Why do I have to hang up first?
December 6, 2011 10:46 AM   Subscribe

Help me figure out and overcome my instinct to distance myself from my SO.

Long background short: we've been together nearly a year, he's made me happier than I ever thought possible, when I look at him I could swear he lit the very stars in the night sky, etc etc... and I also spend an inordinate amount of effort trying to cut short the time I spend with him. I have a few theories about why I do this:

1) Pushing him away before he can push me away, that tired old cliche. After this many months, I still get freaked out when he unexpectedly suggests we hang up or head home, and become convinced that he's sick of talking to me or I've placed the final straw of my annoying presence upon the camel's back. Note that I'm a crazy insecure person in general.

2) Perhaps related, I hope that if I deny him my presence, hanging out with me will become more of a rare commodity, and less likely (or less rapidly) something he'll get tired of?

3) I generally try to limit all activities that I enjoy. Watching TV, eating sweets, you name it. I figure if I enjoy it so much I'll tend to indulge to excess, so if I actively try to avoid it I'll probably end up at a good balance. Probably a habit instilled upon me by parents.

4) Sometimes I worry that the more time we spend together, the more chance there is that some conflict will come up, spoiling the positive mood. Then when I look back, I will have an overall negative impression of what would otherwise have been an awesome day/evening/weekend together. I hate the idea of ending on a bad note.

Maybe I should mention that this is the first relationship I've had that's given me this giddy, limerant feeling. I really like it, but I'm aware that it can't last forever, and I'm really dreading the day that it all just... evaporates. I hate the idea that he'll gradually grow out of treasuring or even enjoying my presence, and eventually we'll be so used to each other that it won't even be special that we're together.

I guess I've come up with a lot of reasons why I might try to avoid spending time with this wonderful person, or why I'll needlessly end a conversation with him, just to avoid the split second of hurt that comes with him ending it on me. But none of these reasons sound that reasonable to me, so maybe you can help me think these things through, or at least figure out a more constructive way to manage my big bag of worries.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (19 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Get thee to a therapist. The problem is not your SO or your treatment of him specifically, although the chances of your approach to life in general adversely affecting this relationship are high.

If that isn't obvious from your reading back of your own post, then take it from a completely unqualified stranger that you are WAY over thinking pretty much everything and your life may be whole chunks better if you have someone help your organise your thoughts better on this kind of thing.
posted by Brockles at 10:55 AM on December 6, 2011 [4 favorites]

Please take it from two unqualified strangers that you are way over thinking pretty much everything here. I strongly second the therapist suggestion above.

Relationships ARE hard work and imperfect and, like so much of life, messy. While it's possible to over think/analyze this all to death (and to your ultimate detriment I fear), it won't be possible to control it to the degree you appear to be trying to do so.

Also, deep breath or two! Good luck.
posted by BigHeartedGuy at 11:05 AM on December 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Hi, three unqualified strangers here. Some of what you're doing is self-sabotaging. It's one thing to be disciplined about eating cupcakes or not spending the day binging on five seasons of some TV show, but what you're doing to your relationship is unhealthy, and your view of what happens in relationships once the honeymoon fades is uninformed.
posted by rtha at 11:10 AM on December 6, 2011 [7 favorites]

What's unnatural about this instinct? There are lots of guys who might prefer more alone time than you personally do, and trying to respect that may end up keeping you together longer and increasing the overall time you get to spend with him. There are also lots of guys who wouldn't want to do a thing without their S/O.

You don't need a therapist. There's nothing unusual here. Even the odd-one-out of your list here (refraining from overindulgence of activities w/ negative side effects), only tangentially related at all, just sounds like sound advice IMO.

The only thing you're not doing right is, instead of relying solely on your ability to guess when he's probably had his fill of socialization with you, you might actually discuss it w/ the guy during these conversations you've been having. With tact, of course- good luck getting him to admit right away that he'd rather spend less time together than you'd prefer (he wouldn't want to hurt your feelings or make you feel like he's undercomitted.) So bring it up casually and approach it from his side of the field; a script might go like this:

"So I've probably been overthinking this and second-guessing myself a lot, but lately I've been worried whether or not I've been overextending myself in terms of interaction with you- I know every one is unique in how much time they need to themselves, but I'm just not sure where you stand on that spectrum. You can't really hurt me here because I've been hurting myself plenty worrying about the whole thing, so ideally, how often/long would you ideally want to talk/be together/etc.? Seriously, try to be honest to yourself and to me, because working out this balance is really important to me, and I don't want you to put yourself in a place to be silently unhappy down the road because of how you answer this."

You're normal, you're not broken, this is an easy problem you can fix with a simple conversation, so have at it~
posted by MangyCarface at 11:22 AM on December 6, 2011 [3 favorites]

Overall, I think it's a good impulse to have boundaries around time you spend with your partner. But it should be about you, and what you want, not because you are hoping to make him feel a certain way about you.
posted by amodelcitizen at 11:26 AM on December 6, 2011 [7 favorites]

I, too, think you could benefit from therapy. I think some gentle and guided exploration of the motivation of your behaviour could really help. You are not broken, and your relationship sounds like it should be enjoyable, but I think you need some assistance in sorting out the unreasonable aspect of your thoughts.

(And I think amodelcitizen is on the right tack: this is ultimately about you and how you feel about yourself.)
posted by Specklet at 11:31 AM on December 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

While all this makes sense in terms of outward behaviour, it seems to come from a place of self-loathing. For example, rather than "leave him begging for more," it seems you are trying to convey to him that you enjoy his company even less than you enjoy your own; and a person can only stand so much rejection.

I get the impression you're stalling for time until this patsy you tricked into loving you finds out what you're really like and inevitably starts to hate you. That's different from retaining independence and an Air of Mystery. On the other hand, it's not that uncommon. I don't know how to cure that over the internet, though, so maybe a bit of therapy would be helpful here.
posted by tel3path at 11:34 AM on December 6, 2011 [9 favorites]

(That damn "limerance" again - look, we are not machines or Pavlov's dog; we are not compelled to become giddy about someone and then on schedule precisely 18 months later have those feelings transform into boredom. There is this internet tendency to come up with a term (usually a neurological-determinist one) and turn it into first an absolute explanation, then a rule (mysteriously, these rules all seem to boil down to "women are needy and clingy and want lurv, men are a precious commodity but they hate love and only want sex, so don't make any demands or have any needs or you'll scare precious, stupid, incapable-of-loving Him away").

Do not norm your behavior against fucked-up internet "science" about relationships.

This is a roundabout way of saying that I can testify to the fact that you can continue to love someone for years and years, they can bring you boundless delight, you can look forward to seeing them...long after the limerance-sell-by-date has passed. In fact, ongoing delight in someone (marred only by occasional squabbles, yes) is pretty much my test for a relationship - it's not simply intrinsic to all of them for eighteen months at which point it vanishes.)

Do you need therapy? Maybe? Depends on how unhappy you are and if you feel that this is marring your relationship. If it's not a Huge Giant Scary Deal, I'm a big fan of daily writing (in a google doc or similar so you always have it handy) about what you're thinking on this topic. Unpack it, explain it, work out strategies and reflect on them - for me, this practice has been extremely helpful and has allowed me to name and work through some fairly big stuff.
posted by Frowner at 11:46 AM on December 6, 2011 [19 favorites]

It seems like you think that at some point he's going to fall out of limerence and then, the scales will fall from his eyes and he'll realize that you're not all that awesome and special.

You may realize that some of his current feelings for you are about that new-relationship-energy, "your shit tastes like ice cream" part of the courtship. You sound like you're afraid of what will happen when that fades.

The thing is, you actually ARE that awesome and special. What that starry-eyed period does for us is allow us to brave emotional intimacy and mutual self-disclosure to the point where we know the true things that make each other awesome and special, instead of the "oh my god he reads Kant and has fluffy kitten arm hair" things that are not actually personality traits.

I think setting boundaries is a good thing, in general -- the "leave the party while you're still having fun" principle -- but there's the suggestion in your post that you're setting boundaries because you want to avoid increasing intimacy, instead of increasing intimacy gradually.

A good therapist could be great for this, just to help you work through your thinking processes and give you some support in taking risks in a relationship.

Good luck.
posted by endless_forms at 11:59 AM on December 6, 2011 [6 favorites]

I used to do a lot of relationship beanplating: Does he like me? Will he stop liking me? Will he still like me if I do this? A lot of tiptoeing and worrying. It put me on edge and it always backfired in the end.

Then I realized: you know, there's no reason for me not to take a partner at their word, no reason for me to go digging below the surface. If he likes me, he likes me. Not everything he does is some sort of coded clue regarding how he feels about me today. Not everything I do goes into his mental ledger of whether he'll stay with me or break up.

People, especially women, are brought up to believe that they can't ask for what they want in dating. That there's an elaborate unspoken dance, that it's all about body language and pheromones and waist-hip ratios, about behaving this way or dressing that way or opening the car door for your date or not sleeping together until date three. That's why we have The Rules and The Game and Cosmo's eight hundred tips on how to secretly tell if a guy really likes you. It's exhausting! And it leads to nothing but anxiety.

See if you can take this relationship as it's presented to you, with no subtext and no one keeping score. You mention that you're worried you'll get used to each other, but the truth is getting comfortable around each other is sort of the goal of long-term relationships. Not every moment will be like a first date, true, but knowing that someone's got your back, and has seen you during your crap moments and still thinks you're great, is worth a million first dates. If you end up in a long-term committed relationship, you'll want and need to be able to ask for what you want, without worrying about upsetting some sort of relationship balance.
posted by Metroid Baby at 12:08 PM on December 6, 2011 [24 favorites]

It seems that you are suffering from an excessive amount of insecurity and anxiety. There is an extent to which the anxiety of a new relationship is helpful and even somewhat pleasurable, as an element of uncertainty can strengthen attraction - the high of finding out someone likes you as much as you like them exists only because you previously weren't sure. But this does not sound like a healthy amount or duration of anxiety - it sounds like it is keeping you from establishing a deeper and more secure bond.

There are two explanations for your anxiety - either your SO isn't doing what he needs to do to make you feel secure in his interest and affections, or you are responding to something other than him (i.e., your own baggage and issues, which have little or nothing to do with him and his behavior). Are there things your SO could do differently to make you feel more secure? Are there things he does now that undermine your faith in the relationship (I mean, real things, not things like hanging up the phone because he has to go somewhere else)? From your question, it does not really seem like this is the case, but it's worth thinking about because if there's something he could do to help I'm sure (if your description is accurate) he'd be happy to.

Other than that, you're left with your own issues as the cause. To address this, you will need to confront the irrationality of your thinking and work to change your behavior. Therapy is helpful for this - a therapist can help you articulate what's going on in your head and develop coping strategies for your anxiety which are healthier for your relationship. Right now you seem to be accepting the stories your anxiety tells you: "If he ends a phone call, it means he's sick of me," or "If anything goes wrong during our time together it will be a catastrophe and undermine our relationship." These are not reasonable conclusions to draw, but it is emotionally easier to give in and accommodate the anxiety (by ending the call yourself, or turning down a date) than it is to confront the fear, tell yourself it is irrational, and act accordingly. You will, with or without a therapist, need to explore why you tell yourself these untrue things (think about it - has it, at any time during your relationship, indicated a loss of interest when your SO says he has to get off the phone? Then why should this time be any different?), and how to effectively challenge them and redirect your thinking toward a more accurate model of how relationships work.

A partner in a new relationship (and you are still acting like yours is new) has a lot of power over you, and you may not know them extremely well yet, no matter how much you like them. In that circumstance, it's easy to imagine that your SO is cool, confident, and completely aware of how he's making you feel. But it doesn't work like that - your SO isn't from some alien from a planet of unflappable mind-readers, he's in the same boat as you. With luck, he's less insecure, but he's still hopeful and uncertain and trying to figure you and the relationship out. So when you start feeling like you need to deny him your presence to make it seem rare and special, try imagining that it's him telling himself that about you. Would you tell him he's being silly, and that if he offers to see you more, you'll be more happy and into him, not less? Then tell yourself the same thing. He needs the reassurance of a partner who acts like she wants to spend time with him, too. He is not a ticking time bomb of not liking you, and he's not watching to see if you break some relationship rule - he's just a person who thinks you're great, and you're both on the same team. Try to keep that in mind as much as possible.

I hope you can work this out, because you seem like a person who could really do with the security and stability of a more settled relationship. There's nothing sad about getting to the point where you build a loving, shared home with someone who you are confident will want to be with you even if you are moping around the couch with unbrushed hair and nothing witty to talk about. And I'm not sure what it would even mean to "overindulge" in spending time with your SO, but there is no way in which seeing each other more is going to make your relationship fat.
posted by unsub at 12:12 PM on December 6, 2011 [7 favorites]

My wife and I met in High School, over 15 years ago, and we basically haven't left each other's sight since then. I did go to college 3 hours away for one year, but transferred back home once we realized we were both miserable. We moved in together before we were married, and hate it when one of us has to travel more than a couple days for work.

I still get the chills when she touches my shoulder, and she gets happy butterflies in her stomach when I come home from work. We don't argue or even disagree that often, and I can count the number of times we have been angry with each other on one hand.

There is no reason that the giddy, limerant, honeymoon phase of your relationship ever has to end. Live your life in the present, not dreading some depressing future that MIGHT NEVER COME. You should definitely discuss these feelings with your boyfriend, and probably with a therapist or counselor if you need to.
posted by Rock Steady at 12:28 PM on December 6, 2011 [6 favorites]

This seems to me to be a case of the right action for the wrong reason.

Setting boundaries on your interactions with your SO is a good thing for you. In other words, the point is to give yourself time to pursue your hobbies/friends/work/etc and not become completely consumed with your partner early on in a relationship. Making sure that you have a life of your own as opposed to being absorbed by his.

Yet somehow people tend to take perfectly health relationship advice and turn it from "this is good for your well being" to "this will make him want you more". This is where I believe "act scarce and you will seem like a valuable and hard to obtain commodity, and he will salivate over you" comes from. For some reason, people tend to be more willing to take advice that is aimed at capturing a prize then advice for preserving their own health and happiness.

Really think about this. How many of your actions are focused on capturing him versus making you happy? If you answer that with "capturing him will make me happy" then Nthing therapy.
posted by Shouraku at 12:33 PM on December 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

It seems like you have shifted your focus from worrying about the relationship, to worrying about how much you worry about the relationship. Like you are worried that being too worried is going to ruin everything. You can start working on that not by getting rid of the fears, but accepting that sometimes you do have irrational fears, like people often do. You might even share this about yourself with your SO.
posted by AlsoMike at 12:59 PM on December 6, 2011

First of all, therapy? really? This seems like a really common problem. It sounds like your feeling is that things are so wonderful with this guy you're feeling bad about the fact that it won't feel like that forever. I think, but I'm not sure that not spending 24/7 together will actually help keep that feeling alive. After all, if you spend some time missing each other it will be sweater when you get together.
Maybe I should mention that this is the first relationship I've had that's given me this giddy, limerant feeling. I really like it, but I'm aware that it can't last forever, and I'm really dreading the day that it all just... evaporates. I hate the idea that he'll gradually grow out of treasuring or even enjoying my presence, and eventually we'll be so used to each other that it won't even be special that we're together.
There's a term for what you're describing: 'limerence'. It does go away over time but if the relationship goes well it gets replaced by a strong bond. If I were you I'd just try to relax about it.

Also, it may be that he does want some time just by himself. There's nothing really wrong with that so long as you're comfortable with it.
posted by delmoi at 2:05 PM on December 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

It sounds like you're terrified of all the things that could go wrong, and this fear is keeping you from all the things that could go right.

Here's a few lines from Khalil Gibran's The Prophet that seem particularly relevant:

But if in your fear you would seek only love's peace and love's pleasure,
Then it is better for you that you cover your nakedness and pass out of love's threshing floor,
Into the seasonless world where you shall laugh, but not all of your laughter, and weep, but not all of your tears.

So... clearly there's a long history of this that can't be stopped with a single answer, but I think you need to choose to accept that things may go wrong, that sometimes relationships do end and that people do get heartbroken, but that without taking those risks it's impossible to ever reach the heights that love can go. You can go on protecting yourself, but it comes at the price of the relationship you're trying to save.
posted by twirlypen at 2:20 PM on December 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

Yeah, sorry everyone, it's just not possible to permanently be in a state of dopamine fueled romantic love. The sort of obsession that's typical of limerence? It pretty much needs to go away after a while because your brain can't sustain it. Can love last indefinitely? Sure. Helen Fisher even found that some octogenarian still show dopamine spikes when they look at pictures of their beloved, but can they remain in that state forever? I mean, no one can prove that Rock Steady's wife doesn't still get butterflies every time he walks through the door, but does science tell us that's plausible? No, science tells us that it is not.

So OP, no, you're likely not to be in romantic-love forever, but it seems there's a world of attached love beyond it that many people find even better.
posted by namesarehard at 4:08 PM on December 6, 2011

Maybe I should mention that this is the first relationship I've had that's given me this giddy, limerant feeling. I really like it, but I'm aware that it can't last forever, and I'm really dreading the day that it all just... evaporates. I hate the idea that he'll gradually grow out of treasuring or even enjoying my presence, and eventually we'll be so used to each other that it won't even be special that we're together.

Dude, by your own admission, you have no idea what comes next. Those of us in long term relationships don't hang out in them out of inertia. It's different but kind of awesome and you're really not giving yourself a chance here.
posted by DarlingBri at 5:05 PM on December 6, 2011

Being left and losing someone who feels very important to you can hurt a lot. It's scary and you want to avoid it, and maybe this is a reflex you have learned through many previous experiences of losing someone you cared about a lot. But it isn't a reflex that helps you--it's one that protects your insecurity and feeds it, so that you continue feeling like you have to make it safe and not-vulnerable for yourself by hiding or limiting or obscuring parts of you.

Be yourself with this person you care so much about. Why? If you don't, you are building an ever-stronger shield around your insecurity, because you can always still think to yourself, "but if he knew the REAL me, he might reject me!" And how could you know the answer to that if you aren't actually being yourself? If you're being yourself, and he doesn't think you're a psycho, SUCCESS!!!! If you're being yourself, and maybe there is more conflict or things seem not to fit so much anymore and the relationship ends, then at least you know for sure that you were being real-actual-you, and being as authentic as possible.

Because here's the really important part: if you're not being yourself, but the relationship seems right for not-real-actual-you, then how will you ever know if it's right for real-actual-you? In other words, be yourself to find out whether this relationship and partner are right for YOU, instead of wondering whether you are going to be able to be the right person for him. Because as much as it might be difficult to get through losing a person you feel strongly for, you can certainly survive that. But what would it be like to move forward in a relationship that may not actually be right for you because it does not nurture your true self? I think that's a far greater cost.
posted by so_gracefully at 9:06 PM on December 6, 2011 [4 favorites]

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