There is a developmental concept in child psychology called object permanence. It’s the understanding that objects in the world continue to exist even if we cannot see or hear or touch or smell them.
All healthy humans develop this understanding within the first two years of their lives.
This is the entire concept behind the game of peek-a-boo. It’s funny for toddlers because when you hide your face behind your hands, the child literally thinks you have disappeared.
You’ve ceased to exist.
We grow to realize that the world does not function that way.
Even if I cannot see the building across from my house, I know it’s there. I wouldn’t feel the need to constantly look outside my window, just to make sure it’s still standing.
Even if I cannot touch my mother’s hands at this exact moment, because she’s at work, I know she exists out there. I wouldn’t feel the need to call her every second, just to make sure she’s still physically around.
Even if a blanket covers up my SO on winter nights, so I’m unable to detect the exact edges of his chest, I know he exists. I wouldn’t feel the need to poke at his ribcage, just to make sure he’s still lying there.
We all grow to understand that even if we are unable to perceive the physical beings of our loved ones, or the objects that surround us in our daily lives, that does not mean that they have ceased to exist in the real world.
For some reason, we never learn to apply the same permanence concept to the way we perceive love and affection, or the way we approach emotion.
So we enter relationships as newborn toddlers, constantly feeling the need to ask for reassurance.
Do you still love me? Do you still care? Why have I not sensed it today? Why have you not said it today?
We believe that if only our loved ones would say the right thing, or do the right thing, we’d feel secure. If only they’d use those magic words, we’d be okay.
This gradually becomes: if only they were consistently available to hold us, if only they were consistently available to love us, and soothe us, and comfort us, and assure us, and then reassure us.
But then, even when we have that balanced partner or loved one, who is there for us, who is patient and kind and forthcoming and understanding and comforting, we still don’t feel secure. We still seek reassurance.
They say the words we want to hear, they sound like they mean it, they really do mean it, but sometimes, it is not enough to soothe what is actually ailing us. To comfort what is actually digging at our cores.
What we don’t realize is that the issue is with that little toddler within us, who never actually grasped the notion of emotional permanence. Who never learned to trust and take people at their word.
And of course this was the case, because unless you’ve been a deep sea creature or just extremely lucky (or maybe unlucky), you’ve experienced loss. You’ve flirted with fear. You’ve brawled with betrayal. You’ve realized that people lie, and cheat, and deceive, and lie some more.
So of course you wouldn’t bank on the notion of emotional permanence. Of course you’re not going to play peek-a-boo with love.
Except that you should. Except that you must.
There is no other way to go forward. You must learn to count on the fact that people are going to be there, and just because someone hasn’t said they love you today doesn’t mean they’ve stopped loving you since yesterday.
And the way to do this is—to reacquaint yourself with that little toddler.
Trace the thread of time back to when you first met loss, when you first learned to spell mistrust, when you first felt that breathless pang of heartbreak.
And sit there. Soak in those moments. Let their dust gather around your bones.
Understand what happened. Understand why you feel the way you feel. And learn, affirmatively and actively, to not view all other relationships with the same lens.
Remind that little toddler that you’re there, and you’re capable, and although it may sound counter intuitive, you’re making the choice to trust.
You’re making the choice to be vulnerable.
You’re making the choice to believe in permanence, of love, respect, devotion, and affection, despite the fact that you may not constantly be able to see or feel or hear or touch them.
I feel like I need to qualify this answer with one nuance:
This does not apply to all situations. Sometimes, you’re needy for reassurances because the love and meaning is genuinely not being provided and you seek them out rightfully.
You should not feel confused or doubtful in any relationship, romantic or otherwise.
Love, in all of its forms, should not be approached like literary analysis.
You should not be excavating text messages or conversations for respect and depth and meaning. These things should be freely given. If you have to guess how the other person feels or exhume respect, if you feel the need to constantly ask “where do we stand,” “what are we doing,” “where are we going,” this might be a sign of a much larger issue.