© 2017 by Megan Hunter, MBA
Have you ever had difficulty catching your breath? If so, you know the feelings of panic it creates. The longer you're without air, panic gives way to hysteria. Scuba divers know the importance of oxygen supply. Without it, you don't survive. Divers usually dive in pairs in case their air supply is compromised. Every diver has a second air hose and regulator to loan to a scuba partner to prevent disaster. In those moments of oxygen shortage, a diver is going to feel some panic and possibly hysteria, mostly depending on experience. They need to attach to their partner's spare air hose to get the oxygen flowing through the blood stream again. Only then does panic and hysteria subside. They feel better, they relax.
This is the best analogy I can come up with to describe relationships for people who have Borderline Personality Disorder, Complex PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), anxiety disorder, and other issues that result in relationship anxiety. Not all, but some.
They don't feel quite right when they're alone. It feels difficult to breathe on their own or to even access their own oxygen supply, so they seek out someone from whom they can borrow oxygen. They don't feel okay until they have their air hose connected to a good oxygen supply. Their other needs and wants take a second seat to the obsession to connect to someone's air hose and start taking in partner oxygen.
It may be someone they already have in their life, like a parent, other family member, a friend or a current romantic partner. Or they may seek someone entirely new. Either way, most are unsuspecting about the oxygen they've begun sharing and unaware that eventually their own oxygen tank will run low until it is entirely depleted and they find it hard to breathe.
If the air hose attaches, all is well and life is good. The oxygen supplier is praised as the best! Unfortunately, humans aren't created to provide endless oxygen for two people, so the oxygen supply dwindles down and now two people find it hard to breathe and the relationship starts to quake…until the air hose is attached again. Sometimes it reattaches to the same person or it may attach to a new person, an old flame, a parent or a friend. The point is, that air hose needs to attach somewhere. It isn't optional.
We see this as people navigate through relationships. The oxygen requirements become too demanding for the oxygen supplier until they need a break or until they cut off the relationship altogether. Once they do the oxygen demander suddenly is in short supply again and will work hard to reattach. Sometimes they can, but often they are denied. So they must attach to someone to alleviate the panic and hysteria.
If you're that someone they attach to, it's okay to lend your oxygen temporarily but if you are a giver or fixer by nature, your oxygen supply will eventually run low. Instead, give a compassionate ear (empathy, attention, respect) and when the time is right, guide them toward counseling, particularly Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) developed by Dr. Marsha Linehan. Why DBT? Other therapeutic services are helpful, at least in the short term, because these are people who are in pain and need a safe, empathic place to land; however - and this is a big however - the biggest disconnect I've observed is the mistaken belief that all therapists have the knowledge, training and skills to address this oxygen supply and demand imbalance. Just as medical practitioners have different specialties, so do psychological practitioners. Seek a specialist who has training and experience with DBT in order to get long-term success.
Over time, the oxygen supply and demand imbalance will start to even out until they can begin to access their own oxygen supply.
This is a simplistic explanation, I realize, and much, much more is involved. This is just an easy way to begin to identify and understand the thoughts and feelings of those who have Borderline Personality Disorder and other disorders that cause relationship anxiety.
Megan Hunter, MBA, is an international speaker and author on the topic of high-conflict disputes and complicated relationships. She is the co-founder and CEO of the High Conflict Institute with Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq., and founder of Unhooked Media where she serves as publisher at Unhooked Books and HCI Press. Read more about Megan at UnhookedMedia.com and HighConflictInstitute.com.