How to overcome fear of rejection in relationships
April 30, 2011 8:53 AM   Subscribe

I’m a 28 y/o woman who has finally found someone that I admire, who loves me dearly, and isn't a huge pain in my ass --and I'm hoping to make this last! Please help me to not ruin this wonderful thing!

I've been dating my boyfriend for a year, after being friends for 5 years. We are living together for the last 3 months and he’s said he wants to marry me and have kids with me. He’s charming, has a lovely and close-knit family, is sweet to my brother and friends, stable, grounded, secure without being arrogant, loving, funny, joyful, and hardworking. We’ve similar ideas for the future on 'big issues.’ He’s without doubt the best person I've ever dated, one of the best I’ve known. Plus, he's completely hot!

Of course he has weaknesses but they seem to be the kind of weaknesses that are not destructive to me emotionally. Weaknesses I relate with, rather than reel from. Most important: he doesn't have the (terribly destructive for me) habit of storming out of the house or stonewalling when there is conflict.

But I'm scared I’m ruining it! Whenever we have conflict, or even difference of opinion now, I become convinced that this is the beginning of the end. I have begun asking him if he wants to break up with me. I already know this is a major turnoff. How can I stop this compulsion? He says he wants me to get control of this fatalistic nonsense and that he’s looking for progress, not perfection. And that it’s not ruining things because I bring so many strengths to our relationship. Great but…

The goal seems murky because honestly I have no idea what a healthy relationship is like. I understand year one, with its continual ramping-up of intimacy. But it's the time after that, when you have to individuate to remain sane-- that makes me nervous. I'm fixated all the time on any possible lessening of the intensity of feeling he has for me as the first sign of him wanting out. I worry someone more exciting will step in and take my place.

About my abandonment obsession, I love time to myself, in fact I crave it. When I was single I traveled by myself and loved to read alone. I was alone, not dating at all really for a year before my boyfriend and I started dating and that was the happiest I’d ever felt up to that point. So it's not that I'm not self-reliant. It's that I'm always afraid that after they know the real me, they will lose interest and abandon me. And it's like a tic to be always hanging around against my will, being irritable because I have no alone time.

Some background information if interested:

Past Relationships: All followed a predictable pattern from outrageously ‘perfect’ seeming if a bit enmeshed (no more than a year) to highly stressful and destructive (by first anniversary till breakup). I have usually picked bad partners: immature people, alcoholics, people with poor impulse control, people with intimacy problems, people who become abusive when angry. This is the kind of person I tend to be attracted to, and this is the kind of person that makes me act really stupid, in the style but not the degree of someone with BPD. I’ve lived with 4 men. Current boyfriend is the only one I’ve ever really chosen as well as the only one who seems at least as mentally healthy as I am.

Family of Origin: My parents had a hostile marriage and separated twice (infidelity), then fought DAILY for 10 years until divorcing when I was 16. I was closest to --and after the divorce lived with-- my father, who was quite warm and very involved with my sports and some with my academics. However he was explosive when angry—for example he frequently reminded me that he "doesn't have to be my father". This horsed me up pretty well, but not as much as my mother, who was very cold and uncaring to my brother and I. She was mostly involved with obtaining various plastic surgeries and furthering her (very successful) career. She has lately begun living with a man she met on a 'confirmed millionaire' dating website, and has told my brother and I that we are not welcome at his house because he doesn't want to become involved with a new family (I know!).

I pretty much have two questions but feel free to weigh in one part of either:

1. Reasonable Expectations
What are some reasonable expectations for a loving committed relationship at one year? How much time spent together is normal? How does one transition from alone time to together time, and back. (In my family these transitions were only accomplished using outbursts of rage). What is a day in the life of a healthy live-in relationship like? Is there any website or something where I can watch videos of healthy people relating or role-playing or something. How is vitality and health expressed in long-term relationships? What are the clues things are okay? What are real, rather than stupid, things to worry about if I notice them?

2. Rewiring
I know I've experienced a bunch of rejection/abandonment and that's why I have these issues. I'm sure people will say go to therapy, but I've done that--it was powerful and enlightening but I think I’ve gotten all I can out of that kind of exploration. I’m pretty insightful about why I’m messed up and learning that stuff helped a lot of my behavioral short circuits. Are there some techniques I can do at home to rewire my residual maladaptive thinking/behavior for good?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (13 answers total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
I think you aren't done with counseling.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 9:15 AM on April 30, 2011 [6 favorites]

You did therapy -- now try couples therapy! It's a preventative as well as a fixer. (We went shortly after we got married and I always tell people, it basically helps you learn to argue and disagree the way you would after five years of experimentation in learning healthy argument ... only in a year instead of five.)

How much time spent together is normal?

This entirely depends on the couple. Some couples spend like ALL their time in each others' back pockets. Others spend little time together. My husband and I lived in two separate states for a while after we were married. There's no standard, no right or wrong; it's whatever works for the two of you.

How does one transition from alone time to together time, and back.

I would suggest trying having a time plan, and a clear transition plan of some sort. What is it that makes you get enraged? Come up with a strategy to cope with that. For example, I have difficulty shifting out of whatever I'm concentrating on (or dorking around with) while my husband is away at work, into "hello! I just got home!" incessant chatter mode that he does because he's excited to see me. So I ask him to text me when he leaves the office, so I can start mentally transitioning and wrap up what I'm working on. My husband literally cannot be distracted from whatever he's doing because he's the kind of single-focus concentration, which is super-maddening. So I ask him, before he settles down with an uninterruptable project or entertainment (video games are dire), to let me know what he's going to be doing and how long he expects to do it, so if there's anything I need I can ask him first, and so otherwise I know he's "unreachable" (despite being in the next room!) for the next two hours or whatever. If I need his attention I go put my hand on his shoulder and expect to wait for seriously two minutes. If I just say, "Husband! Husband!" he either doesn't hear me or gets ferociously annoyed about the break in concentration. When leaving together time for alone time, we usually let each other know what we're going to do and how long it'll be and always say "I love you" even if it's just going to a different room. (Pet peeve: someone getting up from the movie you're watching together, wandering into a different room, and never coming back!) Since what you're afraid of is him not wanting to be with you, maybe you need to have a parting ritual of some sort that involves reassurance that he loves you, etc.

Also think about what emotions you're really expressing here: Happiness and fear of losing that happiness. It is normal to feel a certain amount of anxiety about things that could go wrong in a good relationship, and I even think it's healthy, to a point, to express that anxiety. But you should probably be expressing your HAPPINESS to your partner most of the time, and when you express your anxiety you should couch it in the story of your happiness -- "I just love being with you so much, I know it's stupid, but I get really anxious about losing you ..."

(Also, side note, you're behaving like a toddler or teenager, pushing as hard as you can to find out how far you can go and still be loved. This is a TOTALLY NORMAL human behavior, but it's also annoying as shit, as any parent can tell you. Recognizing that's part of what you're doing may help you keep it under control.)

What is a day in the life of a healthy live-in relationship like?

Again, so particular to the couple and also very particular to the stage in life. We have a toddler now so ours often involves one of us getting up early so the other can sleep in ... whereas in the past we'd almost always get up together, for example. For me, a "day in the life" has to involve routines and schedules -- I get antsy if the regular routine is off the rails with no warning (I'm okay with warning and a plan B) -- but many people aren't like that at all. A day in the life often involves bickering, which becomes less-fraught with time as you worry less that a disagreement will lead to disaster. Some people find it helpful to befriend other couples in healthy, long-term relationships. Talk to girlfriends in healthy, long-term relationships. You'll find there are many, many different models ... and many, many scary, horrible fights that can be survived.

The first year is so much harder than the years that come later. If you can survive this tendency to push away, you'll find it gets a lot easier and more comfortable as time goes by.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:18 AM on April 30, 2011 [10 favorites]

I think that point 1 is one of those variables that's different for different couples. Part of your growth together will be determining the happy medium between alone time and "us" time.

I've been married to my wife for nearly 15 years, and a couple for nearly 21. If there is any advice I can pass on to anyone, it's that communication is the single most important thing for maintaining a healthy relationship.

Talk to him about it. Let him know what your fears are and what your thoughts are. Let him know that you need some alone time, and that you aren't avoiding him, you're just having your "me" time. If he is as level-headed as you say, I'm sure he'll be fine with it.

It really is ok to spend some time apart. Sometimes I build a Lego robot in my "nerdcave" while my wife goes to a nursery to buy flowers. We're doing different things in different places for a while, and later on we spend some time together watching a movie. There's no strict rules for how long we do either thing. It's fluid.

And I agree with Eyebrows about couples therapy.
posted by Fleebnork at 9:20 AM on April 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

I can't really speak to question #1- the first year of our relationship was long distance. But I can tell you that it was sometime in the second year that I finally had the realization that my now-husband wasn't going to leave just because we had a fight. Honestly, a pivotal moment for me was the night I was sobbing in the kitchen because I was convinced our weekend-long fight was the end, and he walked in and laughed at me and took me into his arms. It wasn't a mean or vicious laugh, it was a 'aren't we silly' laugh, and it made me really start to look at how illogical my reactions are.

Frankly I still get freaked about it sometimes, convinced whatever it is we're struggling with must be the end. But after riding that emotional wave a few too many times, I've learned to recognize the irrationality of it earlier in the process, and find that instead of working myself deeper into the hole, I simply go to my husband and crawl into his arms and that together feeling calms me down. I also 'fessed up to my husband that this is a challenge for me, so unless he's really upset himself, he knows what it means when I do this.

My parents also had a horrible marriage, and while they stayed together they had both checked out of the marriage (except for the fighting) by the time I was 14
posted by scrute at 9:23 AM on April 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

I would prescribe some tincture of time. Being patient with yourself and not requiring perfection every minute will let you gradually let go of the things that worry you. If you are like I was, you want to control yourself every minute and the result is you spend time keeping yourself aware of your concerns. That control is like a shell. Lessening my dependence on that shell worked. Perhaps you have it for the same reason I had it - growing up, things were so crazy that I had to be able to control something. It helps that your partner is aware of your concern and on board with staying to talk instead of stonewalling when there is conflict.

Year 1 of my current 15-year relationship (well after my shell was full of big holes) went from zero to sixty in almost no time at all. We were living together in a month and bought our first house that year. She is a very big fan of forward communication when there is an issue and for a long time we had a dedicated "Issues and Answers" time for raising anything at all. As we got better at being together, we both learned our relationship is made of teak - warm, solid and reliable. Nobody was playing games and when things got stressful it was not time to have drama, just a talk.
posted by jet_silver at 9:28 AM on April 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think you aren't done with counseling.

I would agree with this in one, it sounds like you really need some sort of grounding OP, but I'm not sure a counselor can really answer these questions for you. You sound like you need some sort of model of normality and talking to friends is usually a good source of this. Your post indicates you're talking a lot with your SO about this stuff, but where are you friends in all of this? You need them as sounding boards.

Anyway, I'm gonna try and answer some of your specific questions to give a basic model.

What are some reasonable expectations for a loving committed relationship at one year?

Sex. Intimacy without sex. Sleeping together without sex. Regular dates. Talking and sharing each other experiences i.e. How'd your day go, how was time with your friends, what'd ya'll do etc. Spending time with each other's friends is also reasonable as is each other's families.

How much time spent together is normal?

There is no set number, it all depends on a particular couples dynamics and schedule. My aunt and her husband lived in two separate cities (Baltimore and New Orleans), but regularly flew back and forth and talked on the phone a lot. Some couples work together or own a business together. Some are long distance and don't see each other for a while, but still keep in touch.

The important thing is to make a effort to spend time together, as best as you can.

How does one transition from alone time to together time, and back. (In my family these transitions were only accomplished using outbursts of rage).

Usually it's a matter of playing catch up with the other, i.e. you update them on what you've been up to and doing i.e. how that activity you were doing went, if you spent time with friends, how are they doing; the sights sounds and experiences where you were (oh the waiter was awful, the food was good, the dolphins were fun, i can't believe my fav sports team lost etc etc). You talk and communicate and share.

What is a day in the life of a healthy live-in relationship like?

Depends on the couple. You get up, see how each other slept, talk about things if one didn't sleep well, maybe hug/touch/kiss/have sex, talk about what your day looks like, have breakfast of some sort, talk about random shit on the radio or tv (weather, news) or dance around to music or goof off and tickle the other person or dance for them or make breakfast for them. Or maybe you get up and talk to friends/family and just briefly touch bases with each other.

If ya'll are apart doing the day, maybe you text/email/tweet/whatever, but basically communicate back and forth. maybe have lunch together. maybe have a nooner. Or maybe there it's a busy day for one or both, so ya'll go your separate ways and catch up later that afternoon or evening. Maybe there's dinner together, or dinner with friends/family. Maybe you cook together or one cooks for both. Maybe you go to the gym or exercise together or plop down in front of the tv and eat popcorn for dinner or play board games or internet games or clean house, walk dog (s)

Adding kids to the mix can radically alter all of this.

How is vitality and health expressed in long-term relationships?

Dates and communication and plans for the future.

What are the clues things are okay?

The SO makes plans with you, seeks your attention, asks how you are doing, pays attention to you, does nice things for you, says I love you, spends time with you.

What are real, rather than stupid, things to worry about if I notice them?

A negative change where they withdraw attention/affection and don't indicate why, insisting everything is fine or they attempt to control you or always check where you, who you're with.

But really, talk to your close friends about this stuff, they can help set you straight.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:30 AM on April 30, 2011 [7 favorites]

Are there some techniques I can do at home to rewire my residual maladaptive thinking/behavior for good?

I don't know if your denial skills are as finely honed as mine, and of course they can be used for evil, but I have put mine to good use sometimes by using them to completely ignore the stupid, irrational feelings. I *know* the feelings are irrational; I *know* that dwelling on them won't do me any good; so I ignored them. The first year my partner and I were together (about a decade ago), I had the entirely normal feelings that when she finally knew the "real" me she run away quickly. I also knew - thanks to lots of therapy over the years - that these feelings are stupid and pointless and counterproductive. So I just pretended that they weren't there. If I had a thought that triggered the feeling, I shoved it away and pretended it hadn't happened. And you know, I don't get those feelings very much any more. I got out of the habit of paying attention to them, and they just don't come around very often now.

You might find therapy helpful because it's a safe place where you can voice those irrational feelings and hear an outside person say "You know that's irrational, right?" But if therapy's not in the cards right now for whatever reason, I highly recommend denial.
posted by rtha at 9:49 AM on April 30, 2011 [4 favorites]

Re: #2, there are four ways I've seen this happen: meditation, therapy, external life changes, and pure resolve.

One of the things I've seen best rewire someone's set point (and still not entirely) is some form of meditation. This takes dedication! Of the only three people I know who have made this work, two had a method that they seem to have made up for themselves, and one got deep into Vispassana. The book Focusing by Eugene Gendlin is somewhat similar to what one described to me. The idea is to have a way to attend to the hard feelings you are having and be a good companions for yourself as they arise, or even as you look into the deeper past. Playing that role for yourself can take some of the weight off of your partner to solve them here in the present.

The idea with this meditation approach is providing compassion, love, and calm witness to the part of yourself that is hurt and scared. Something arises, you go compassionately take care of that part of yourself, like you would a scared child. Plan on it taking thousands of hours: something arises, you go take care of it; something arises, you go take care of it; something arises, you go take care of it.... But this is much better than: something arises, you ask for reassurance; something arises, you freak out that the relationship is probably ending; something arises, you accuse your BF of secretly wanting to leave... You're going to put in those thousands of hours one way or another; the question is, how skillfully and peacefully.

Method two is therapy, lots of therapy. It helps you figure out how to avoid screwing up your life despite the background noise of your fears, etc. As your life moves forward, you gradually get used to a new set point. It is slower in that there's little excavation (at least not in my experience), just a slow layering on of new experiences and new skills.

Sometimes a major life change resets people. Moving, quitting her stressful job, and not talking to that parent any more began the process for one friend.

Sometimes all it takes is a single strong intention that you return to over and over. The trick is really, really wanting one single clear vision. You might try imagining clearly how you'd like to be in a relationship. It's hard to have a powerful and clear enough desire to make this happen. But if it's just a defense mechanism ("I'm going to be a loner who doesn't need anybody!"), it adds a layer of defense that has to break down before you can finally work on a more healthy solution, so choose wisely.
posted by salvia at 10:17 AM on April 30, 2011 [6 favorites]

I am going to keep this short.......

Do not build any sort of case against your partner. (fight, conflict, hurt feelings) If you find yourself doing so, then tell your partner outright saying that you don't want to do this anymore. You are going to be surprised at what you feel and what happens.

When I was with my lover, (We had gotten together and within a week the possibility of her dying became very clear. Her cancer had spread.) when we would wake each morning I would....

1) Bless her
2) Bless myself
3) Bless our relationship

This means me saying what I would like and want to happen

Then she would do the same with me.

Then together....

"I am blessed to have this body"
"I am blessed to be a part of everything that goes on in me and around me"
"I am blesses to have all that my have"
"May the channels of communication between us remain open"
"May the playing field remain clear"

The last two I pretty much vow to do in any relationship from here on out. I second Salvia's last paragraph.

I also feel that you make love last by understanding that you are never going to truly know your partner. There will always be surprises and negotiation.

I also mean this in the best and gentlest sense.....

Lighten up!
Read Still Life With Woodpecker
Hold each other for long periods without saying anything and just being in each others presence.

Your want is already strong. Bask in that alone : )
posted by goalyeehah at 10:38 AM on April 30, 2011 [3 favorites]

It's that I'm always afraid that after they know the real me, they will lose interest and abandon me.

You're not alone on this, okay? It's perfectly normal. Everyone thinks they are pretending at LIFE and getting away with it. I don't know how many times my husband and I used to say to each other, "Wow, I can't believe I am an adult/married/a parent now." The trick is to remember that everyone else is pretending right along there with you.

And you have an advantage, because your guy has been your best friend, and he knows where you're actually coming from. He honestly gets the 'real you'.

Whenever we have conflict, or even difference of opinion now, I become convinced that this is the beginning of the end. I have begun asking him if he wants to break up with me. I already know this is a major turnoff. How can I stop this compulsion?

You say counseling has taught you "why you are messed up." Seems to me that you don't believe that the real you, though capable enough to get by in the big scheme of things, is lovable. But you ARE. Warts and all.

Your Dad and Mom, honestly, were the messed-up ones. It's no wonder you aren't sure what a healthy relationship really is, since they never modelled one for you. Echoing the chorus of couples therapy here.

In the meantime, instead of asking your boyfriend if he wants to break up, when you feel that compulsion coming on, try something like this instead, "Time out. I'm in that all-or-nothing place again. Can I have a hug?"

Letting him know you are vulnerable is much healthier than attacking the relationship. A lot of this "being in a relationship" stuff is about opening yourself up, and that's scary, but definitely worth it. You have to let those walls you've built up over the years come down a little and let him in.

And it's like a tic to be always hanging around against my will, being irritable because I have no alone time.

I need alone time, and have been alone often. My husband doesn't enjoy solitude the way I do. He's outgoing and extroverted and has a tendency to want to DO active, productive things. Ugh.

So sometimes I get out and do things with him, and that's good for me because it gets me out of my comfort zone. And other times, when he is travelling and working. I stay up late reading iBooks, watching The Tudors on BBC and chatting on Metafilter, enjoying my solitude. And that's good, too. The only times we have problems are when I don't let him know how I feel.

So be proactive about all this. Just tell your guy, "Look, after we have been together non-stop for (a few days, a week or two, a weekend alone--whatever your personal limit is), I need some time alone to recharge my batteries."

And then--and this is important--do it without feeling the least bit guilty! Your boyfriend has his own issues, and you'll work through them, too. That's what couples do.

I'm fixated all the time on any possible lessening of the intensity of feeling he has for me as the first sign of him wanting out. I worry someone more exciting will step in and take my place.

Healthy people are not looking for someone "more exciting." They really aren't. In real life exciting translates to dramatic, explosive, and stressful--like those guys you used to hook up with. Who needs that?

Healthy relationships work because the people in them care about each other. They don't expect to be entertained all the time. They just want to be loved and accepted for who they are.
posted by misha at 2:31 PM on April 30, 2011 [8 favorites]

My story is similar to yours in many way. One of the best books I have found on the subject of "what is a normal relationship" is Mindful Loving, which actually doesn't answer that question directly... It says that most relationships one sees and encounters (and a relationship when it's "bad") is one based on the ego -- getting your needs fulfilled by the other person; it's driven by fear and insecurity. The author contrasts this with what he calls a "spiritual relationship," which means a kind of mindfulness that one is basically full of all the love one needs, and the thing to do is to *be loving* -- as much as possible. I find this book tremendously reassuring; the perspective brings you into the present, draws you away from your complicated past, and shows you what it means to be a loving partner -- in your actions and your thoughts.

Good luck! I bet you're more wonderful than you know.
posted by Clotilde at 1:08 PM on May 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

I recommend reading this book: Loving Him without Losing You.

Always keep a separate self. Try to maintain your own space. By doing so, you'll be stronger and better person in the relationship.
posted by ictoan at 4:27 PM on May 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

I can't speak to your questions exactly because I am figuring this out, too, but I would recommend finding relationship mentors -- older people (or really balanced people your own age) who have a relationship that to you says "healthy." Hang out with them and just exist in the space of their relationship. I missed this growing up, the same way you did, and it has been wonderful to be able to observe the daily life of other couples.

You don't have to tell them that they are your relationship mentors. Maybe there is someone at your work whom you could get to know better, with a loose goal of spending some time with him/her and their spouse. I have found mine through the church and work settings -- look for a person who seems balanced and content. Cultivate those relationships!

It's possible that you could be more deliberate and open, i.e. say, "I would love to spend time with you (cooking, cleaning, helping with chores) to see how you have maintained what appears to be a good and mutually beneficial relationship." That's up to you!

Once you know them both better, you could ask these kinds of questions of them, or just reevaluate and see if you have more answers.
posted by ramenopres at 1:56 PM on May 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

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