Relationship Rules with Dr. Rodman

What To Do When You’re The “Anxious Girlfriend”

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Anxious Girlfriend writes,

I moved in with my boyfriend recently and our relationship is not going too well.  I am 29 and he is 31, we have dated for two and a half years and lived together for two months.  Prior to moving in together, we discussed engagement but he wants to put it off another year or two till he is financially more stable.  Basically, I feel that he is not putting our relationship first.  If he takes off work, it’s to hang out with friends, not to spend it with me.  He isn’t much for housework or planning activities for us.  I have had trust issues due to my ex cheating on me, and I’ve caught my boyfriend in a couple of small lies, and have also checked his phone a couple of times (I didn’t find anything).  I don’t know if my anxiety is the issue or if he’s having trouble adjusting to living together.  Please help, I don’t want to ruin this relationship if the issue is me.

Dear AG,

This is a really common pattern, so rest assured you’re not the only one struggling in this sort of dynamic.  It sounds like you tend to be anxious in relationships in general, made worse by your ex cheating, and your boyfriend tends to be more avoidant and focused on things outside the relationship (e.g., friends and hobbies).  If you’re looking at this from an attachment perspective (and I do recommend you read that link), you’re preoccupied and he’s avoidant.  So, you become all consumed with the relationship, and he pushes closeness away.  Another psychological term for this pattern is you’re the pursuer and he’s the distancer.  Read even more about this pattern, and attachment panic,here.

Let’s explore how you were raised?  Were both parents there for you most of the time in a way you could count on? Or were there issues with one or both being sometimes unavailable but sometimes loving?  A pattern of parenting where a child learns that a caretaker cannot be counted on to always be loving and present (e.g., a mom who works all the time, a dad who is depressed, divorced parents, parents caring for another sibling or many children) often develops anxiety within relationships as an adult.  It is difficult to look at your upbringing objectively, so a therapist could be very helpful in seeing if any of these issues apply to you and working with you to be more confident and secure within relationships.

It sounds like he is fairly casual about the relationship, not Mr. Emotionally Expressive, and probably thinks you’re making a big deal out of nothing most of the time.  He loves you, so what’s your problem?

Of course, your boyfriend may have his own issues with closeness.  It sounds like he is fairly casual about the relationship, not Mr. Emotionally Expressive, and probably thinks you’re making a big deal out of nothing most of the time.  He loves you, so what’s your problem? It is likely that your boyfriend was raised in an environment where open and vulnerable expression of emotions was not encouraged (many men are raised this way).  His parents may have prioritized independence over relying on others.  Thus, he values work, friends, and hobbies, and finds it hard to empathize with why you’re so “needy.”

Here is a typical conversation between a pursuer and distancer.

Him: Hey, I’ll be home late, the guys are going to happy hour.

You (already anxious that he is going to put you last yet again): I thought we were going to hang out tonight!  Remember, you said that yesterday when we had the discussion.

Him (already annoyed and distancing further): What discussion?

You: What do you mean what discussion?  Where we were saying how if we’re living together we should be spending more time together.

Him: Um, that’s what you were saying.  I think we spend plenty of time together.  I don’t know why everything is always a problem with you.

You: Everything isn’t a problem!  I just want to hang out.  Why don’t you want to hang out?  You never ask me to hang out, but when your friends want to hang out, you’re there.

Him: We hang out all the time. I can’t believe this is another fight.

You (panicking): This isn’t a fight!  I’m just trying to tell you how I feel!

Him: Look, I gotta go.

You: That’s it?

Him: I’m at work, don’t you get that?  Bye.

You (sadly): Bye.

There are ways to avoid getting into these toxic, no win patterns.  Many time, a couples counselor can really help with this.  It would be a great idea to go now, before you’re married, instead of sweeping problems under the rug and assuming they will magically improve with the addition of marriage and kids (they don’t).

But for now, you can concentrate on trying to express yourself in a less confrontational manner, which makes it less likely that he will feel attacked and retreat.

But for now, you can concentrate on trying to express yourself in a less confrontational manner, which makes it less likely that he will feel attacked and retreat.  And you can also try to see things from his perspective.

So, a conversation could go more like this:

Him: Hey, I’ll be home late, the guys are going to happy hour.

You:  Aww, that makes me sad because I was hoping we could hang out. But I know you like spending time with your friends. Do you think there is another night this weekend that could work for us to spend time together?

Him: What the hell have you been drinking?

See, after he gets over the initial shock of your changed conversational style, things may improve for the better.  But let me resume to show you more what you could expect after therapy or at the very least reading some books, like Getting the Love You Want: A Guide for Couples, 20th Anniversary Edition andHold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love.

You: Hey, I wanted to talk to you about something.  I have been feeling kind of anxious about the relationship.  When you spend a lot of time with your friends rather than me, it brings up some of the feelings I had as a kid when my dad would pick to hang out with my sister rather than me.  I feel like you don’t think I am very interesting or fun.  I know you have never said that and I am trying to work on my self-esteem, but I thought maybe I could explain to you why I have been acting so upset when you want to go out after work.

Him: What are you talking about?  You know I love you.  I think you’re plenty fun.  I didn’t know that about your dad.  The thing is, I feel like between work and home, I don’t have any time to relax.  Happy hour with the guys is relaxing for me.

You: It would make me feel a lot better if I knew you were thinking about me sometimes even if you’re gone.  Do you think if I commit to only texting you once when you’re out, you could text me something back, even maybe something nice like you miss me?  Then I would feel a lot better.

Him: Yeah, okay, I’ll try, just don’t flip out if I don’t have service in the bar.

You:  I am trying not to flip out, but please don’t call it that.  I love you and I just want to be close.  I’m working on being more okay when I’m on my own though.

Him: I love you too.  Do you want to have sex?

(Had to put that last bit in for the sake of realism.)

So, you probably will never be one of those women who barely notices when her boyfriend isn’t around, but that’s fine, because your ability to be close and loving is probably why he loves you.  We just have to get your anxiety a bit more in check, by self-exploration and more direct, less attacking communication.  Ideally, one day, he could respond something like:

Him: It’s hard for me when you act like I’m always disappointing you.  I feel that nothing I do is enough for you at times.  I love you but I need time away too, that’s just how I was brought up and how I’m wired.  The more you tell me I’m failing you, the less likely I am to try at all, since I feel there is no point to trying if I’m already losing you.
But for now, take it from me that this is likely what he is feeling.

Go forth and conquer, You Trying-To-Be-Less-Anxious Girlfriend, You.  And by the way, be proud of your desire to work on your relationship and to take ownership of your own contribution to the relationship issues.  Most people try to blame their partner entirely.  So I predict you’ll be just fine.

Till next time, I remain, The Blogapist for Married and Unmarried Alike, Because I Am So Versatile and Really Ought to Be a Syndicated Advice Columnist (New York Times?  Hello?)

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