After years of working on myself I realized I have, at the base, a fear or lack of attention from who matters to me. It seems silly and not as important as other traumas sound, such as “abandonment issues” etc. How do I deal with this fear of not receiving enough attention which in my eyes means love? It might come from childhood but I don’t have specific memories, though I always had a feeling I had to compete for mom’s attention. As an adult I stop myself when I need my partner’s attention as I tend to want to control it when it doesn’t come my way and I don’t like it. Any tips on how to deal with this? It is insanely frustrating to not be able to fill my own need. I can’t fill this need with God as He’s by definition not giving me attention that I can feel. What should I do?
First, there’s nothing silly about being terrified of rejection, which is what you’re talking about here. It’s great that you’ve already been able to make a connection between this current struggle and your chronic frustration with feeling like Mom was snubbing you, because that is very likely the root cause of what you’re dealing with. Receiving sufficient affirmation from both a male and female guardian during childhood is one of those vital core needs that every human has. It’s also a grim reality that many of us feel shorted in this area, which results in us carrying into adulthood an acute sense of emotional starvation and a high expectation that the people we become attached to the most will push us away.
You identified yourself as female in your message to me, so I’m going to assume you’re dealing with a male partner. The communication advice I’m going to give will help both straight and gay couples who are dealing with this problem, but there are some additional things to be aware of when dealing with a straight relationship which I’ll also address.
First, let’s look at the way you are assuming the worst about your partner. Notice how you said:
As an adult I stop myself when I need my partner’s attention as I tend to want to control it when it doesn’t come my way and I don’t like it.
So when your partner doesn’t automatically give you attention in the form you prefer, you react by trying to hide your desire for it. This classic defense pattern is your mind’s way of trying to accomplish two goals:
- Reduce your partner’s power to hurt you by hiding your needs from them.
- Suppress your own pain in hopes that it will go away.
You say it is “insanely frustrating” not to be able to fill this need for yourself. Frustration is a form of anger, and anger is a mask for fear and pain. The real issue here is it is “insanely scary” not to be able to provide this need for yourself, because it forces you to depend on others for help. Depending on others gives them power over you, and suddenly you feel like it’s you and mom all over again: her holding all of the power, and you being the helpless kid who just gets to sit there and starve.
So how do you untangle this mess? Well, first you need to recognize that your mind is currently seeing your partner as a symbol of Mom. For someone with your background, the formation of a new, romantic attraction will instantly trigger memories of your original struggles with Mom. Why is this when Mom wasn’t a sexual partner? Because in the adult world, romantic relationships with our peers are the most intense relationships that we have. Back when we were kids, our relationships with our parents were our most intense relationships. Your mind is matching intensity here, not sexual elements. It’s saying “The strong need I feel for this new peer romantic partner reminds me of the strong need I felt for Mom. What have I learned so far about how intense relationships work out? They result in me feeling shafted. Uh-oh! Given my experience with other intense relationships, I’d better be on my guard and expect this one to end badly as well!”
Your mind’s current defense strategies are based on current expectations. Its expectations are based on its past experiences. The good news is that as your mind gains new experiences, it will alter its expectations, which will change its defense strategies. In other words, as you collect new positive experiences of feeling affirmed by a romantic partner, your mind will shift its expectations about how intense relationships will likely work out. Instead of assuming that any new intense relationship is doomed to fail, your mind will eventually decide that both failure and success are possible, and this will help you to stop shutting down so fast.
Now while it’s fantastic that your mind has the ability to change its current beliefs, this is a process which takes time and requires new data that is different than your Mom experiences. To collect that new, positive data, you’ve got to give your partner a chance to succeed with you. The shutting down you’re doing would have felt like a necessary defense against Mom, who was perpetually hurting you. But if you keep shutting down on your partner, you will kill any chance of success in your relationships.
When you launch a new romantic relationship in adulthood, you’re usually dealing with a stranger who has no history with you and a very different personality and communication style. What this means is that your partner has none of the resources he needs to even attempt to accurately read your mind. What’s obvious to you is not at all obvious to your partner. Like you, he is viewing you through a grid of his own life experience: experience which was probably quite different than your own, and is thus causing him to focus on different things than you’re focusing on.
Responding to a problem with silence is guaranteed to make that problem worse. Here’s a good principle to understand: when you’re upset, it’s very likely that your partner has no idea that anything is wrong. People who use the kind of suppression defense that you’re describing often underestimate how convincing their “I’m fine” acts come across to their partners. They then inwardly blame their partners for not “sensing” something is wrong beneath their “happy mask.” This is especially true of women, because females communicate through many subtle clues which they have the God-given ability to pick up from each other. Men do not have this kind of radar, which is why men often completely miss the “hints” we ladies drop to clue them in that we want to be pursued or comforted or focused on. When dealing with a man, you must force yourself to verbally describe things that you are used to subtly communicating to other women. For example, a slight sharpening of your tone of voice is a clear way to communicate to another woman that you’re mad about something. She will then pick up on that change of your tone and ask what’s wrong. Her verbal prodding makes you feel cared about and noticed. You might respond with a complete lie, such as “I’m fine,” but you’ll state that lie with a tone of voice that women universally understand to mean “I’m not really fine, so please keep asking me.” Your friend will then say something like, “You’re obviously upset. Tell me what’s wrong.” Feeling once more comforted that your friend really does care about you, you might then proceed to finally tell her what the problem is, although you’ll likely have her keep prodding you for details as you go along. This is the classic style of female communication: it is filled with vague hints, subtle body cues, and misleading statements that are all designed to test the interest level of the other woman. Women constantly reaffirm their value of each other by frequently monitoring each other’s emotional states and by doggedly prodding for details anytime they sense that someone seems out of sorts. It’s a very complex communication dance that is designed to provide frequent opportunities to affirm each other. But this dance does not work with males.
To most men, the complex dance I just described comes across as a confounding mystery which makes no logical sense and results in women getting snappy at men “for no reason.” The natural communication style that women use with each other is very much like a foreign language which men are simply not taught and have great difficulty learning. Just as an English speaker is not anatomically equipped to make some of the sounds used in other languages, many men do not feel they have the resources they need to become fluent in the female communication style. Here you have two options. You can either see your man’s natural inability to speak your language as an intentional desire to hurt you, or you can see it for what it really is: a natural difference between the genders which is quite possible to work around.
Men need clear, specific direction from their women. In general, many men really want to please their women, and will be quite willing to make an effort to do what she wants if she is asking for something that he can reasonably do. If you generously reward a man’s efforts to please you, he will quickly become more willing to do so. Like all humans, men find positive feedback very encouraging. They want to succeed, but they need us to put success within their grasp. Especially in the early days, this means giving very clear, simple descriptions of what we want. This is something you cannot do until you sort out in your own head what you want.
Now though your partner right now strikes you as a symbol of Mom, he is not Mom, which means he cannot do anything to change your personal dynamic with your mother (which I assume is still negative). All your partner can do is become a new, positive source of affirmation in your life which can help you heal from the damage Mom (and others) have done. Now at this point, you’re going to have a long list of specific behaviors and phrases which remind you of painful encounters you had with your Mom. When your partner does any of these things, those painful memories will get triggered, and you will then fly to the defensive and project a bunch of negative motivations onto your partner that he doesn’t have. The challenge here is to give your partner the best chance to succeed with you. That starts with recognizing that he is an entirely separate person from your Mom. Second, you need to realize that many of the ways you react to him are reactions that you’re carrying over from other relationships in your life–and that is neither fair or productive. Obviously your partner will find it confusing when you suddenly shut down for what he honestly sees as “no logical reason.” Your partner isn’t seeing his behavior through your eyes and he isn’t constantly comparing himself to your Mom memories. Your partner attaches very different meanings to his words and actions than you do, and this means that your partner might be sending you “I love you” messages which you are entirely missing because they aren’t coming in the form you are looking for. This problem occurs in every human relationship, because we all attach different meanings to the same words and actions. The way to work around this is to talk and to start educating each other on how you each see the world. But while it’s helpful for your partner when you say “I find it annoying when you do X” it is just as important that you have a reasonable solution identified. To just say, “I hate it when you do X” might leave your partner feeling like you’re trying to outlaw something that is a natural, innocent behavior to him. None of us like feeling controlled and constricted in our relationships, so it’s always more productive to present every problem with a solution. For example: “It bothers me when you do X. Can you do Y instead?” When presenting these kinds of alternatives, it’s best when X and Y are closely related behaviors. For example, “I don’t like it when you touch my stomach, but I like your hands on my side.” Or “I don’t like it when you call me ‘honey’, but I like it when you call me ‘sweetheart.'” Requests that require minor adjustments from your partner will be more likely to be fulfilled, so coming up with solutions that are closely linked to the problem behavior is very helpful.
Now often in situations like yours, you have a strong sense of being unsatisfied with the style of affirmation you’re receiving, but you haven’t clearly described to yourself or your partner what you would like instead. To help yourself move towards more functional behavior, start by typing or writing out a description of the specific behaviors/words your partner could use to communicate the kind of affirmation you’re looking for. Once you have your descriptions spelled out, read them over and ask yourself “Are these reasonable requests?” Then close your eyes and visualize your partner doing those things and pay attention to what your emotional response is. Sometimes what sounds good on paper doesn’t actually work in real life, so the visual exercise can help you identify requests that aren’t going to be as good in practice as you assume.
Once you have identified some reasonable, specific things for your partner to do, think about how you can reward those behaviors in the moment. Affirmation needs to flow both ways in intimate relationships for things to stay healthy. So how well do you know your partner? What specific behaviors/words does he find most affirming? Often when we are caught up in our own troubles, we don’t bother to really think about our partner’s needs and sensitivities. Instead, we just give them what we would like to receive, not caring that our preferences are undoubtedly very different than theirs.
It’s very important for you to identify specific ways that you can affirm your partner as rewards for any efforts he makes in trying to affirm you in the ways that you’ve requested. In intimate relationships, humans always find positive reinforcement to be much more motivating than punishments. Reward your man’s efforts to please you and pay attention to what things seem particularly hard for him to do. Often we want our partners to act in ways that feel very unnatural to them, so they keep forgetting to make the effort–not because they don’t care, but because it simply doesn’t flow for them. In these cases, adjusting your request will be more helpful than nagging at him for doing it wrong.
In real life, there are many ways that you can feel affirmed–far more than you realize right now. When we are upset, we tend to tunnel focus on a very short list of things we want, while discounting many other possibilities that could also bring us joy. When feeling a need for more attention, thinking “outside the box” is important. By now, you’ve no doubt noticed some things about your partner that would suggest he is better equipped at giving you certain forms of affirmation. Try to start off by requesting things that seem to fall close to his strengths instead of asking for things that will probably require him to really stretch himself.
Now all of this isn’t to say that you can’t ever ask for big changes. Often big changes are needed for relationships to move forward. For example, in my house, we have a rule of “no devices during meal times.” When my husband and I first got married, it was a natural thing for us to automatically check our phones when we received messages. But I soon felt bothered by the fact that we weren’t having focused conversations during meals, so I requested that we make a “house rule” that we don’t have any devices at the table. My husband agreed to try it and decided that he really liked having the focused time together. But meals are fast in my house; it’s not like we sit there for hours, so I wasn’t asking for a huge sacrifice when banning devices from the table. If I’d said “I don’t ever want you checking your phone in my presence,” that would have been unreasonable. Requests need to be realistic.
Now my husband is a major multitasker and he often has multiple threads of thought going on at the same time. This is just how his mind works, but it can be problematic for focused conversations. If I really need him to focus, I say “I really need you to focus because I’m going to say something important.” When he hears this clear verbal cue, he stops everything and gives me his full attention. To reward this behavior, I intentionally make my point very quickly to minimize how long he has to hold a position that I know can be difficult at times. Because I have used this reward system from the beginning, he has learned not to be threatened by me asking for his full attention. I’ve demonstrated that I can be trusted not to yammer on and on while he’s struggling to keep his focus off of whatever he was engrossed in. He’s also copied my example and will sometimes use a similar cue system when he wants my full attention. Partners learn from each other and, given the chance, both will make valuable contributions to the relationship. While it was my idea to have no devices at the table, my husband has added his own “house rules” which have been beneficial to us both.
Especially when dealing with men, it’s always best to start with your bottom line when making a speech. While women prefer to use a long, verbal build up to their final conclusion, men want to know the punchline first. Are they in trouble with you? Are you mad at them? Should they be bracing for bad news? Sometimes your partner will do something that brings up a bad memory, and therefore makes you upset. So you’ll want to vent. In such a situation, your partner will be a lot more empathetic if you can start by saying, “I just need to vent something here. I’m not mad at you, I’m just having a painful memory surface.” By starting with this bottom line, your man will realize that he isn’t about to be attacked or criticized, so he doesn’t have to be on the defensive. No one likes being attacked, but the long, slow build up that women naturally do when making a point often feels like an oncoming attack to men, so they naturally take a hostile stance. You can save yourself a lot of arguments by stating in the beginning where your speech is heading.
Affirmation is huge for women, and we tend to assume that it’s a top priority for men as well. But men are wired to be protective problem solvers, not nurturers, and this causes them to misinterpret many of our requests for attention and validation. Clearly stating what you’re looking for from your man will greatly improve your chances of getting it. Sometimes it’s a simple matter of saying “I really need to hear that you find me attractive right now.” Or “I really need a hug.” Again, most men want to please, and they thrive on clear, specific instructions. It’s our vague hinting that frustrates them to no end, but if you can start making clear, specific, doable requests of your partner, you’ll probably be pleasantly surprised at how he responds.
So then, you’re feeling frustrated by your partner not giving you attention in the forms that you crave. Right now your response is to shut down on him, which guarantees that you will continue to go without. A far better approach is to start making specific requests for the kind of affirmation you want. First, sit down and make a list of the specific forms of attention that you crave. Then think about how reasonable and doable those things would be for your partner to do. Start by choosing just a few of your top desires and think about how you could make opportunities for your partner to communicate those things briefly. Asking your man to cuddle you for hours on a couch is unreasonable, especially if your man is naturally high energy and has a hard time sitting still. But with some creative thinking, there is always a way to get something. Even a squirmy guy can give you two minutes of cuddling–especially if there’s a timer set that assures him two minutes won’t turn into two hours. By starting out with small, doable requests, and then rewarding any efforts to please, you’ll start getting a lot more of what you crave.
Yes, it feels very upsetting and unfair that we can’t just satisfy ourselves in all areas. But if you think about this, it’s actually a very good thing that we are forced to depend on other people to meet some of our needs. This dependency forces us to face our own issues and work on our dysfunctional behaviors so that other humans will be willing to deal with us. In the midst of trying to become better relationship partners, we become better humans: more mature and better able to both give and receive love. If we were totally self-sufficient, we would just stagnate in our issues and develop increasingly negative coping methods. It is our needs that push us to move forward, so try to see your current struggles as an invitation to continue down a path that will greatly benefit you in the longterm.
For in-depth help with relationships, see my book What’s Wrong With My Relationships?
For more about male-female communication, see Male-Female Communication: Male Compartmentalization & The Female Need for Words.
This post was written in response to a request.
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