As my wife Ariel and I boarded a small airplane in Ft. Lauderdale bound for Eleuthera in the Bahamas, I noticed the other passengers who would be flying with us. Some seemed to be Bahamians returning from shopping trips, while others were retirees. There was a family with two small children and I enjoyed watching their young boy animate his Spiderman action figure, jumping it from his sister’s shoulder, flying it from seat to seat. I also noticed a man in his mid–30s talking loudly to his wife. Dressed in casual attire, they were obviously going on vacation. Since there was only one seat on each side of the aisle, Ariel and I sat across from each other and this couple sat in front of us.
The plane prepared for take–off and I watched Ariel gaze out her window, fascinated by the view from her little portal into the world. As I turned to look out of my window, I saw that the man who had been so loud was now fidgeting in his seat while his wife did a crossword puzzle. As we sat on the tarmac before take–off, I heard him say, “Joan, this flight is going to be just like our honeymoon. Look at this plane—it’s so small.”
Immediately that got her attention. She anxiously said, “Do you really think so, Ted?”
“Oh yes, the ride will be exactly the same—just as rough, maybe even rougher.”
She put down her pencil and grabbed his hand. I could only imagine what the airplane ride was like after they got married but this one was actually smooth and calm all the way to the island. Later, as we waited to clear customs, we chatted with them and learned that they were Joan and Ted Johnson from Seattle and that they planned to scuba dive during their vacation. Diving, he said, was a passion of his but we got the impression that he was more comfortable with the sport than she was.
A few days later, we were sitting in a restaurant at twilight. As we were watching the sun slide into the Caribbean, the Johnsons came into the restaurant and they stopped by our table to chat. Ted regaled us with tales of swimming and coming across 6–foot–long barracudas (fish with notably large teeth) and how one of them “postured aggressively.” Expansively, he told us of the dangers and how he had threaded his way through the treacherous waters. It was very interesting to watch Joan in the background during his account. All the while she seemed to grow smaller and shrink into herself.
As they left our table, I suddenly remembered Laddy, a little black mutt I had when I was 14. When my neighbor, Willie White, gave me the dog, I immediately had fantasies that Laddy would be like Rin Tin Tin or Lassie, that he would be my faithful companion, following me, loving me—only me. The problem was that Laddy had an inquisitive nose, an adventurous spirit and he liked people, lots of people. Laddy wasn’t just my dog, he was anybody’s dog. He would happily lick anyone’s face, not only mine. This bothered me in my boyish insecurity until I discovered a trick: Close to home, my dog was secure in his environment and gregarious, but when I took him to new places where he felt less secure, he would stay close by my side and look to me for comfort. When Laddy was attentive only to me, I felt needed, important and loved. But when his attention wandered I felt deflated, smaller somehow.
It was clear to me that Ted undermined Joan’s sense of herself. He wanted all of her attention fixed on him and routinely played on her insecurities as a device to achieve this end.
That evening in the Bahamas, as the last red glow disappeared on the horizon, I looked at Ariel and felt happy to enjoy true love. Our relationship is not built on her loving me…only me. She loves and lives with a sense of wonder and expansiveness and I feel grateful that she chooses to share the adventure of her life with me.
Undermining her sense of well–being so that she “needs” me is a child’s game. Love is not something that is fostered by playing on your partner’s insecurities or pulling on him or her for attention. That type of “love” is about as real and mature as an adult playing with a Spiderman action figure and believing that it actually flies.