A woman we have seen for years continually experiences a strong sense of disappointment and loss because her highly anxious mother was never really able to be attuned to her needs. She told us a couple of days ago that her son, who is about 7 years old, said that he felt deeply disappointed that she was not giving him what he needed emotionally.
Our conversation turned to the topic of the unrealistic, but universal, desire for perfectly attuned relationships and the resulting cycle of disappointment. The closest we get to receiving this level of attunement is right around birth if our parents are relatively present and healthy, when we are completely dependent on them. As we mature, and become more independent and increasingly able to stand on our own two feet, there is an increasing and healthy distancing between us and our main caregivers that contributes to maturation. However, we may continue to long for the sense of respite we felt as children whose basic needs were being met by our caregivers.
It was a difficult conversation because she had trouble with these two facts:
- It is not possible to be perfectly attuned. To be perfect attuned would require the parent to mind read and to completely giving up caring for their own needs.
- If it were even possible to always provide a perfect attuned response, the recipient would never learn how to deal with disappointment and live independently.
It is very important for parents and partners to be as empathic, loving and attuned as possible. However, the desire for a perfect relationship is an impossible one to fulfill, and to some extent, a dangerous one to hold on to. It feeds an ongoing cycle of disappointment. Once we are aware of this unrealistic desire, there are a number of things we can do to open the way to be able to receive far more satisfaction from our relationships:
- Practice self-compassion, this longing comes from a very tender age, and compassion for others.
- Connect with your needs and be willing to learn to express them in appropriate ways. It is ok to ask for support as long as you accept responsibility for your own needs and do what you can to fulfill your needs in healthy ways.
- Acknowledge, appreciate and give thanks for what you are receiving from others. Sometimes our idea of how things “should be” clouds or even impedes the ability to receive good things from our relationships.