P: 415-520-5567 | E: info@psychedinsanfrancisco.com

From Drones to Phones: Security vs Freedom in Romantic Relationships

I was recently listening to a collaboration broadcast of two of my favorite public radio programs, Radiolab and Note to Self (formerly New Tech City). The episode was called “Eye in the Sky,” and it asks the question: Should police use drone surveillance to solve and prevent crimes? The hosts, experts, and listeners had a range of reactions, from “If my kid was kidnapped I would absolutely want any technology available to help,” to “There’s no problem if I’ve got nothing to hide,” to “This is a violation of our privacy!” to “Uh…I don’t know…”.

Our need for personal freedom can often clash with our need for security, leaving us to negotiate some difficult compromises. These questions have probably been around since the beginning of government, but lately it’s been all over the news in the US, from the Patriot Act, to NSA surveillance programs, to drones, and to the “war on terror” as our technological capabilities have been increasing faster than philosophy and legislation can keep up with.

In both our civic life and our personal lives, we want to trust and feel trusted, to feel protected, to feel free, and to feel supported. Depending on our personal backgrounds and cultural subgroups, this experience varies greatly. Our feelings towards our government are not so different from our relationships with our parents when we’re growing up, our friendships, and most importantly for this article, our romantic partnerships.

When it comes to your relationships, you probably don’t need a Cosmo quiz to tell you which one you’re more drawn to: Freedom or security. We all land somewhere on the spectrum of need in this arena. I don’t want my boyfriend’s email password, nor do I look through his text messages (I promise!), but I do need a certain amount of reassurance – I like it when he shares what he’s got on his mind and to know I’m included in his plans (not all plans, but enough of them). It’s how I manage my anxiety that at any minute I could be abandoned. On the other hand, he needs to know that if he wants to do this or that he doesn’t have to consult me or ask permission, that he can have a world of his own, that some things are just his – not because he has something to hide, but because this is a fundamental value of his. Knowing he has these freedoms helps calm his anxiety that at any minute I could completely engulf him.

A combination of our early attachments with our caregivers, family culture, temperament and the socio-political culture around us does a lot to shape our values/needs around freedom and security. Also, what’s happening currently in our lives can have an impact too – if I’m experiencing a lot of chaos or uncertainty (job loss, illness, eviction, starting a business), I might feel drawn toward clamping down and tightening things up so I can feel safer (just as our politicians signed the Patriot Act in reaction to 9/11). On the other hand, if my life feels too routine, rule driven, or restrictive in some other way, I might find myself seeking more freedom or rebelling.

If you love someone, set them free?

Yes, totally. Breathing down someone’s neck (unless it’s a sex thing) is not a great base to work from. It can communicate that you don’t respect or trust the person enough to let them decide for themselves how to be in relationship with you. I’ve often found in my own relationship that when I relax and trust, my partner can’t get enough of me! My anxious part doesn’t believe it, but over time I’m soothed by the knowledge that this is really true.

On the other hand, relationships can be a place of great healing and safety. You’re not totally screwed up for feeling insecure sometimes and needing reassurance, or wanting to set certain parameters. For instance, people in successful “open relationships” don’t usually have a free-for-all. They often create rules, expectations, commitments and compromises that are very specific to how that couple chooses to operate. The rules are just different than the rules of monogamy (which in and of itself doesn’t mean the same thing to every couple).

When I work with couples I’ll occasionally run into the dilemma of one person getting suspicious, snooping, and finding something incriminating on the other person’s phone. This discovery then reinforces their sense of righteousness in snooping and simultaneously reinforces the other person’s feeling of suffocation in the relationship. It feels crappy to not be trusted. It feels crappy to not trust. Maybe the person cheating or hiding stuff is just a dirty liar. But more likely there is a dynamic at play. This dynamic probably has something to do with each person’s individual relational wounds and something to do with how the two come together. It reminds me of when our government makes a decision that’s a bit far to one side of the political spectrum, the people who lean towards the other side might slide even further and get a lot louder. We tend to polarize and clamp down on our position when we feel threatened.

One of the keys to meeting each other in the middle is building empathy for the other person’s experience. Empathy is about understanding where the other person is coming from, which is not the same as disregarding one’s own needs. My anxiety about being abandoned isn’t my partner’s fault, but before we built up understanding around it, it often seemed like I was blaming him for it. Now he more often understands that this feeling inside of me goes way back, and while he’s not entirely responsible, he can help soothe me just by being empathic. Similarly, I am less anxious knowing that his need for freedom and time to himself is not about him not loving me enough. I now understand more about his inner experience of not wanting to lose himself to another, of needing some time alone to realign with himself and know where he stands. Now I can bite my tongue a bit and do some work to soothe my own anxiety when he needs to pull away and do his own thing. And the surprising thing is, that when I’m not spending all my time freaking out about being left, I actually enjoy being alone or with my own friends as well! Conversely, when he stops worrying that I’m going to engulf him with endless needs and expectations, he finds himself wanting to spend more time with me and more willing to compromise. We’re not so polarized after all.

Guess where we learned to do all of this? Where we over time found ways to soothe both our own and each other’s past wounds? Couples therapy. Yeah, it’s pretty awesome. Whether it’s my own relationship, the individuals and couples I see in my practice, or friends who’ve also gone to couples therapy, there’s something so powerful about having a skilled and loving presence in the room to help us navigate these cycles that we’re sometimes so deep in we can’t see the forest for the trees. As a couples therapist, it’s not uncommon for me to see the Freedom versus Security dichotomy show up in the room. When you think about it, that’s the crux of many issues couples face. From finances to sex to time together or apart, we are constantly navigating this. And though you may find yourself leaning towards one extreme or the other when you’re feeling your security or your freedom at threat, the fact is that we all need both.

When it comes to police drone surveillance, I’m in the “uh…I don’t know…” camp. But it makes me wonder if our country’s leaders could do with some training in couples counseling. Underneath all our beautiful and not so beautiful differences, we all want the same thing: To trust, to be trusted, to be safe, to know we won’t be abandoned in times of need, and to be free.

Lily Sloane

Lily Sloane

Lily Sloane is a licensed psychotherapist in San Francisco. She sees her work as a dynamic interplay of science, art, and relationship, aimed at opening up wholeness and a sense of choice for her clients. She specializes in working with sensitive, creative young adults struggling with eating disorders, substance use/misuse, perfectionism, and relationships. (LMFT #84885)

More Posts - Website