Fear of Engulfment
by: Margaret Paul, Ph.D.
Roger, 33, is a successful engineer. Married with one child, Roger called me because his marriage was falling apart. His wife, Laura, had recently told him that the marriage was over unless they got some help. She told him she just couldn’t take it any more.
Roger and Laura were both on the phone for their first phone session with me. Laura described what the problem was for her.
“Roger is never present – not with me, not with our daughter. He just does his own thing and doesn’t consider what anyone else might need. If I get upset or irritated, he completely retreats and waits for me to fix it. He can retreat for days at a time and the energy around the house is awful. I try to take care of myself, but I just can’t be around his negativity.
“On top of that, if I ask him to do something, he either refused to do it, or says he will do it and then doesn’t, or ends up messing it up. I know he is competent because of the work he does, but he sure doesn’t act competent at home. The only time he is really interested in me is when I’ve completely pulled back. If I want anything from him, he retreats. I can’t live like this anymore!”
“Roger,” I said, “Do you know what Laura is talking about?”
“I know what she is talking about, but I don’t see it the way she does. I just feel like she always wants something from me. I end up feeling criticized and trapped a lot. I shut down to get away from feeling trapped.”
“Do you still feel this way, now that she wants out of the marriage?”
“It’s funny that you should ask that. No. As soon as she said she wanted out, all of my feelings for her came back. I can’t figure it out!”
“Roger, was one or both of your parents controlling with you?”
“Yes, my mother. She was incredibly controlling.”
“And did you learn various ways of resisting her?”
“Yes!” Roger laughs. He obviously gets pleasure out of being resistant.
Roger has a deep fear of engulfment. As soon as someone wants something from him, his terror of losing himself is activated and he automatically resists. He does not even stop to ask himself if he wants to do whatever it is the other person wants. He does not stop to think about what he wants or what is in his highest good. He just resists.
He resists because not being controlled is more important to him than anything. Not being controlled is more important to Roger than being loving to himself or to others. Not being controlled is his God.
While Laura can certainly be controlling at times – as we all can – she does not cause Roger’s resistance. His choice to resist rather than care about himself and others started as a small child, and has continued into adulthood. As long as not being controlled is more important to Roger than being loving, there is nothing Laura can do.
The real issue is that Roger has never developed an adult part of himself capable of thinking about what is best for him. He is operating from a small child aspect of himself who automatically resists in the face of Laura’s requests, just as he did with his mother. Until Roger is willing to do the inner work necessary to develop a loving adult self, he will continue to respond on automatic pilot, and Laura will continue to feel unloved by him.
The irony of the situation is that Roger is being controlled by his resistance. He is not deciding for himself what he wants and doesn’t want – he is just automatically resisting. He is not even conscious that he is choosing to resist.
Because Roger did not want to lose Laura, he was willing to do some inner work. The first step was to become aware of his resistance.
“Roger, I suggest that you consciously choose to resist rather than just doing it automatically. By choosing it, you will become aware of it. Are you willing to try this, or do you want to resist this too?”
Roger laughed. He could already feel his desire to resist doing what I asked him to do. But he did choose to try it.
Within a few months, Roger was very aware of choosing to resist. He was also aware that it was no longer much fun. It was not making him happy. Roger decided that it was more important for him to be loving than to resist being controlled. He was on the road to healing.