Hey Doc, let me start by saying “Thank you” for your work. It helped me get into dating and relationships when I was terrified of the prospect and provided uplifting-but-no-bullshit advice when I needed it. Now I ask you more directly for advice since a) I haven’t been able to find this topic in your website and b) it might help other readers in the same situation.
Basically, I think I’m struggling with insecure attachment/enmeshment issues. For background, I’ve been in a committed relationship for over three years. My partner is very patient, caring, trusting, and dedicated – but going into our second year, I turned jealous and highly insecure (I concealed it from him, mostly out of shame).
I hated it when he went out with his friends. I had a full-blown panic attack when he didn’t call me after work one night. My day was ruined if he didn’t text me “Good morning” or declined to call me during lunch break. His (female) co-workers felt threatening. An evening he preferred to stay at home resting meant he hated me. I felt totally split – I’d spend a day or two in absolute despair, unable to sleep or focus – and then suddenly “leave the fog,” wondering how I convinced myself that he’s unfaithful, dislikes me, wants to break up, etc.
I didn’t recognize myself. I used to be very independent before we met, having fun dating, spending time with friends and balancing work and college; I was pretty happy. Now I was a helpless, pathetic, depressed mess without him, and when I was with him every ambiguous comment or behavior was fodder for my insecurity.
I saw a counselor for 4 months (the third one in five years for unrelated anxiety and depression) and I’m doing much better today, but there are times I still struggle. Last time he spent the evening with friends I cried half the time he was gone. If he doesn’t want to be intimate I take it personally. Knowing he’s had other romantic/sexual partners and the fact that he (being human) still finds other people attractive leaves my guts wrenching.
I don’t know how to stop. I’ve tried “getting my own life” like joining clubs but it’s hard with my schedule. My friends live 30-40 minutes away and everyone is too busy for weekly meet-ups. I’m too ashamed to discuss it with my partner. I’m on the waitlist for another therapist at my college but the wait is long and other options are unlikely, being uninsured. Sometimes I wonder if being in a relationship is worth the emotional turmoil it’s generating in me.
I know that my low self-esteem and attachment problems have nothing to do with him. I don’t actually think he is unfaithful or uncaring or dislikes me. I feel so embarrassed about how out of control my emotions seem – it’s nothing like the empowered, independent image of myself I try to project.
How do I solve this before I sabotage what we’ve built?
Dependent and Despondent
I don’t dive into attachment styles, D&D, in no small part because those tend to be a bit outside my paygrade. But one of the things that’s worth recognizing, especially in cases like yours, is how attachment styles tend to be a form of emotional self-defense. This sort of behavior is often an attempt to avoid a negative experience, especially as a response to something that happened in one’s formative years.
Case in point: your behavior sounds a lot like having a fear of abandonment – especially by your partner. I’m curious as to whether this is something that happens with anyone else in your life; do you have similar feelings about friends or family members? Has this been an issue with previous partners, or is this the first time you’ve experienced this switch?
At the risk of sounding like a cartoon psychiatrist – and, standard disclaimer, Dr. NerdLove is not a real doctor – I’m also curious as to whether you’ve experienced some form of abandonment before. Not the fear of it, but someone having actually left you with no warning or neglected you, especially emotionally. It might be a parent or caretaker or someone you were close to. Or, hey, it might be a previous partner who dumped you with no warning; that break-up may have felt like it came screaming out of the clear blue sky. Knowing this isn’t going to magically “cure” things, but it’ll at least give you more of an idea of where this might have come from. It’ll also give you more of an idea of what triggers these anxieties in you. If that abandonment or neglect came with no warning, then it’s understandable that you might be hyper-vigilant in looking for signs that you’re about to be left behind again.
However, even if this is a brand new neurosis out of nowhere, it’s worth recognizing it for what it is: your brain trying to protect itself against being hurt. Once you understand that this is about trying to get out ahead of disaster – in this case, someone you love leaving you, for reasons you may or may not understand – then it becomes a little easier to manage.
Now, because of how deep-rooted some of these insecurities or anxieties can be, it is something that’s best worked on with a mental-health professional, not some loudmouth with an advice column. But, having dealt with rejection-sensitive dysphoria that’s so frequently co-morbid with ADHD, I can, at least provide some of what’s helped me get through the long, dark tea-times of the soul.
First and foremost, you want to recognize that these feelings tend to be incredibly irrational. It’s like emotional pareidolia, finding patterns in chaos and inventing signal out of noise; it’s less that you’re finding subtle clues that your partner’s dropping like The Riddler and more that your brain is latching onto things that it can use to confirm its fears. It’s almost always born out of a fear of the unknown and of uncertainty. We don’t like uncertainty, under the best of circumstances, especially when it’s just constant anticipation.
Think of it like a horror movie, where every musical cue and on-screen indicator screams that the killer is just around the corner or just behind the protagonist and if they look in a mirror or turn around, they’ll see them… but they never do. All that happens is just a constant rising sense of tension with no release; no moment where the killer does leap out at them nor the moment where they discover that they’re in the clear. Just the constant drone of tension that never ends.
That’s what these moments feel like; just the constant cues that something awful’s about to happen but never does, so you’re locked in that state of waiting for it to happen and you wish that they’d just fucking attack you already.
We’d rather have a concrete understanding of a situation… even if that means that the worst has come to pass. That way, at least, you don’t have to constantly be on the lookout for it; you can go from being afraid that it might be coming to actually dealing with it, even if “dealing with it” means going through the mourning process. Until you get that certainty, you’re almost stuck in a quantum state, mourning a loss that has AND hasn’t happened yet, which means that there’s no real end point to it. It’s just a constant pre-emptive pain borne out of the anticipation of that pain.
Recognizing that it’s irrational doesn’t make it go away, nor does it make it any easier to live with. But what it does do is help you understand that this is just your brain being noisy, rather than your Spidey-sense reacting to something you can’t see.
Now I do need to point out that sometimes folks will have these moments because their partner is pulling away without saying they are, and the person experiencing these feelings is having a gut-level reaction to something they don’t consciously perceive yet. However, the thing about trusting your gut is that first your gut needs to be trustworthy. Otherwise, what ends up happening is that you create a self-fulfilling prophecy and you end up pushing someone away… which then “confirms” what your anxiety had been telling you and thus perpetuates the cycle. Hence, why I ask if this is the first or only relationship you’ve had where this issue has manifested, or if you had been neglected or abandoned as a child.
The second thing to do is to take a deep breath and shift your perspective. Try, as best as you can, to disconnect from yourself and look at this situation as though a friend had come to you and asked you for advice. Looking at this as dispassionately as possible (which is, admittedly, difficult at times): what would you tell a friend who was experiencing this? If you were to see this situation in your best friend’s life, would you agree that yes, this is a sign that something’s rotten in Denmark? Or would you say that this is somebody’s jerkbrain talking?
Getting that level of distance helps; part of why those moments are so difficult to get through is that we’ve got a constant feed of our innermost anxieties running 24/7, and those will shift even rational thinking into “proof” that something’s wrong. When we look at a situation without that part of our brain that almost wants things to be real – if only so the anticipation is over – then it’s a little easier to not let our jerkbrains leap straight to Worst Case Scenario Vision.
While you’re trying to get that alternate perspective – looking at this as though you were addressing a friend’s problem instead of your own – you should also try to put yourself into your partner’s shoes by recognizing the times when you have done the things that’re currently setting off those alarm bells. There’s almost certainly been times when, for example, you haven’t been in the mood to be sexual or intimate; was that because you were pulling away from the relationship or was it because you had other shit going on that meant you just weren’t feeling it that night? How many times have you been busy with schoolwork or other stuff, which meant that you couldn’t text someone back immediately? Did it mean that you didn’t want to talk to them, or just that you weren’t in a place where you had the time or opportunity to reply and you’d get back to them later?
Again: when you can recognize that you’ve had similar moments that were utterly innocent and understandable, rather than being caused by wanting to end the relationship, then it’s a lot easier to shut that part of your brain up… or at least to argue it to a lower volume, which then lets you white-knuckle your way through until this wave passes. And it always does pass. That’s the thing about these moments; they feel like they’re constant, but they’re not. They ebb and flow; we just notice the ebb because of how much it upsets us and not the gradual relief that the flowing away gives us.
The last thing I would suggest is to look into mindfulness meditation. One of the things that’s useful about mindfulness meditation – especially guided meditation exercises – is that you learn how to recognize thoughts and feelings for what they are. Importantly, part of what you learn is that you don’t STOP those thoughts or repress them; instead, what you do is gently redirect your attention elsewhere. By noting and naming those feelings – “anxiety” – during the meditation, you pull the power they have over you back into yourself, and then shift your focus back to your breathing or your visualization.
The key here isn’t that it’s going to stop the anxiety so much as just give yourself a moment of quiet. You’re telling your brain “shhhhhh” and lowering the volume on everything. And while those moments of quiet may not last long, the fact that you can generate them at all is the important part; it’s a reminder that just because you’re feeling something doesn’t mean that the thing you’re feeling is “real”. It’s just your brain being noisy; turning down the volume of the noise, even for just a little while, lowers its overall intensity. And the more practice you get at lowering the volume, the easier it becomes and the longer it lasts.
And the last thing I would suggest is to get your partner involved. You don’t need him to not go out with friends or be religious about texting you at this EXACT TIME every day. Instead, what you want is to be open about what you’re feeling and ask for a little reassurance: “hey, I’m having some anxiety lately and I’d appreciate it if you could love me a little louder or harder today.” You aren’t asking him to manage your feelings for you, so much as just giving you a little more love to help you walk back from the ledge that’s calling to you. Knowing that he’ll provide that extra layer of love and affection when its necessary also helps to turn down the volume on the noise, even when you aren’t asking it of him.
But again: these are just a layman’s suggestions that’ll hopefully help you get through the rough patches until you can work on things with your therapist.
So turn down the volume, D&D; even a little more quiet will make it easier to push through to the other side.
I really thought things were turning around. After 7 years of trying, I finally got a job to start my career with. I also finally felt like I can handle the shit when interested and asking out a person.
However, other than a few people I work with, that I won’t pursue unless I get much clearer signals, I’m out of ideas. I don’t know where to find unattached women looking to date. All my friends are uninterested, seeing other people, or scattered to the winds. Apps are a shit show where getting any match (ones who ignore me) is truly a rare day. My supportive friends can’t think of any women they know that I might hit it off with. The places where the women I like congregate are not places appropriate to approach people, especially women (libraries, bookstores).
So, I’m out of ideas. I know the “power” women have is just them making choices like I do, but the fact is, they aren’t choosing me at all. I don’t know what I’m doing wrong to fix it. And I don’t know where to meet women in the first place.
I’m trying to keep following my goals (getting in better shape, maintaining my mental health) but it’s really difficult to continue when I don’t see any way to work on something I am trying so hard on and hold so important.
Thanks for listening,
Lost in the Sauce
A couple quick questions for you, LITS: first of all, are you actually talking to people, or are you waiting around for someone to send up a flare or wave you over with semaphore? When I hear men talk about “people aren’t choosing me”, especially outside of dating apps, what they usually mean is that women aren’t either approaching first, or else the men aren’t getting signals to the level of “Hi, you’re hot and I want you to take me into the bathroom where I will drain you dry.”
Second: when you talk about “not appropriate places to approach people”, are you talking about doing approaches, or are you do you mean even striking up a casual conversation?
Both of these are important, because many times, they’re a pretty good indicator of what’s holding folks back.
Let’s take the “doing approaches” part first. This is something that trips people up a lot. One of the things that folks don’t realize is that part of what screws them up is that they’re looking at the interaction as a sudden pop-quiz that’s pass/fail; they need to convince this person – whom they often know very little about – to be interested in starting a romantic or sexual relationship with them the very first time they’ve so much as said two words to each other. This is, needless to say, not how the vast majority of people meet their partners or start their relationships, and treating it that way puts an absurd amount of pressure on you to “perform” everything perfectly.
It also makes things incredibly uncomfortable for everyone involved.
When you’re looking at this from a “doing approaches” mentality, instead of a “strike up a conversation with someone”, then you’re framing the interaction in a way that isn’t going to feel as natural or authentic to everyone. What ends up happening is that you often come to it from a place of supplication, if you will; you’re trying to ask this person to approve of you and be impressed by you enough to “choose” you. In a way, it’s like applying for a job at a (theoretically) exclusive and discriminating employer. But that’s a bad way to look at dating, especially when it comes to a person you likely have only just met.
To start with: you know nothing about this person, other than the fact that you find them attractive. You don’t know if the two of you are compatible or not, you don’t know if they have qualities that you’d consider to be deal-breakers… hell, you don’t even know if they’re a good person or not. To go in with the mentality that you need to do your mating song and dance routine well enough to win them over when you don’t even know if her idea of a nutritious breakfast is to devour live goslings every morning is to invest a stranger with too much power and importance. Similarly, because you’re coming to it from a place of “please choose me,” you’re setting yourself up for a mental framework where you are seeking the approval of someone you don’t know. This makes it incredibly difficult to feel confident and secure in the connection you have; it’s an entirely one-sided interaction, where you’ve signed up for being in the weaker position.
Instead, you want to handle meeting people from a position of “Ok, I find you physically attractive. I want to see if there’s more to it than that.” Rather than going into the interaction feeling like you need to impress them or win their approval, you want to see if they’re worth your time. Are they someone who’s right for you? Are they someone who’s worthy of your approval? Not because you should be “in charge” of the interaction or the dominant partner but because your time is valuable, your emotional investment is valuable and you don’t want to spend it on someone who isn’t right for you. If it turns out that yes, there is more there than the fact that they’re hot… well, cool, now the two of you can see if you two mesh well together. Relationships – even one-night stands – are partnerships after all, and they work best when eveyone’s approaching them from a jam band approach. Instead of “You must prove yourself to me” or “I must win your approval;”, you want “ok, here’s what I bring to the table, here’s what you’re bringing, let’s see what happens when we put it together.”
And the best way to do this? Slow your roll. Instead of treating each woman as a potential date that you’re trying to lock down ASAP, think of it as a process of exploration, discovery and due diligence – something too important to be rushed. This means, instead of focusing on “doing approaches”, you just… want to have conversations. Just talking to someone as a person instead of a potential date, goes a long, long way towards building the sort of connection and attraction you’re looking for. When you are treating them as someone to get to know, instead of “is she single, does she like me, ok lets get a date”, then you take the pressure off everyone. Instead of feeling like you need to do your best Fred Astaire impression, you can just relax and engage with her in a way that’s both organic but also authentic.
Now this doesn’t mean you avoid showing your most polished self… but you’re doing so in a way that’s genuine, instead of waving your fluffed up plumage like a lonely peacock. After all, you want someone to be into you for you, not just the you that’s doing the “please please pick me” routine.
The second thing is that, if you’re waiting around for someone to send the “take me now you manly stallion” signal… you’re likely going to be waiting for a long time. Even women who’re looking to fuck like weasels on meth aren’t going to put out neon signs; they want someone who’s not just desirable but also safe… and who would be worth taking a risk on. And as I’ve said before: since women face a disproportionate level of risk when it comes to dating, it’s understandable that they’re going to be more cautious and subtle when it comes to signaling interest.
But at the same time, this feeling of “ok, need to be getting clear UNMISTAKABLE SIGNALS that couldn’t possibly be misunderstood” comes, in part, from looking at women from a “potential date” mindset first instead of a “get to know them and see if I’d want them in my life” mindset. If you’re looking at every woman you see or have around you as a potential date before you even talk to them? Yeah, that’s going to make it a lot harder, especially if you’re not in a place where the social context says “we are here to find potential hook-ups”.
But here’s the thing: while women at, say, bookstores, aren’t there to get picked up… it’s a rare (single) woman indeed who doesn’t like the idea of meeting a charming new friend who likes many of the things that she does. And if that charming new friendship has some chemistry and it leads to something more? Well hell, that’s the sort of thing romance novels and romcoms are written about, isn’t it?
Now at this point I’m sure you’ve noticed that I’ve been focusing on how you talk to women you may want to date, not where to go to meet them. But that’s the thing: they’re potentially everywhere; that’s part of why I tell folks to go where the women they’re most interested like to congregate. But by treating this as opportunities to be social and meet new people, rather than “go here to get a date for Saturday”, you take the pressure off yourself to “perform” and make it much easier to meet folks. By changing your outlook, you take away the self-imposed “pass/fail” mentality and instead meet cool new people… some of whom you may find attractive. And if you go in with a mindset of being social and charming and open to meeting awesome people, you make it that much more likely that you’re going to find folks who would love to meet a charming stranger, rather than someone looking to fill up an open slot on the weekend.
So change how you’re looking at this, LITS. Meet folks who seem cool, get to know them and find out if they’re worth your time. If they are, then, see if you’re still interested in them and give them a chance to be interested in you. Taking a more measured approach may feel like it’s too slow, but hey: slow is smooth and smooth is fast.