The Danger of Self-Protection in Relationships
The defenses we use in love can also work against us.
Disclaimer: Please note that the content in this piece refers only to non-abusive relationships.
If you’ve ever fallen for someone, I’m guessing you’ve probably confronted a basic, human dilemma in emotional intimacy — self-exposure versus self-protection.
If we walk the road of self-exposure, we allow ourselves to be vulnerable. We stop simply liking or caring about another person, and we start deeply loving them. Our mind paints pictures with them in our future. As we open up and reveal inner feelings, motivations, and life experiences, we let them see further into us and our own particular brand of quirkiness. We share celebratory news, as well as the saddening losses and disappointments we’re enduring. We ask for what we need, voice our preferences, and acknowledge what we don’t want. We trust our partner to be faithful (if we’re in a monogamous relationship), truthful, and kind, and to have our best interests at heart.
Self-exposure opens the door to profound love, connection, and fulfillment. Yet, as sublime as an emotionally close and affectionate bond is, that doesn’t mean the journey is a comfy stroll. Let’s be honest: Sometimes it can feel risky and scary. The same vulnerability and openness that lays the groundwork for rewarding intimacy also gives your partner the power to emotionally slash you. The more you love your partner, the more disheartened you’d feel to lose them. Betrayal, abandonment, and rejection have a far more potent sting at the hands of someone you’re crazy about than someone who’s just so-so. Vulnerability even heightens the odds that you’ll get hurt. As you spend more time with your partner, and as you share more of yourself, how you feel, and what you want, you widen the window of opportunity to see your partner in their, shall we say, unpolished moments. Partners stumble and can be less understanding, thoughtful, considerate, attentive, affectionate, or patient at times.
In the face of all this, it can be understandably tempting for people to want to take the road of self-protection and put up a sort of emotional buffer to defend against being wounded as deeply. But without taking risks, they can’t get as close and love as wholeheartedly.
Ultimately, the choice between these two paths is a delicate tightrope walk as people adjust how much they move toward vulnerability or self-protection, depending on what they believe is happening in the relationship. If they sense that their partner is a reliable, understanding, loving presence who will stand by them, they’re apt to take healthy chances as they reach for connection. But if they worry their partner will spurn them, they’re more liable to don their emotional armor to defend themselves, and this armor can take various forms, such as:
Imagine walking somewhere alone at night and hearing a strange noise behind you. You’d probably turn around and be more watchful for at least a little while. This is basically the relationship equivalent of that scenario. If someone fears their partner may leave, lose affection for them, or stray, they may look for evidence that it’s happening. Like a peculiar noise in the darkness, people try to spot danger where they fear it exists, so they can protect themselves.
Picture one person physically backing away from another. Just as physical space can feel remarkably safe, the same is true of emotional space. And people create it in multiple ways. They can choose to open up less, invest less energy in trying to please their partner, disregard their partner, or stop turning to their partner for comfort and encouragement and start relying more on other loved ones and friends.
A person using this emotional safeguard is essentially taking their partner down a few notches. Perhaps they shine a mental spotlight on their partner’s mistakes. And what about those sweet and lovable idiosyncrasies, such as wanting the same snack every day, singing golden oldies in the shower, or a penchant for absent-mindedness? Now they’re just annoying. Or their tongue could leap out of its cage as they freely nag their partner or put them down. And what would be the point of this sort of shield? Let’s say you had two bicycles, and an evil genie (I promise we’re going somewhere with this) told you that you had to let go of one. One of them was rickety and busted, and the other was stable, in superb condition. Which one would you give up? I’m guessing you’d ditch the damaged one, right? And it’s no different in the realm of romance. If someone suspects their partner is drifting away, it’s less agonizing to say goodbye to a partner you have been viewing as below par than one who seems out-of-this-world wonderful.
And what if those worries and fears go beyond belief and reflect what’s actually happening in the relationship? Depending on the circumstances, it can be a very prudent move to take it slow and think twice about leaving one’s heart exposed. But suppose that someone fearfully believes their partner is about to hit the eject button or doesn’t care for them anymore, and it’s not true?
Here’s where self-protection can get a little thorny, because it paradoxically winds up creating what the person who’s protecting themselves doesn’t want — less intimacy and security.
For instance, let’s say we look for examples of how our partner doesn’t care about us. Because it’s human nature to see what we’re looking for, honest missteps can be transformed into signs that our partner doesn’t care. A forgotten text to say she’ll be at work late? He came home and didn’t feel like talking or cuddling? Our minds can turn it into evidence of what we fear.
Or imagine we emotionally shut down and pull back, or we make sharp comments that pick at our partner, so we can feel less vulnerable in the face of distress and uncertainty. Then we still close the door to intimacy. It’s like trying to walk toward something by walking away from it. It doesn’t work. In moving away from our partner, we unwittingly increase the odds that they’ll harbor fear and uncertainty in the relationship, leaving them with the same dilemma of whether to move closer or self-protect. And if they shield themselves, even more distance arises. Sadly, many couples find themselves in this situation and yearn to find a way back to each other.
So what can be done? How can you resist the understandable urge to put up your shield when uncertainty, anxiety, and insecurity arise? In other words, how can you help prevent self-protection from sabotaging you?
Here are a few ideas:
People who don’t feel good about themselves have less faith in their partner’s love than people with higher self-regard. They’re also more inclined to mentally take their partner down a peg to feel less vulnerable.
This will help your partner to see you in a more favorable light, which can bolster their ability to move closer. It also fosters your partner’s trust that if they can come to you, they’ll find support rather than criticism. Not only that, your partner will be more capable of handling moments of vulnerability or pain in the relationship in a productive and positive way, rather than withdrawing or lashing out.
3. Pay it forward.
Remember the times when your partner was there for you. When people recall fond memories of their partner being responsive to them and their needs, they’re more likely to feel happier with their partner later.
4. Sit in the driver’s seat.
Perhaps it’s the prospect of a second sprinkled donut, luring you like a sugary siren. Maybe it’s a beloved TV show crying out to you as you’re diligently trying to get work done. Or it might be a voice in your head that says, “You know you’re tired! Just stop and go lay down already!” as you strive to finish that 10K. We all have temptations that can carry us adrift. But if we can resist them (most of the time, anyway), we’re doing more than we may realize. When your partner sees you reining in momentary whims and urges and governing your own behavior, they’ll be less inclined to retreat behind a protective shield when you make an inconsiderate or hurtful misstep. So when you apologize, remain straightforward yet polite in conflict, or you faithfully follow your aspirations rather than give in to distractions that pull you away from them, it’s an investment in your bond. You’re cultivating your partner’s trust that they can take healthy risks with you and stay close, even in those moments when it feels dicey for them to do so.
5. Take a practical approach.
Let go of the idea that acting out will protect you or give you what you want. If you’ve ever found yourself reacting to your fears or to the mindless blunders of your partner in harsh, insensitive, or thoughtless ways, you’ve got plenty of company. This is a common and understandable attempt to ease distress by trying to either: a) create more distance from your partner so you don’t feel so emotionally exposed, or b) get your partner to see how much you’re hurting and come to your side. Unfortunately, this strategy backfires, because it pulls you further from what virtually all humans hope for — a loving, secure, harmonious, and enjoyable relationship with the one you love.