Most of us let go of one anchor only when we’re confident that there’s another waiting, ready and available to hold us tight; to refuel us. As children, we need to see our parents in this way—invulnerable and immortal and constant—until we’re mature enough to realize that they’re not.
As adults, we know that the people upon whom we rely are as human and needy and vulnerable as we are, but that idea is slippery and easily misplaced. We are inclined, instead, to imbue our adult partners with the same super-human qualities we once wished upon our parents, and then resent them for the limits of their very human strength.
As much as any parent or partner might wish to be Superman, always ready to fly to the rescue, always able to save the day, we’re all limited and awed. We all have weaknesses and get sick and injured and eventually die. Accepting this truth, a mature parent does everything for her child that she can, but never alone. She knows that it takes a village to raise a child.
When Bouncing Baby Billy toddled off and found himself overwhelmed, his mom was there, ready to refuel him. But Dad was on standby in the next room, reading the paper. Grandma was napping down the hall, but always with the door open, just in case the young parents wanted help. And when Billy was born, Uncle Phil offered to fly down to help out any time that he was needed.
It takes a village to sustain an adult relationship as well. To look to your partner to meet all of your needs is more than naïve; it’s self-destructive. Expecting him or her to be as invulnerable and ever-present as Superman—as reliable and responsive and attentive as the mother you had, or the mother you wish you’d had—is both a compliment and a catastrophe.
The same is true of any adult who presents himself or herself as the solution to a partner’s every need, who perhaps even demands total devotion or total isolation. It is narcissistic and delusional to believe yourself able to fulfill another person’s every need, and no less pathological to believe that of another. There is a brittleness in the personality of anyone so incapable of sharing and so unwilling to trust.
With or without an intimate partner, we all need many simultaneous supports. Many anchors. A village to hold us tight. Friends, family, colleagues and neighbors. Faith institutions and the guys at the gym and the book group. We need the Wednesday evening “Hi, how are you? Fine, thanks” banter, the neighborhood barbecues, and even the camaraderie among digital avatars storming a medieval castle. These may be intellectually empty exchanges or profound and insightful dialogues, but either way, they are emotional constants—anchors—that help to refuel you and hold you tight.
With the benefit of these many connections—threads in a safety net—partners return after a separation a little less needy. A little less demanding. A little better prepared to read and respond to the other’s needs. A little better prepared, in fact, when a tiny third person enters the mix.