Longing and Vulnerability


We can experience longing for something we had and lost, or we can long for something

we never had in the first place. A person may already have a partner but long for

something more, or maybe different, that he or she believes will bring fulfillment.

Frequently people neglect to attend to their deeper needs in their choice of a partner,

meeting other needs instead, such as security or shared values. As a result, some may

eventually hunger for a relationship that has passion or vibrancy.


However, even people who are in a passionate and vibrant relationship can experience

longing when there is a failure to achieve satisfying levels of intimacy, particularly when

there is a loss of emotional safety in the relationship, including feelings or shame,

distress, or the perception of disapproval or distrust in a partner. [1] When shame is

activated in such situations, it is not felt as the emotion of shame as you know it. Instead,

it is felt as disengagement and is experienced as a letdown, a disappointment, or as a

frustration. [2]


In any case, longing creates vulnerability. Longing and the vulnerability one feels in its

wake can be more painful than the grief one might experience in relinquishing a

goal—simply giving up. People who are without the love they need are sometimes

compelled to bury their longing in any of the typical ways that can serve to disavow what

they feel: an indulgence in alcohol or substances; pursuing sexual relationships that are

otherwise meaningless; an overconsumption or over-restriction of food; or various other

diversionary activities. Longing is painful, but the vulnerability that may exist beneath

such yearning is dreadful.


Longing may compel us to idealize someone we desire and create in our imagination an

object of perfection who later, when exposed to reality, leaves us sorely disappointed. It

has long been considered that the emotional lives of children who have suffered a lack of

parental love are vulnerable to a form of emotional hunger, and such hunger becomes

enacted in an idealized partner. [3] In such situations, a partner or potential partner is

perceived as having the essential qualities that can fulfill you, but instead you continually

experience the frustration of your needs. Some psychological theorists have speculated

that traumatic disappointment in early childhood creates a later dependency on others in

what seems to be an intense form of “object hunger.”[4] Such needs are generally based

on the feelings, attitudes, fantasies, adaptations, and defenses that are repetitions of

reactions originating with significant persons in one’s past. Thus, a childhood attachment

that was lost or unrequited can reappear in the present as a potential love object who is

sexualized and idealized. Emotions of shame, anger, or distress that are activated in the

current relationship will be reminiscent of the old experience of abandonment and result

in longing. When a partner is painfully disappointing, emotional memories may be

triggered that represent a loss of love experienced in childhood.


One’s own longing must be separated from the needs of a partner. Although love can

hurt, it can heal when partners trust each other and themselves enough to take a look at

what lies beneath conflict that leads to the experience of longing and vulnerability.



For information about my books, see my website: marylamia.com



[1] Catherall, D. (2012). Emotional Safety: Viewing Couples through the Lens of Affect.  New York: Routledge.

[2] Catherall, D. (2012), cited above.

[3] Levy, D. (1937) Primary Affect Hunger. American Journal of Psychiatry. 94:643- 652.

[4] Kohut, H. (1968). The psychoanalytic treatment of narcissistic personality disorders.

Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 23, 86-113.

About Mary Lamia Ph.D.

Mary Lamia As clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst I work with adults, adolescents, and preteens in my Kentfield, California private practice. I am also a professor at the Wright Institute in Berkeley, California. Teaching the public about the psychology of human behavior has been something I've done for over 35 years. For nearly a decade I hosted a weekly call-in talk show, KidTalk with Dr. Mary, on Radio Disney stations, and have provided opinions in many media interviews and discussions. My books include: Emotions! Making Sense of Your Feelings; Understanding Myself: A Kid's Guide to Intense Emotions and Strong Feelings; and The White Knight Syndrome: Rescuing Yourself From Your Need to Rescue Others. Forthcoming books include Procrastinator Or Not: Making the Most of the Motivation That Drives You and The Upside of Shame. For more information, please visit my website, www.marylamia.com.