This is part of the set of problems I’ve found in connecting reliably to another person. In this article, I am looking at the situation mostly from the point of view of the clinging or more needy partner – the one who get’s left behind! I wrote this about 9 years ago as I was figuring out the problem of, and the solution to, Reliable Membership. For those interested in the development of my thinking, this early vision may be amusing. I will add this image to the primary paper I wrote on the topic.
The Two Oxygen Problem
written in 1998
I have learned that human beings are designed to live in a reliable community: a community in which their needs are met predictably and gently, and in which they can feel productive. In early childhood, before the age of three, the need to experience this reliable resource availability is absolute. But for most of us in the United States, this is not our experience. Our parenting resources, our caretakers, who are unsupported by their community, come up short. And we carry the scars.
At one extreme, our caretakers are warm to us but highly unreliable. Thus our troubles relate to surviving in a world of unreliable nurturing. Predictably the response of any organism to unreliability is to exert effort to get its needs met. Childhood this takes the form of frantic crying or other behavior drawing attention to the children. Parents typically called this type of child behavior "clinging" or “pursuing” as the child doesn’t seem to be able to be alone or to be left alone.
At the other extreme our caretakers are often highly reliable, but not very nice to be around. They may be depressives, tired, not desiring of children, or any other attitude that comes across to a child as painful. Thus the troubles for this child relate to surviving in a world that tends to be unpleasant or overwhelming. The predictable response of such a child is to withdraw, to get away either physically or internally. Parents typically called this type of child "avoiding" or “isolating” as the child doesn’t seem to need people or even want them around. Some parents are glad for this non-demanding, defensive attitude and call this child a “good child.” Little do they know!
Now while I am going to talk about these two different problems, I want to make sure you understand that these represent a continuum with extremes in each either end. All people wounded in childhood by deficit caretaking will tend to express both "clinging" and "avoiding" behaviors. It is the extremes of these behaviors that become the two problems that I want speak about.
Let's look at the Clinger / Pursuer. In adulthood this person is characterized by frequent panics brought on by thoughts of being abandoned. This is the typical behavior of the stalker who becomes obsessed with their partners leaving them. Clingers act to prevent their partners from going away, even for short time.
The Two Oxygen Problem
A Clinger displays what I call the Two-Oxygen Problem. To understand this problem, imagine that you are skin diving. You have your oxygen tank, and it is full. You're swimming near the bottom, approximately a hundred feet from the surface. The water is warm, the day is sunny, and there are no sharks around. (I discovered that a shark can really ruin my day.) You are with your partner, whom you love very much. Your partner has the same type of equipment on, and everything is really going all right. After a while you begin to feel frisky, and you decide to kiss your partner for a bit. So you do, and you both enjoy that. But those mouthpieces keep getting in the way. So you decide to do something called "buddy breathing." That means that you both breathe from your partner's mouthpiece, taking turns. You even take your oxygen tank off, and leave it on the sandy bottom. It’s easy. Boy, is this fun! And all goes well – for a while.
Then your partner begins to fear that they don't have enough oxygen. Perhaps they can’t see the oxygen meter that still reads full. Perhaps they have a coughing spell. Whatever, they try to make sure they are ok by preventing you from breathing from their mouthpiece. That means you get no oxygen. You look around, and you see your oxygen tank on the sandy bottom about a hundred feet away. And so you panic, and start grabbing for your receding partner’s mouthpiece. Your partner sees you grabbing for their mouthpiece when “they are out of oxygen,” so they think. Now they panic, and you panic. And you both drown.
This describes the Two-Oxygen Problem. One person is panic in trying to grab onto the other, and the second person is panicky trying to get away. In adult life this one person panicking because they think their partner has all the “oxygen” and if that partner leaves the first person will die. “Clingers” and “Pursuers,” probably over 30% of the population in this country display this panic.
I am a “Clinger / Pursuer” and have had to learn how to deal with this. Now the solution is quite simple to speak about, but often quite hard to successfully accomplish. All you have to do is keep your oxygen tank on. When your partner starts to back up let them have his or her own mouthpiece, and breathe from yours. One of the consequences of being raised by warm but unreliable parents is that we often have learned to be warm and reliable to ourselves. And in relationships we often expect to get our warmth from the other person at all times. This will never work.
Note that the Two-Oxygen Problem never occurs when you are living alone. It only happens when a critical part of your brain thinks that the only source of nurturing is that in your partner's hands. "They've got it all." So the lesson to learn is to carry your oxygen tank with you always. Breathe from your partner's tank as long as they're willing to you do that, but be prepared. The minute they ask for their space, breathe from your oxygen tank, nurture yourself, and give them all the space they need immediately. If you give them the space they need quickly, they won't panic and need a great deal of space.
The way I visualize it is that I have a great switch. I visualize two inputs to the switch: love, comfort, caring, all the things that make relationship wonderful come from my partner connected to switch position A. All the stuff I like to give myself, all the things I do for myself when I'm traveling alone for example, those things come from switch position B. All I have to be good at, in order to avoid the Two Oxygen Problem, is to switch from A to B when my partner backs away. For it is my panicky behavior that panic's my partner, and I have to keep myself calm.
For “Avoiders” or “Isolators” this situation looks a little different. Their childhood leaves them with a sense that “other people are going to take too much from me.” It is easy for their mind to generate the picture of a voracious partner drinking their blood – oops, oxygen. They need to get away to feel safe, often. And they need to build the skills of withdrawing in a way that doesn’t panic their partner. How about, “I’m feeling overwhelmed right now. I’m going to have to take a break from you in about 10 minutes. I need my space. I am going for a drive. I will be back in 2 hours or I’ll call you by then if I need more time.”