It is most revealing to observe how so-called rational people behave in long-term intimate close relationships. In some embarrassing ways, most grown ups literally act like babies when they are in the throes of relationship conflicts. Let me explain: There are three basic beliefs that influence our behaviour as adults that have their origin in very early childhood.
The first of these beliefs is that “If I cause you enough distress you will give me what I want!” This belief influences most people in adult relationships. There is hardly a reader who does not try to get what they want or need by creating some form of distress for the potential giver. In marriages this includes such behaviours as nagging, whinging, complaining, persistent requests, sulking, etc.
The idea is that if I make my partner upset enough he or she will give in to me and provide what I need. This belief is of course the essential survival strategy of the newborn infant. The cry of a small baby is uniquely designed to get the attention of the mother and to distress her so much that he or she is impelled to take action. When you think of this from the perspective of evolution and survival you will appreciate that a baby that does not do this will get ignored. So if a baby has a wet nappy, is hungry, or is in pain he/she creates minor distress by crying that results in the mother coming and rectifying the problem. Adults, in trying to get their needs met, very often do the same thing. People operate on the belief that “If I annoy and pester my partner enough then he/she will eventually give me what I want!” It’s crazy when you think of it this way, but it is nonetheless a strategy of choice for many.
Because people have this internal program that impels them to ‘act like babies’, most people find it hard not to. So grown men whinge, complain, and sulk. Grown women nag, wear-down, and flood their partners.
There is a second common belief that has its origins in infancy which you probably also do. This belief is that “You should know exactly what I need without my having to explain it to you.” In infancy every child has to operate on this assumption. Small babies cannot explain to their mothers exactly what is wrong with them; the mother or caretaker has to figure out what the need is and then to rectify it. Whether its hunger, soiling, tiredness, or discomfort – it is up to the mother to figure it out.
We also do this in adulthood. Most people still carry that belief that they should not have to explain things to their partner and grow resentful if they have to. Most people carry this childlike expectation that, in an intimate relationship, they should be able to relax back and have their needs understood and catered for. In fact the rage and resentment that erupts when a spouse discovers that their partner does not have a clue what they need, is indeed most intense. How often have we heard the refrain that “if I have to explain to you what it is that I want then there is no point in even asking in the first place!”? Unfortunately love cannot always be like that, but our infantile beliefs have us almost convinced that it should.
The third belief that we hold is that “If I am not getting my needs met then the reason for this is that my partner is withholding it!” This belief operates on the assumption that the reason that your husband or partner does not love you properly is because he is stubbornly withholding what you want and need. This belief automatically results in angry attempts to coerce the person into handing over that which they withhold. I have seen couples caught in this pursuit for 20 years. The alternative conclusion, that he/she does not have it in the first place, is a scarier one and often not considered by the frantic mate. Again, it has parallels in infancy because the little baby has no option but to operate on the belief that the mother or carer has what they need. Hence the little innocent will cry for hours waiting for the mother to come and rescue them. However, it does not work in adulthood. In fact, in adult relationships the carer tends to withdraw further in the face of such demands.
The message for today is to remember how childlike we all are and though we like to portray ourselves as being imminently reasonable, in the confines of our close relationships we reveal an innocence that is all too humbling.
Dr. Colm O'Connor is a Cork Psychologist. You can find more articles by Dr. O'Connor in the Evening Echo every Wednesday.