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There are many people who seem to live their lives in a way that takes the needs, feelings, and vulnerabilities of an important other person into consideration. At first glance, this appears to reflect caring and sensitivity to that other person; something we value and consider a necessary requirement for a successful relationship.
The husband who thinks to himself, “How will my wife feel about this?” before making a decision that will affect both of them is a person we admire for his thoughtfulness and his attunement to his wife’s needs and feelings. The adult daughter who wonders about her father’s reaction to her choice of a romantic partner may appear to be respectful and mindful of her parent‘s judgment and ideas about her best interests.
Too often, however, individuals like those in the preceding examples are not simply interested and concerned about the reactions of important and influential people in their lives. They are operating with fear or trepidation about the real or imagined consequences of provoking reactions that they feel they must avoid at all costs. This is what I mean by living “at the mercy of the other.”
Dave, a 45-year-old business executive, was in a relationship with Eileen, whom he cherished, but with whom he had a stormy, volatile relationship for over ten years. In many of his therapy sessions, Dave would discuss his interactions with Eileen in ways that reflected his fear of offending, upsetting, or provoking her, making it difficult for him to address his own needs and interests. I would hear comments from Dave such as, “Yes, but Eileen won’t like that,” or “I’d love to do that, but I know that Eileen will refuse.” When Dave expressed his desire for a brief, inexpensive vacation, his wish was immediately followed by, “but Eileen will say we can’t go because it costs too much and we should visit her mother, instead.”
Marsha’s story was not very different. “He’ll kill me” was an oft-heard add-on to too many expressions of her wishes and desires to improve or enhance the quality of her life. It was as though her dreams, aspirations, plans, and desires had to pass muster with her husband before they could be allowed to develop any further, let alone be shared with him and acted upon. She, like Dave, was living at the mercy of an important other person; while understandably wanting to please her partner, she was doing so in a way that reflected fear and worry, not thoughtfulness and consideration.
Work with these two patients focused on their becoming more attuned to themselves and better able to act in their own self-interest without fear of consequence if their own needs and desires did not completely match those of their partners. Neither of these two people were involved with ogres. Both were helped to understand and appreciate their own roles in establishing relationships with their important others that were experienced as, or had in fact, become oppressive and psychologically limiting. Both patients were able to improve their relationships once they better established their own autonomy and could think, feel, and plan their lives mindfully, but not fearfully.