough to make Richard seek change. Janet eventually broke things off with Richard and got her act together.

There is no shame in admitting that you are too clingy. And there are usually good reasons why you became that way. Good relationships are worth a lot, so if you’ve got a tendency to be too needy, do something about it. Work on overcoming the wounds of the past, and make better relationships in the future.

The answer is within; you are more powerful than you may think.