No one can deny the euphoria of getting a text from that special someone.
That cheesy smile creeps onto your oblivious face.
The phone lights up and so does your heart.
You type a response.
It feels so good to be in love.
Until it doesn’t.
With a sinking feeling gnawing at your nerves, you check your phone again. They haven’t texted back.
It’s times like these, in the throes of yearning for connection, when we wonder: why is it so hard to be a strong independent person who doesn’t need another person?
It’s called intermittent reinforcement. It’s a behaviour modification technique that hooks the subject with inconsistent rewards so they feverishly demonstrate the desired behaviour. Psychologists use it to make performance addicts out of mice and penniless gamblers out of casino players.
With love, it’s usually not psychological manipulation, but the tease of affection can feel just as destabilizing.
“I’ve had it where the moment I put myself out there and got vulnerable with how special that person is to me, they would kind of stop what they were doing or pull back from it, like nothing was there,” says Cheyenne Cautillo, a student at the University of Toronto.
The on/off affection is the worst kind of attention because “there’s this sense of instability,” she remembers.
One moment, she’s excited to see them, feeling safe and exuberant because the affection is reciprocated. Then, there’s a void making Cautillo question her worth.
Starved mice hunger for food and casino-goers crave money, but everyday people long for love. This is because social connection is a deep and universal human need.
“We’ve evolved that way,” says SiSi Tran, a professor at the University of Toronto who researches the psychology of relationships. It feels amazing to be loved because social attachments are essential for human wellbeing.
Tran says secure attachments are defined by consistent trust and communication. When people are each other’s attachment figures, they lean on one another for support, find safety and comfort in them and gain confidence from the security of the relationship.
But things go wrong when people don’t have secure attachments and don’t feel loved, particularly when it starts early on. Inconsistent love can produce poor regulatory skills and undermine one’s coping with life challenges.
Strong independent women (or men) do need men (and women) — what we don’t need is the anxiety of haphazard love.
Whether with friends, family, or a significant other, “loving somebody requires so much vulnerability,” Cautillo says. However, “when that love isn’t returned or when it’s not given the way you want it to be given, that can create a lot of hurt.”
There are three things a strong, independent person can do to get through the hurtful uncertainty and continue in the human pursuit for love.
Manage your expectations.
It’s easy to feel unloved or miss the subtle ways others uniquely show affection when they don’t act as expected.
“One of my other friends is not as touchy-feely as me,” explains Cautillo, “so when I hug or when I touch them on the shoulder, they don’t really respond, or they’re not as enthusiastic.”
Keeping an open mind towards different displays of affection and open eyes to what your partner enjoys and offers, is key.
“It’s not because I’m not really loveable,” Cautillo says. “Maybe that person isn’t there at that point, maybe they’re going through something, maybe their timing isn’t right, maybe they’re just not as extraverted as you, or maybe they’re more overwhelmed by that intensity.”
Know your needs and limits.
Getting to know someone and how they express themselves, Cautillo says, involves “accepting and respecting the feelings they might have behind their actions and (that) they have a right to feel and act a certain way.”
The hard part is acknowledging that sometimes your friend’s actions and efforts may not match your needs.
Reflecting on one of her friendships, Cautillo realized that though she values the friendship as indispensable, there are some things that signalled a need for detachment.
“We were supposed to study at one point but he didn’t message me back,” she says. Though Cautillo empathized, she felt frustrated to see this pattern emerge in their friendship.
“Even if I tell them how I feel and they go and say, ‘Yeah, I’m gonna work on it,’ do I really want to be with someone that way?”
Cautillo took it as a sign to accept the friendship at the level it was and nothing more.
Evaluating and acknowledging emotions involves integrity and honesty, she says.
“I almost had to feel my hurt to the point where I realized I don’t really deserve to be feeling this affected and then deciding that I’m going to detach from this situation.”
Pursue love through different paths.
Detachment isn’t the absence of love.
“You can get your attachment needs met in a lot of ways,” Tran says. “If this person is struggling to give you what you’re needing, you can either help to train them to be better or, if adaptation is not in the cards, then there are alternatives.”
Spending time with friends and doing meaningful projects helps Cautillo feel secure.
“I’m OK if that person doesn’t message me, because I’m busy doing something else that is equally fulfilling,” she says. “It’s not denying that that person would make me feel good, it’s knowing that there are other alternatives.”
For those wondering why they don’t feel strong or independent, know that everyone must work to grow secure relationships. That means reaching out, sacrificing for another person, and depending on them while knowing that this shouldn’t cost you your self-confidence.
By Shadi Laghai
Image by Terry Tan