It is an old, old story, the dance that couples do. Where one wants intimacy, the other seeks distance. Where one gets emotional, the other becomes cognitive. Where one feels needful, the other is self-sufficient. Where one’s self-boundaries are loose, the others are tight. Where one initiates emotional encounters, the other does not. Where one feels an urgent need to talk, the other feels apprehension. Where one is overwhelmed with vulnerability, the other barely touches vulnerability.
The majority of couples live within some variation of this yin/yang pattern. Typically, one in a relationship is expressive of emotions, needful of high levels of emotional contact, and overtly upset and disappointed in how the relating usually goes. Often such a person is paired with someone who is emotionally contained, does not initiate relational contact, does not want “to rock the boat,” and is avoidant of conflict. For complex reasons, persons with these opposite styles tend to be attracted to each other; they also tend to marry. Such a marriage can feel like a gift from heaven, especially at the beginning; all too often, however, as the courtship phase wanes and “real life” emerges, these relationships come to present very large challenges that often overwhelm both partners’ abilities to stay lovingly connected. This is the marriage-of-opposites.
Intuitively, one senses a missing balance within both partners in the marriage-of-opposites. Each seem to have too much of something and not enough of something else; they appear lopsided, biased in opposite directions. Each could do with more of what the other has.
The Psychological Divide Inherent In Human Nature
There is a split inherent in the human psyche. This split is rooted in the two central dimensions of human self-experience: attachment and mastery. It is the destiny of all human beings, in fact all mammals, to both powerfully attach within the confines of the human nest, and just as inevitably, develop separating mastery-capability leading to emergence into the larger world. This creates within each of us a realm of younger experience clustered around the world of “nested attachment,” and a realm of older experience clustered around “out-in-the-world mastery/capability.” We have here two superordinate organizations of experience, two very different centers of self, inner and outer, self-in-the-nest and self-out-in-the-world.
Ideally in human development, the “core” and “outer” self coordinate and synergize, growth in one arena supporting growth in the other. In early childhood, for example, the toddler’s emergent exploration of the outer world proceeds most firmly when it builds upon an earlier infancy characterized by reliable care taking and mutual attunement between parent and child. In turn, the establishment of secure separating capability in the toddler enables the child to take on more mature forms of participation within the “home base.” This leads to the emergence of more mature relationships for the child within the family, which in turn supports the child’s acquisition of more demanding role responsibilities in the outer world, and so on.
It is clear that the two realms of self have vitally important potential to richly interact and support the best in the other. In fact, in latter discussion I make the point that the creation of such rich interaction between the inner and outer realms of self is exactly what is needed for troubled marriages to heal; that is, individuals must come into a relationship with their underdeveloped dimension if they are to become a truly available and realistic partner to their spouse.
The bigger truth, however, is that it is general in the human condition that the “core and outer self”, are not well integrated, that one or the other “orientations towards the world” gains ascendance and the other is pushed away and denied. The timetable of this “failure to integrate” varies greatly from individual to individual. For some it is early and profound, for others it is later in childhood with fewer far-reaching effects, resulting in less lopsidedness and more sense of wholeness. For the great majority of us a significant degree of biased self begins to emerge somewhere in childhood. Why? Why are there not more individuals with emotional lives in the middle, psychologies with more sense of balance? We will consider this question repeatedly in the pages to follow.
The Problem of Vulnerability
Both styles are attempts to banish the experience of vulnerability; to make vulnerability go away. The core-biased banish vulnerability by the tenacious belief that there is or always should be a someone else to rescue them, a someone else to rely on, a someone else to hold them, a someone else to make them feel safe. The outer-biased banish vulnerability by distancing the awareness that young need or helpless dependency resides within them; instead, they are so aligned with mastery over the events in the outside world that they stay largely “out of touch” with how puny and vulnerable they really in the larger scheme of things. A defensive delusionality concerning reality is inherent in both styles. Needless to say, participants in each perspective are seldom aware of their respective delusionalities. Instead, they proceed time and time again to make the world over in their own image, despite numerous evidences to the contrary. They are caught within a profound pattern of non-learning and a web of repetition. This circle of repetition plays itself out with devastating results in the marriage-of-opposites.
Lacking full access to the survival resources of the outer-self, the core-styled are susceptible to the press of dependent need and the inevitable experience of disappointment, resulting in oversensitive activation of vulnerable feeling. Too often there is no one to effectively respond to their needful feeling; this is the repeated experience of vulnerability that so pains the inner-styled, to be helplessly caught with need and no one to meet the need. Not able to give up the need, nor quite able to convincingly take care of it themselves, the inner-styled commonly alternate between rejecting “important others” for not effectively responding to their need, and rejecting themselves for having need that causes disruption/conflict/schism in their relations with others.
From the perspective of those who are outer-styled, a way out of their dilemma is for the core-styled to rely more on their underdeveloped outer-self; that is, to seek more integration between their “inside need” and their potential capabilities for self-sufficiency. This involves relinquishing investment in the expectation that others are sensitive to their needs, and accepting non-responsiveness or mal-attunement (“the cold cruel world”), as an aspect of life with significant others. For most core-styled this is tantamount to living life in Purgatory. Typically, the core-styled experience prospects of such a life as bereft of warmth, empty, and unrelentingly disappointing, as too painful to accept, as too close to dying itself.
For the outer-styled, to reach back to inside needing-of-others is to become vulnerable to the anxieties of childhood; terrible rejection, hurt, humiliation and embarrassment. The outer-styled powerfully fear exposure to such helpless out-of-control states, and they have few positive representations of solace or support coming from reaching-out to others to respond to them. Unconsciously, they represent vulnerable reaching-out as a “lose-lose.” Applying a kind of psychological “cost-benefit analysis,” giving-in to vulnerable needing makes no sense to the outer-styled, when they always have their default option of looking good, performing well, or otherwise succeeding according to valued outside standards. Furthermore, the outer-styled have the inner fantasy that their out-in-the-world success will “earn them the love” that they secretly desire, without having to expose to the world their vulnerable need. This strategy, in fact, never works, at least not in a deep way. It’s an apples and oranges problem; the benefits from success in the outer world are intrinsically different from the early experience of being unconditionally loved; neither can substitute for the other.
In essence, each style attempts to reduce awareness of vulnerability by having nothing to do with the side of self that the other style happens to be crucially aligned with. This suggests basic antipathy as an aspect of the marriage-of-opposites. It is this underlying antipathy that fuels long term alienation in the marriage-of-opposites, and the sense of never truly resolving differences or truly establishing marital alliance. Deep inside, each partner in such a marriage holds onto the belief that they can never fully embrace loving their partner just as they are, and that their partner must somehow become more like them if love is to ever flourish. This is the power struggle that overtly or covertly dominates much of life in the marriage-of-opposites. This is also the underbelly of fear and unsafety that unconsciously lives within individuals in such marriages. It is this underlying antipathy that must be addressed in order for the marriage-of-opposites to heal.
Two Clusters of Traits, Two Configurations
In thinking about how each of the styles comprises the crucial stuff of being human, but in different ways, I am reminded of a poem by Shel Silberstein, from Where the Sidewalk Ends (1974):
THE PLANET OF MARS
On the planet of Mars
They have clothes just like ours,
And they have the same shoes and same laces,
And they have the same charms and same graces,
And they have the same heads and same faces…..
But not in the
Very same Places.
The table below is a listing of the elements that tend to be associated with the core-biased versus outer-biased styles. The discussion that follows attempts to organize this listing of traits into coherent contrasting configurations that illustrates how the elements fit together.
CORE-SELF BIASED OUTER-SELF BIASED
Activation based…vs… Control/Inhibition based
Attachment focused…vs… Survival focus
Permeable boundaries…vs… Rigid boundaries
Self from inside to out…vs… Self from outside to in
World on one’s own terms…vs… Self on the world’s terms
Feeling based…vs… Image based
Subjectified Self…vs… Objectified Self
Self close to biology…vs… Self close to role expectations
Based in limbic system…vs… Based in cerebral cortex
Fear abandonment…vs… Fear shame
Discharge of anger evokes abandonment fear…vs…Anger inhibited w/ covert judging and blaming
Both styles are, at their core, ways of handling “the press of human need.” Each is a form of organization that epitomizes one of two possible ways of responding to, managing and acting-on the experience of “need.” Starting from these two different basic responses to “need” much of the structure of each style is understandable.
The Outer-Self Adaptation
It is the abandonment of living from core need that is most defining of the outer-style. Those with this adaptation live with varying degrees of cut-off-ness from elemental longings for direct contact, succor and support. Alignment with external images of “not-needful self-sufficiency” assist in warding off young need, and provide an alternative model for how to be in the world. The outer-styled live with a dual inner arrangement. They both push away core-self and align with outer-self in the same breath. The pushing away of core-self feeds directly into the over-reliance on outer-self and the alignment with outer-self attitudes supports the continued cut-off-ness from core-self.
This cut-off-ness from young need often leads to a bias towards self-sufficiency. This self-sufficiency may appear mature but in fact is often corrupted by underlying premature/immature strivings; the apparent maturity of the outer-styled is often, in fact, pseudo-mature.
Because of the cut-off from core need, the self-sufficiency of the outer-styled is internally under-supported and can suffer from diminished vitalization from core self.
Compromised connection to core-self also leads the outer-styled to rely more and more on external validation as the primary motivator of behavior.
Also note that the combination of remove from core-self combined with the narrowed focus upon emotional currencies of the external self often results in inner feelings of emotional emptiness and relational disconnection.
Avoiding self-contact with “the void within” leads the person to evermore reliance on defensive self-sufficiency, and the displaced attempt to solve the inner emptiness through external accomplishments. External accomplishments can never resolve the inner empty feeling, but they do serve to distract the defensively-adapted from the inner empty state.
The cut-off from core-self also tends to compromise the outer-styled in their abilities to self-activate in the areas of emotional spontaneity, elemental human contact, and emotional intimacy. For this reason they are often drawn to pair up with someone who is organized around nested-self and to rely on them to create emotional activation in both of their lives.
As noted earlier, these relationships almost always contain large amounts of ambivalence in both partners; that which stimulates in the beginning readily spills over into “that which threatens.”
As stated above, the outer-styled tend to internally corrupted by prematurity and immaturity; that is, they are often live with emotional youngness underneath their impressive presence in the world. What this means is that progressive capabilities to adapt in the outer world have been pressed into service as defense against core-self strivings, rather than as an expression/realization of core-self strivings. For many this lends a certain flat, artificial or actor-like coloring to their personalities, though this coloring can often be very subtle.
Typically, the outer-styled are very defended against the experience of raw negative feelings. Negative feelings nevertheless continue to be present but in warded-off forms as underlying attitudes that are expressed indirectly. Commonly, negative feelings find indirect expression in underlying judgmental attitudes. When negative feelings are expressed overtly they tend to be justified externally rather than as “identified-with” inner states.
Shame tends to be central to the organization of the outer-styled, both in the original formation of the outer-styled and in its maintenance over time. While abandonment may be an issue for the outer-styled, as it is for the core-styled, abandonment tends to be effectively warded-off by successful outside performance; that is, not being abandoned is tied to ones sense of outside worth. Therefore, shameful outside presentation presents both the specter of being of no value, of having nothing of value, and that of being abandonable and not-wantable. In the faces of such shame the outer-styled are prone to experience annihilation, as if their life is now devoid of any redemption.
A lifetime of living with the focus on outer-self as the primary source for emotional nutriment further enlarges the power of potential shame to dominate personality. Ones whole identity becomes wrapped up into “being this or that” in the world. The prospect of outside exposure in a shameful light can be terrifying, akin to death itself. Note the contrast with the earlier statement concerning the core styled; for the core-styled, a life without emotional rapport and attunement is akin to death.
The Core-Self Style
It is the sense of “compelling inner need” expressed in “reaching-out” to others coupled with compromised self-sufficiency that most defines the essence of the core-self adaptation. Those with this type of adaptation are biased towards concrete reaching-out to others as a modus operandi for meeting needs, as a response to threat, and as a general mode of making contact with the world around them.
The predominant focus upon “need for the other” tends to result in underdevelopment of capacities for self-soothing, self-sufficiency and autonomy. The core-self styled tend to be highly valuing of sharing/nurturing/togetherness and prejudiced against independence and self-mastery, viewing them as unfeeling and emotionally cold.
Years and years of living from the looking-for/reliance-upon “the other” tends to result in self-fulfilling expectations where-in potential competencies are not developed, leaving the core-styled necessarily dependent upon others in various out-in-the-world situations. Note that this parallels how the outer-styled often rely upon the core-styled in various emotional/interpersonal situations.
Further note that we are here talking about inner organization or inner propensity, not actual behavior in the outside world. This is important to keep in mind because many of the core-styled develop effective outer layers and defenses to protect them from their inner vulnerability. Likewise, many outside-styled individuals acquire very impressive interpersonal skills that effectively conceal their inner cut-off-ness and fear of core contact. We here focus upon the inner structure of each adaptive type because it is in long-term and intimate relationships such as marriage where the inner structures come to the fore with high determining impact.
The focused reliance upon “the other” contributes to a chronic hypervigilence concerning “the other’s” emotional/interpersonal availability, making a full relaxation into the relationship difficult for both partners. The core-styled are often consciously and unconsciously scanning their partner for how emotionally present and tuned-in they are. This near-constant scanning tends to introduce variable levels of tension into primary relationships.
At points of tension the scanning process can evolve into attempts by the core-styled to nudge/evoke/provoke their more distanced partner to give them more of what they need (or think they need) in the way of core contact, rapport or support. Most commonly, the outer-styled partner feels attacked and “closes down” into various forms of distancing and withdrawal; in essence, becomes even less available. For the core-styled, already in a heightened state of need, this “compounds threat upon threat.” Intense escalation generally ensues with lots of fight/flight activation. In the conflict that follows the core-styled either desperately attempt to evoke some reassuring response from their “closing-down partner” or else seek to use the fight to create massive distance from their partner so as to almost “kill them off” psychologically so as to not need someone who can so painfully disappoint. Note, once again, the contrast between the two types. When the core-styled distance they generally do so massively and episodically, a marked contrast with the outer-styled who habitually distance to some degree much of the time, but in much smaller amounts.
The core-styled’s searching focus upon “the other” is part of an overall process that results in blurred or highly permeable self-boundaries (note that these highly permeable boundaries are very different from the often intruded upon boundaries of the outer-styled) They are often exquisitely sensitive to the emotional states of others, and in fact are vulnerable to confusing others’ emotions with their own. In this same vein, they often live with a diffused sense of self that includes little sense of personal form or selfhood apart from their longing and searching for attunement and rapport with “the special other.” For many with core-self adaptation the subjective sense of self can be described as the “longed-for duo-self.” Note that the outer-styled can also seek a “subjective duo-self” but it is differently organized in that blurred boundaries are less at the center of it.
The life challenge of the core-styled is that the Western industrial/post-industrial world does not generally provide anywhere near the levels of attunement/rapport that most core-styled seek. Hence, most core-styled live in some degree of active upsettedness or angst over a sense of something vital missing in their lives. In essence, they actively suffer. They also actively seek solutions. Note that this is very different from the nagging emptiness present in the underbelly of the outer-styled, a painful inner experience that is generally kept at a distance.