[An except from Glenn Cambell’s Non-Fiction Book The Case Against Marriage]
Once you start falling in love, the big question is, where do you stop?
No one wants to be lonely. It can be terrible to think no one cares about you, understands you or needs you. When the opportunity for love comes along, you may dive in. It can be a wonderful feeling to melt into the arms of another. Deeper and deeper you drift into their warm embrace, until you wake up in a panic….
“I can’t breathe!”
Inside each of us are two conflicting forces. One is the “urge to merge”—a desire to join with others, to love and be loved and to become part of a team. The opposing force is “differentiation”—the desire to be a valuable, powerful and independent person in your own right. If you go too far in either direction, you are going to be unhappy and can’t do much good for the world at large.
At one end of this spectrum of feeling lies loneliness. Everyone knows what that is. Loneliness is when you have no one to talk to and no one seems to care about you. If loneliness causes panic and drives you to merge with someone else, you may eventually experience the other extreme of distress: engulfment.
Loneliness seems easy to understand. There are songs and poetry written about it. Engulfment is more complicated. It is when your own identity seems to be swallowed up by other people’s. Engulfment is when you perceive that you have no control over your life, that your independent sense of worth has been lost and that your personal needs have been sacrificed to those of others.
If you join a religious cult, your identity and independent judgment are going to be subverted as the leader tells you what to do and think. You are made to understand that your own needs and perceptions are worthless and that only the group matters. If your own identity is very weak, you may accept this control, but most of us are going to rebel. When we feel that someone is compromising our personal identity, we are going to pull away. We don’t want to be engulfed.
The fear of engulfment is as terrifying in its own way as loneliness, and it can drive people to some extreme behavior, including hurting the people they love. In every romantic relationship there is a hidden war between loneliness and engulfment. When you are feeling lonely, you are drawn to be closer to your partner. When you feel swallowed up by them, you are driven to push them away. Most of the petty fights between romantic partners are unconscious reactions to perceived engulfment. When you are feeling overwhelmed or compromised by your partner or feel you have lost too much control to them, then you are going to pick a fight or do something else to create some distance between you.
This constant push and pull can be gentle or very violent. Hopefully, you can say, “I need my space right now,” without your partner getting offended. Unfortunately, most people don’t have that level of self-awareness and emotional control, and their cycle will be more extreme and theatrical. There will be frequent fights over trivial issues interspersed by equally superficial “making ups.”
When volatile couples fight, they think they are fighting over whatever issue is in front of them. In fact, what really triggers the conflict is usually an emotional panic in one of the parties: “I can’t breathe!” They feel that their identity is being drowned in the other, even if they can’t put that feeling into words.
When marriages turn to hell, it is usually when one partner is feeling engulfed but doesn’t have the means to regain their self-esteem or earn genuine identity on their own. Instead, they falsify an identity by generating conflict. Conflict gives the relationship the illusion of substance when one or both partners feel empty and lost in it.
The most volatile relationships tend to be those in which there is a gross imbalance of power. If one partner is much stronger in psychological or worldly terms, the weaker partner is going to feel engulfed and is likely to react with overt or covert aggression.
For example, imagine a rich and respected businessman who marries a young and beautiful “trophy wife” who has no real skills of her own. You would think the wife would be grateful, being that she has been “rescued” by this White Knight and has become as rich as he is without any effort. Turns out, though, they don’t usually live happily ever after. The wife, feeling empty and useless, creates a pseudo-identity for herself by giving her husband hell. Every private sensation of “I am worthless” gets translated into “You are worthless,” as she demands that her husband heal all the insecurities within her.
When White Knights swoop in to rescue Maidens in Distress, the fairy tales lead us to believe that they will both live happily ever after. Fat chance! The flipside of every rescue is a loss of control by the person being saved, which often emerges later as an engulfment reaction. Pretty soon, it is the knight who needs rescuing as the maiden badgers him over his perceived defects and creates conflicts where none previously existed.
In most cases, wise knights learn, the maiden must be left to rescue herself. Romantic relationships are successful, in the long term, only when power is relatively equal, when each person is responsible for their own problems and when a stable middle ground can be established between loneliness and engulfment.
For a healthy relationship, there have to be “boundaries.” These are the borders beyond which you do not attempt to merge. You can fall in love and lose yourself in another person, but only up to a point. Where is that point? At what boundary line have you spent too much time with the one you love and have focused too much attention on them? You can’t know this in advance. You have to figure it out dynamically by experimentation and negotiation.
Volatile relationships tend to swing violently from one passionate extreme to the other: First you are worshipping your partner, then reviling them. Stable relationships rely on more subtle adjustments: “I love you, but I need my space.” For a relationship to be healthy, there have to be clear distinctions between my space, your space and our space. All of these boundaries need to be actively negotiated. They shouldn’t all be mixed together in the same pot.
Glenn has worn many hats over the years, including programmer, photographer, philosopher, perpetual traveler and agnostic UFO researcher. In the 1990′s, he was an often-televised expert on “Area 51″, the secret military base in the Nevada desert. In the 2000′s, Glenn shifted his attention to family court in Las Vegas, where he has became the “Family Court Guy,” studying divorce, delinquency and child welfare cases as an outside observer.