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This section was my workspace for philosophy essays between July 2006 and April 2008. I call this "Prehistoric Kilroy" because it gave me practice for more disciplined essays in Kilroy Cafe. Also see my philophical blog and Twitter feed.

Issue #25, 11/14/2006

A Conundrum of Affection

By Glenn Campbell
Family Court Philosopher

I once had a cat by the name of Underfoot. I called her that because she was always... under foot! Whenever you tried to walk anywhere in the house, she would dash to your feet and pace back and forth right in front of you. Should would try to rub against the front of your legs as you walked, which often tripped unsuspecting visitors.

She also got stepped on—a lot—but this did nothing to curb her behavior. She was Underfoot and always would be.

Underfoot was semi-feral when I took her in, the product of a dysfunctional household down the street that produced many litters of kittens but wouldn't care for them. She was emaciated when she started hanging out near my house. I left food for her outside and eventually used the food to lure her inside over the course of several days. She became domesticated in a manner of speaking, but it was never a very satisfying relationship for either of us.

Underfoot had a desperate need for affection—as all of us do—but also an inability to accept it, which is also a common human trait. Obstructing people when they were trying to go somewhere was her way of saying, "Pet me," or maybe even, "Don't leave me!" Whenever you did reach down to pet her, however, she couldn't really accept the sentiment. She would continue to strut frenetically back and forth and could never settle down to be stroked. You couldn't try to pet her for long, because it was too frustrating. Eventually, you would start walking again, and she would try to trip you up again.

Underfoot obviously wanted your attention, but when she had it, she seemed almost frantic about it. It was as if she feared rejection. "I need you so much that it makes me crazy." As much as she needed a loving relationship, she could never sustain one.

This might happen from time to time in humans. (You think?) They are desperate to start a relationship but then can't sustain it when it happens. The fear of rejection is so great and the emotional need is just so desperate that no real partner can ever be satisfying. The relationship usually fails because the expectations are beyond the realm of fulfillment.

I call this a conundrum: an emotionally-driven behavior that is ultimately self-defeating. You will see it in the humans around you as soon as you start looking for it. You may also see it in yourself.

Think of the insufferable bore who pins you into a corner at a social gathering. Their words say, "Pet me," but they can never let up with their words long enough for you to respond to them. They ask you questions but won't listen to your answers. Within a few minutes, the conversation has drained you, and you are looking for a way to extract yourself.

Romance, of course, is a paradise of conundrums. The human need for affection is so huge that it can easily create a panic that blocks relationships before they start or sabotages them later.

You want to approach someone who you are attracted to, but then you are terrified of doing so. What if you are rejected? What if they turn out not to be the perfect partner but only a mediocre one? If this person ends up needing you more than you need them, will you be trapped? Sometimes, wracked with self-consciousness, you may decide that the "real" you isn't acceptable, so you put on an act.

The need for love is often so overwhelming and unfulfillable that large quantities of alcohol may be required to initiate a relationship.

That's when a whole new set of conundrums kick in. The new partner may be hopelessly idolized and fawned over—a condition that is ultimately unsustainable and, in the meantime, may cause nausea in other parties who must observe it.

The trouble with turning your partner into a god or goddess is that you are reading super-human qualities into them that can't possibly be fulfilled. It may take months or years before the delusion collapses, and when it happens, you inevitably blame your partner. "He deceived me," you say. "He was lying to me all along."

There may, in fact, have been a deliberate deception involved, because romance is ripe for it. Your new husband may turn out not to be the decorated war hero and multimillionaire he claimed to be during your courtship, but YOU FELL FOR IT. The delusion was inside you, not him.

The conundrum, of course, was inside both of you. Your emotional drives were so desperate that each of you chose an unsustainable path. Even the con-man lady killer is a victim. He wants affection like everyone else, and the charade, he thinks, is the only way to get it.

When the romantic delusion begins to dissolve, even in a fairly normal relationship, it often does so catastrophically. The threat of rejection often leads to emotional panic and, paradoxically, active aggression. Aggression is almost always a smokescreen for some desperate internal fear. "It's not my fault; it's yours!" An obvious observation in divorce court is that the most aggressive and theatrical party is usually the most responsible for the failure of the relationship.

But the relationship was always an artificial construct to begin with. It was a mutually shared delusion. That's not to say that romantic relationships can't work or be sustainable, but they almost never last when the weight of the world hangs upon them.

It's a funny thing: When you are desperately in need of love, then you end up pushing it away or sabotaging it. When you are only moderately in need of love, confident in yourself and able to take it or leave it, then a relationship is more likely to succeed.


Reader Comments

“A good (superficial) assay on relationship and "needs". Some part of your writing seemed to address the classic borderline personality: "come here, go away". Not too shabby.” — 10/5/09 (rating=3)

Ratings so far: 3 2 3 3 3 4 3 (Average=3)

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