A few months into my marriage I wrote my wife a letter of complaint. This wasn’t what I had signed up for. Nothing I had been able to express in person seemed to be getting through, and I thought it a letter at least worth a shot. This way I could shape the message before the conversation became emotionally charged.
As far as I was concerned, a whole necessary dimension of our marriage was missing, and creating space for it didn’t seem to even be a priority. I had struggled with unidentified sexual addiction throughout my teens and twenties and here it was I’d made what I felt to be a significant sacrifice: choosing a celibate relationship for several years leading up to the marriage. I had chosen to be with someone with whom I genuinely enjoyed spending time, and who held an innate sense of confidence and self-respect. The intimacy, I was sure, would follow easily once the secure parameters of marriage were in place. A few months in, though, I wasn’t getting the attention I felt entitled to, nor did things look to be changing for the foreseeable future.
As others have written, for those with this issue, insufficient intimacy feels like being suffocated. I had unconsciously evaluated relationships in the past by how well they met this one need for affection, validation, and intimacy. This could range from simple gestures throughout a given day to greater intimacy, but the partner’s task was a constant: “please create a space as often as possible to make me feel emotionally validated.”
As Eckhart Tolle puts it, I was a “needy little me whose needs weren’t getting met.” Of course, our emotional states are usually rooted in unconscious processes. Part of the contemplative path for me has been observing that dynamic and bringing the underlying unconscious processes to light.
One idea that has had a powerful effect on how I view both myself and others is Trappist monk Thomas Keating’s concept of the three instinctual needs. As he puts it, we tend to struggle with one of three main needs determined in large part by our experiences in early childhood: safety and security, affection and esteem, or power and control.
Most of us struggle with all of these needs to some extent in our lives, and the need can vary in different contexts, but by and large each of us will have a dominant type (you can even take a short quiz to identify your own likely instinctual need type, if this doesn’t resonate off the bat). This default need is largely unconscious, but becomes an organizing principle of our projects for happiness. Instead of lasting happiness, though, we develop addictions, compulsions, and destructive behavior patterns.
Having this framework in place has allowed me to have some understanding of the dynamics in play in my own life. I realized just how much of my energy was spent organizing life around the need for affection and esteem, from relationship history to choices in friends, to career decisions. Even our ideological positions relate back to these unconscious ego projects. Over time, though, cultivating self-awareness in this area allows me to identify my own thought patterns, triggers, sources of anxiety, and my unhealthy response patterns to that anxiety. Keating suggests we undertake that self-observation with the grace we would extend an addict. This is fitting, since we’re precisely addicted to our own habitual ways of thinking.
Adopting this framework has been a huge help not only of letting go of some of my own attachments and anxieties, but also in perceiving the struggle in others. In an unconscious state we tend to categorize others according to our instinctual need: some are allies who help us get it, some are enemies who present some obstacle, and most people don’t matter to our ego project at all, and hardly register.
Assuming others are negotiating their own set of instinctual needs and desires with varying degrees of conscious awareness allows us to see through behavior. We see people unconsciously speaking out of their fear, their fixations, their ego projects. Sometimes they weave an ideology out of it and reject those who represent a threat to their ego projects. And we all do it to one extent or another. Only our ego centers are different.
The more we see this process at work in ourselves from a detached perspective, the natural result is greater humility. Then we are naturally more able to extend this grace to others, as we grow in understanding of this universal struggle. In our own lives the result can be immensely freeing. In this state, we’re free to act in the world regardless of how others respond.
As Anthony De Mello puts it, we’re no longer monkeys trained by other people to be happy when they say nice things and hurt when they don’t. We’re free of the opinions of others, and not out of anger and resistance, but acceptance. Dropping the neediness allows greater access to innate joy. The biblical metaphor for this state, this joy and peace born of awareness, is the Kingdom of God. Not a place we go when we die if we’re good, but a state of being we can manifest in the here and now.
In hindsight, the felix culpa or happy fault of my own struggle has led me to a greater awareness and graciousness with others. My general happiness and inner state does not need to depend on the attention from my wife or anyone else. And then I’m free to interact without need and agenda.
Rooted in this state of being changes how we see, increasing our capacity to embrace those who, like ourselves, are still in process of moving toward wholeness.