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Toddlers in love
Do you occasionally feel like you become a different person around your partner? Does it seem like he or she has to change - or that you'll have to change partners - for you to be your true self? Do you take turns acting like stubborn toddlers and feeling as powerless as one? Well, you're not alone.
Just about all lovers go through a stage of high emotional reactivity that threatens to destroy their relationship. A request or “observation” tinged with any hint of negative emotion automatically triggers an unpleasant response in the other partner. It doesn’t matter how the request and response are worded, the negative emotion underlying them makes both parties feel wronged and, eventually, like they can't be themselves around each other.
They may think they have irreconcilable differences or that they’re simply with the wrong partner. In reality, they're just caught in a predictable stage of relationship development - a stage that affects all committed couples to some degree, because it rises from what I call the Grand Contradiction in human nature. Humans are unique among social animals in our competing drives to be autonomous (able to determine our own thoughts, feelings, and behavior), while relying for love and support on someone with the same contradictory drives. Emotional well being for most people depends on the ability to balance the competing drives for autonomy and connection.
When the Grand Contradiction goes out of balance, uncomfortable feelings automatically occur - as a signal, I believe, to get back into balance. For instance, if you focus too much on yourself, you feel guilty and irritable; overdo focus on your partner, and you feel anxious, resentful, or empty. These uncomfortable feelings do not dissipate until the drives for autonomy and connection are once again in balance.
But couples in conflict rarely interpret negative feelings as signals to balance the drives for autonomy and connection. Instead, they handle the Grand Contradiction the same way they did when it first emerged back in toddlerhood, with power struggles, temper tantrums, or quiet sulking. The brightest and most sophisticated couples can act just like toddlers - injured, infuriated, punishing, and oblivious to each other’s perspectives. They protect themselves with the toddler defenses of blame, denial, and avoidance. All their arguments can be reduced to the toddler refrain of, “No!” and “Mine!”
Stuck in their “toddler brains,” they cannot be the loving and compassionate partners they want to be. And that is the core of the problem. They are alienated from each other because they've become alienated from the deepest sense of who they are and what they most value.
Here are the characteristics of love controlled by the toddler brain:
• Highly narcissistic (can’)t see anyone else’s perspective)
• All-or-nothing (I love you one minute but, in a temper tantrum, I hate you.)
• Permanency of feelings (When they feel something, they can’t imagine ever not having felt that way or that they will ever feel differently in the future.)
• All strong feelings represent emotional “needs.”
When disappointed or hurt, toddlers are often aggressive, although they do no damage. (Say “no,” or otherwise hurt the feelings of toddlers and they may hit you with a tissue.) The aggression is a futile effort to get others to sympathize with their hurt. Adults who love like toddlers inevitably hurt each other when they really want compassion, demand submission when they really want cooperation, and insist on “validation” when they really want connection.
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