“When you show me that you have it all together, without needing me or anyone else, we can get married,” he told me.
The following year, I paid for 100 percent of the childcare, did 98 percent of the cooking and cleanup, and cleaned the house until 10 p.m. in an effort to try to erase any traces of my son’s crumbs or diapers.
I did all our laundry until he told me not to worry about doing his.
And I believed this self-sufficiency with my live-in partner would lead me to the relationship of my dreams.
We have a nearly mythological idealization of self-sufficiency amongst unmarried adults.
According to the common cultural cannons of dating and Facebook (dating coaches among them), the key elements of being attractive to another person include: self-worth, self-respect, self-confidence, and self-actualization. The theory is that this inner work attracts others who will magnetically be drawn to want to be with us.
Daters are taught by positive psychology that it’s necessary to focus on creating a “life we love.” Under this model, the relational skills we most need are independence, self-sufficiency, self-regulation, and a capacity for demonstrating healthy self-care and self-love practices.
We are not to speak of our desires for relationships but are instead to focus on developing the skills of being happy and self-contained to the degree that a relationship would be merely additive rather than necessary.
It’s a rarity in these environments to see discussions of how to achieve healthy interdependence, the need for social connection, or how to nurture any of the following: attunement, trust, presence, space, compassion, communication, and relational safety.
The very skills that most of us could relationally benefit most from.
A hyper-focus on self-sufficiency in adulthood is a sign of childhood trauma, speaking to an adaptation of a childhood nervous system in distress.
Our social engagement system, known as the vagus nerve, is stimulated in infancy with eye contact from our primary caregivers. Our young, developing bodies learn how to process emotions through attunement and presence; we rely on the presence of adult caregivers for this to develop.
When it does not, we tend to believe, as adults, that we need to be completely independent to thrive. It says a lot about how our nervous systems developed as children: when forced to be independent in our youngest ages, we learn it’s unsafe to rely on others.
My parents believed that the marker of their success at raising children was our independence, which meant it was optimal for us to learn everything on our own.
Unlike my sister, I was not only a clumsy farm kid, but I also needed instructions and guidance on how to find a 3/16 wrench from the shop in the yard, fill a tire with air, operate a jack, put gas in the car, or operate a lawnmower without driving it into the side of the house.
Guidance I didn’t get.
I spent a portion of my childhood getting in trouble for my lack of mechanical inclination and another portion being flustered for not being able to figure things out for myself. It was a rarity that I was allowed to express anger or frustration, confusion or sadness.
My brain developed an “I got this” coping mechanism. Not by choice—by necessity. I wasn’t going to get patient, calm instructions on caring, unhurried time. We had sh*t to do, and if I wanted to earn the approval of my caregivers, I had to hide my need for help or instruction. My brain adapted to the environment of idealizing self-sufficiency.
My unmet needs created a deep, dark hole in the centre of my body, the texture of felted wool and the color of an incoming storm. A storm I would spend the rest of my adulthood compensating for.
By the time I entered a relationship in my mid-30s, I had lived on my own for more than half my lifetime. In those years, I had moved not only across the country and started life over (more than once), but to a whole other country and back.
I had travelled, successfully achieved my career goals, opened a bricks-and-mortar business, had a baby on my own, passionately engaged in hobbies with a deep flow, and was considered a social connector amongst my social set.
I knew who I was and what I wanted.
I lived a life of “I got this,” and I excelled at everything. Except for relationships.
The focus of all the dating coaching and advice I could find was one of even more independence. It brought back the pit in my stomach, so familiar in childhood that I linked it with love.
When we didn’t have our needs met in childhood, intense self-sufficiency may feel like love rather than what it is: attachment trauma.
If we never learned to feel our emotions with the empathetic abiding presence of another person—how to be our authentic selves, assertively communicate our feelings with vulnerability, hold compassion or empathy for our experiences—we were forced to have emotional self-sufficiency in our developmental years. We are biologically missing the relational wiring we need to build and maintain interdependent connections.
For those with attachment trauma, we need to scrap the “self-based” dating advice if we want to find healthy relationships:
>> We are not meant to be completely independent; we are meant for interdependence.
>> We are not wired to be self-sufficient; we are wired for connection, communication, and sharing.
>> We are not supposed to rely on self-love alone; we are supposed to have love for and from others.
>> We are not built to be happy on our own; our happiness depends on cultivating and nurturing relationships with other humans.
>> We no longer need to do it all by our damn selves.
>> If we are grounded in who we are and what we want, we need to recognize hyper-self-sufficiency as a red flag and seek trauma therapy and relational skills.
>> There’s nothing wrong with a focus on finding oneself, but when we aren’t lost, the problem isn’t a lack of independence; it’s a lack of otherness.
F*ck demonstrating more self-sufficiency. We can benefit from learning the skills of communication, conflict management, assertiveness, authenticity, and togetherness.
We need to practice interdependence, seek intimate social connection, look for attunement with another, practice giving and getting space, learn to trust attachment, speak vulnerably in the presence of another, exercise compassion toward ourselves and others, practice assertive communication, and learn relational safety.
I realized that I had been sold a self-sufficiency mirage one afternoon when my son was sick and needed to be picked up.
I called my partner, who announced to me that it was not only not going to be impossible to pick him up that afternoon. This was deemed to be exclusively my job because “the other guys at the office don’t have to.” Just like everything else.
The storm cloud in my stomach turned to lightning.
And my self-sufficient ass dumped him on the spot.