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For most of us, the fear that our partner may leave us, or may cheat on us is a mild concern at the start of a relationship, and one that fades as we see that our partner is as invested in us as we are in them. The flames of jealously and fear of abandonment may flare up from time to time but are quickly tamped down by the reassurance of our partner.
Yet for some of us, the fear of not being loved enough, or being abandoned, or cheated on does not fade. As we become more invested in the relationship, our worries become even more intense. We start doing and saying things that we know are destructive to the relationship but we can’t help ourselves. If you are one of those people, or if you’re close to someone who is suffering in this way, then this article is for you.
When we’re consumed by jealousy and fears of abandonment, there is often a series of emotions and events that lead from one to another, culminating in disaster:
We Want Our Partners to Adhere to Our Rules of Behavior: Often, we know what True Love looks like. For example: He’ll never look at another woman. She’ll never say anything mean to me. He’ll remember anniversaries, birthdays, Valentine’s Day and do something special for each one. She’ll buy me thoughtful presents. He’ll treat me better than he’s treated any of his previous partners. She’ll know what I’m feeling without me saying anything.
Some of our expectations may be reasonable, while some may require our partner to posses superhuman memory, total control over emotions, and the ability to read minds. And when we’re jealous and insecure, our expectations are generally very high — we need frequent and clear proof that our partner is loyal to us. Sooner or later (and it’s usually sooner), our partners break our rules.
Next, We Punish Our Partners For Breaking Our Rules: While we all would like to see our partners behave in a certain way — and there’s nothing wrong with that — we become upset when they don’t. And we punish them. Perhaps we directly criticize them and end up in a blazing row. Or we might withdraw and become cool and distant, trying to get an apology and a promise to do better next time. Some of us do things that are hurtful in return, inflicting on our partner some of the pain we’re experiencing.
The object of this punishment isn’t to cause harm or pain — it’s to get the other person to behave in a way that makes us feel less anxious. If we make them suffer for having forgotten our anniversary, they’ll remember next time (we think), and then we won’t feel so awful.
Then Our Partners Resent Us — And Communicate That: No one likes to be forced to change their behavior. And when we criticize, withdraw or take revenge we are demanding that our partner change. Whether they bow to our demand or resist it, there will be resentment and anger. That gets communicated back to us, often in ways that are so subtle we may not even consciously notice them. But even if we don’t overtly notice a change in our partner, our confidence in our partner’s affection is shaken.
So We Become Unsure of Our Partner — Even When They Behave Well: Now it’s not enough that our partner remembered Valentine’s Day and took us to a fancy candlelight dinner. We want them to have done it of their own accord, willingly, rather than because we pushed them into it. Did he not look at that beautiful woman just because he knows I’m watching him? Did she want to buy me this present, or did she do it just because I got angry when she forgot to buy anything last birthday?
And So We Become Caught In An Impossible Situation: When our partner fails to meet our standards we fear they don’t care for us, but when they do meet our standards we fear they’re doing it against their will. Nothing our partner does can truly reassure us.
Now We Have To Look For Evidence Of Our Partner’s Care: Since our partner can’t reassure us, we look for indirect reassurance. We may look at their phone, stalk them on social media, look at their laptop while they’re away, double check with other people as to our partner’s whereabouts and behavior. And we feel dreadful when we do this. Yet we can’t stop. Every time we look, we are only able to reassure ourselves that THIS time, our partner was telling the truth, THIS time there is no one else. And while that makes us feel better for a while, sooner or later doubts creep back in, and force us to look again. No matter what we find, we’re insatiable, because unless we can monitor every action and every thought in our partner, there’s a possibility that an action or thought exists that will show our partner doesn’t truly care about us.
Finally, We Find What We Most Fear: And inevitably, given that we are viewing their behavior through a prism of suspicion and doubt, we find something. No one is completely transparent with our partners — it’s neither possible nor appropriate to report every thought or action. But that prism of suspicion and doubt causes us to interpret anything we find in the most catastrophic way possible, and it gnaws at us until we confront our partner with the evidence that we’ve found. We confront them in the hopes that there’s a good explanation that can reassure us of our partner’s affection. And perhaps we are reassured, but only temporarily: Our fear and anger at our partner drive them still further away, adding to our existing worry.
Eventually, we bring about the very thing that most terrifies us: the cycle of suspicion, anger and reassurance drives our partner away and we find ourselves abandoned. While this devastates us, it also reinforces our feeling that our partners are not to be trusted, and in our next relationship, we keep an even closer eye on our partner — with predictable results.
In my next article I’ll talk about what you can do if you see yourself in any of this.