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Does “You Do You” Really Work In Relationship?

Does “You Do You” Really Work In Relationship?

Recently a friend went out with a man, and on their date, my friend expressed some past experience with someone whose behavior made her feel unwanted.  Her date said, “He didn’t make you feel anything.  No one can make anyone feel anything.”

My friend was – understandably – baffled.  When she later gave me the run-down on the date, I assured her she’d dodged a bullet by rejecting his advances.  “But why…” she asked, “why on earth would anyone think that no one makes anyone feel anything?!?  Was this his way of admitting he’s never made a woman feel pleasure?!”

We laughed about this, but the roots of this conflict go deep.  Let’s take a step back and look at the origins of this view that “no one can make anyone feel anything.”

In the 1940’s and 50’s, a popular theory of physcoanalysis was Gestalt theory, pioneered by Fritz Perls.  The “Gestalt prayer” goes like this:

I do my thing and you do your thing.

I am not in this world to live up to your expectations,
and you are not in this world to live up to mine.
You are you, and I am I,
and if by chance we find each other, it’s beautiful.
If not, it can’t be helped.

— Fritz Perls, Gestalt Therapy Verbatim, 1969
Let’s transport ourselves back to the 1950’s, when strict conformity was the norm.  Bring to mind the 1950’s housewife – a docile, compliant domestic servant.  Someone expected to happily serve her husband not just food, but also sex, and bear him children, and keep the house spotless, and do it whilst wearing high heels and a ruffled dress and perfectly-applied lipstick.  With this in mind, you can see how a new theory, especially one which allows each of us to be responsible only to ourselves, became very popular.

When my friend asked the question, “Who would want to live in a world where no one can make anyone else feel anything?” the answer that comes to mind is:  Someone who was abused.  This theory that no one can make you feel anything is a powerful protective strategy, letting people create strong boundaries and “keep out” unwanted feelings.

However, is this theory sound?  Does the science support it?

Neuroscience and, specifically, the research behind attachment theory suggest that no, it’s not true that no one can make you feel anything.  We are creatures of connection.  We function best – and thrive – in healthy relationship with others.  And while it’s possible to survive in isolation (at least over a certain age), few people would ever try to claim that isolation is a healthy state to strive for.  As marriage and family therapist John Amodeo notes,

The research behind Attachment Theory offers compelling evidence for our interconnectedness. We thrive when we’re connected. We can argue the semantics of whether or not we can “make” each other feel anything. But the point is that we unavoidably affect each other with our words, our tone of voice, and our actions.

Our sensitive nervous system is intimately attuned to our environment. When danger lurks, we fight, flee, or freeze. When we feel safe, we relax and relish warm connections with our fellow mammals.

Attachment theory posits that our earliest interactions with our caregivers are what create our attachment patterns throughout our lifetimes.  If we have a caregiver who is generally attentive and caring, we are likely to have secure attachment patterns throughout our life.  Unfortunately, many children have unfortunate experiences with their early caregivers.  Caregivers may ignore their cries for help, may insist that a baby learn to “self-soothe” instead of being comforted by a person.  This can, indeed, force babies or toddlers to self-regulate, which is a helpful skill, but it’s not as soothing or effective as co-regulation.

Co-regulation is a powerful emotional skill involving two parties who help each other achieve even greater states of regulation than a person can have on their own.  We can assure each other that we are safe, cared for, loved, and ultimately this is more soothing than just convincing ourselves that we will survive.

Secure attachment and co-regulation both require empathy.  It requires you and your partner to feel your own feelings, express those feelings, and relate to each other’s feelings, showing love, comfort, and sympathy.

Perhaps most importantly, co-regulation requires that people be able to safely and comfortably express to their partner that they are not OK.  If a partner has a secure attachment style, they can hear that their partner is not OK and won’t respond with defensiveness, won’t jump to the conclusion that they’re being unfairly blamed.

Take, for instance, this excellent illustration offered by therapist Derek Hart in a recent Facebook post:

In a securely attached relationship:

“You let me down.”
“Oh I’m sorry. Tell me what happened”

In an insecurely attached relationship:

“You let me down.”
“That’s about you, not me.”

“You let me down.”
“Can you please talk about yourself and your own feelings.”

“You let me down.”
“Please use I statements.”

“You let me down.”
“My intention wasn’t to do that. You’ve let me down so many times I lost track.”

In a repaired relationship:

“You let me down.”
“That hurts, but tell me what’s going on.”
“Thank you for acknowledging me. And I’m sorry it hurts. It’s really scary to tell you that you did something to hurt me.”
“I know you’re brave for doing it, and I will listen.”
“I felt sad when you didn’t check in with me this weekend.”
“I’m sorry. Thank you for telling me and being gentle.”

When the man my friend went out with saw this example, he responded with agitation.  He thought the secure attachment example sounded “unhealthy” and got stuck on the phrase “You let me down.”  He insisted that no one should ever express themselves this way, that it was juvenile and attacking and blaming, and people just need to “own their own feelings” rather than “blame” their partner.

Can you imagine being in a romantic relationship with someone who thinks it’s never OK to say “You let me down”?  And can you imagine being so avoidant that the very mention of your partner’s negative feelings sends you straight into fight-or-flight mode?

Sadly, this is all too common.  If this is you, if you’ve been led to believe that it’s never safe to express your disappointment, or if someone expressing disappointment sends you into a fit, then please, seek loving support.  My book has a section on attachment styles and how to heal attachment wounds, and I am happy to do this kind of work privately with clients.

Bottom line:  Yes, it’s great to own your own feelings, to self-soothe when needed, but it’s equally (or more) important to feel safe enough to tell your loved one that you’re not OK and for them to support you through that.  And it’s important to be able to hear that your loved one is not OK and not feel attacked because they said that.  If we can balance our independence with our inter-dependence, we will live happier, more fulfilling lives.   In healthy relationships, we DO indeed make each other feel things!  Sometimes we may feel disappointment, but hopefully most of the time we make each other feel good.

This is my hope for all of you:  That you may develop safe, loving relationships in which you are able to be vulnerable enough with each other to feel all the things together.  (But mostly joy, bliss, and pleasure!)

Sending love to you and the universe!  You make me FEEL amazing!


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