How to distinguish relationship doubts from a complicated history?
February 24, 2012 6:20 AM   Subscribe

I've been with a wonderful man for 4 years and I'm panicking about ending the relationship for no good reason. I still get smiley when he texts me and he makes me laugh, he's gorgeous, but I have these sudden adrenalin rushes and an overwhelming panicky feeling that I have to end the relationship immediately. I asked for three weeks apart to clear my head, and we made it to two before I wanted him here again... but the panicking is back!

This is the longest relationship I've ever had, the next longest all ended after a year after I started behaving complacently, picking on them for silly things. I did the same with my current boyfriend but he took it on the chin and stuck around. We had a long distance relationship for three and a half years then last summer he moved in with me. Throughout the relationship I’ve developed stupid crushes on TOTALLY inappropriate men, but I suspect this is more of an obsessive thing rather than anything real.

First few months were great, then a slight nagging doubt started, which has blown up into something I feel like I can barely control. I can be happy and life is great then a thought like 'don't drink at the party tonight or you'll dump him' will enter my head for no reason and I'm thrown back into panicking. I got worried I'd do something silly so I asked him to move out for three weeks. During that time I tried to make plans to keep busy, I work part time so I've found ways to fill my day more and I've started seeing a counsellor. I was really optimistic when he moved back in but the doubt came back yesterday. No sleep last night and I feel sick. Sleep has been a little thin on the ground lately!

He has been unwaveringly supportive, affectionate and understanding. I've never hidden anything from him, he knows exactly how I feel and how much it's confusing me. He's not pressuring me to do anything, but there is no doubt he loves me (which is pressure in itself). My parents split when I was 6 and I don't really remember having any families around as a child that didn't end in divorce. Any thoughts or experience anyone may have would be great. I can't help but wonder (hope) this is a result of my childhood and we can work through it as I don't want to imagine life without him.
posted by Anne Onymouse to Human Relations (28 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
It sounds like anxiety. You believe it's going to end no matter what (lack of control) so you are tempted to do the ending yourself (so that you have some control).

Therapy is probably a good thing, but in the meantime asking him to move out, then back in, then out again, etc. is not really fair.
posted by headnsouth at 6:33 AM on February 24, 2012 [13 favorites]

Okay, everyone is going to tell you to go to...therapy!

IANYT. It's pretty common, though, to try to replicate the relationships we grew up with. It's also pretty common to try unconsciously to destroy successful relationships because the old/bad/scary relationships are familiar, and because on some level your identity is "the person who can't have a long term relationship". Once you start having one and succeeding, it opens up all kinds of scary questions - what is my identity if I am no longer that person? what to do next? what to do with all that emotional energy that used to go into the drama of failed relationships? what if this relationship, which you care about, fails down the road for unrelated reasons that you don't control? You may not be conscious of those things, but they're probably in your head.
posted by Frowner at 6:34 AM on February 24, 2012 [11 favorites]

Dont do it!!!!

You will regret it if you do break up, instead go to the very end of this panic to see what happens if you dont take action based on the panic that you feel. Defeat this panic feeling and not your relationship!

You do need therapy that is certain.
posted by pakora1 at 6:42 AM on February 24, 2012 [10 favorites]

When you get these impulses, can you identify why you get them? What I mean is, does anything in particular trigger them (i.e., you tend to think this way after he's done something in particular that's always bugged you just a tiny bit, or maybe you only think this way if you've not gotten much sleep), or do these thoughts just sort of...appear?

Actually, that may be a good thing to do since you're in therapy as well -- start examining what's going on when you get these impulses. Write down when you get them, what's going on, what you're doing, what he's doing. This is something that may help your therapist as well.

Snme really random explanation may come to light ("oh, huh, I tend to think this way a LOT more right before my period, maybe it's just PMT"), and you'll also be focusing on the facts of these impulses rather than giving in and living in them, if that makes any sense (it's harder to let the impulse take you over if you're in "okay, what time is it, what day is it, what exactly was I doing before I started thinking this" mode).
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:45 AM on February 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure if this is a chance for you to get this off of your chest or there's a question to this. Needless to say, don't do it and you may need to go to therapy.. If you do breakup with him, you're going to regret it and continue with this wretched cycle of uncessary breakups. Well, until someone does it to you..
posted by baconandvodka at 6:47 AM on February 24, 2012

I did this to my bf for 6 mo before he began to pull away. I wish I had either shut that part of my brain up, or ended the relationship immediately, because the pain I put us both through was outrageous. You have to realize that being with someone like this is a blessing, and it is okay to be loved the way you are and not assume that the other shoe is going to drop at some point. In fact, it's imperative. You have to trust that your relationship will succeed. I was too wrapped up in my own mind to realize that I just needed to let go. Now I am waiting 6 mo to try again with my guy and it sucks every day.

EMDR therapy is helping me get over my insecurities and my anxiety about not feeling worthy enough to be loved consistently. Maybe that would sooth what ails you, too.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 6:47 AM on February 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

Pick up a copy of The Worry Cure by Robert Leahy.

Is it possible that you're fixated on your relationship as a means of distracting yourself from other, more troubling matters?
posted by trunk muffins at 6:48 AM on February 24, 2012 [4 favorites]

Don't become a victim of your own anxiety.
Don't destroy the relationship for this.
posted by Flood at 6:51 AM on February 24, 2012 [3 favorites]

there are many short- and long-term ways to approach anxiety. some are therapy related and some may require the help of a psychiatrist. given all the positives you described above for your sweetie, it seems as though it may be prudent of you to at least talk to a professional a few times to check your internal balance and to take care of yourself (and ultimately, this relationship, if it is something that is a positive for you).
posted by anya32 at 6:54 AM on February 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

To those who couldn't see the question, here it is:

"How to distinguish relationship doubts from a complicated history?"

I've never been able to do this by myself. Need another person (usually a therapist) to see things from the outside that are invisible to myself.

Robert Leahy was my professor. He's one of the reasons I'm not a behaviorist.
posted by DMelanogaster at 7:01 AM on February 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's hard to armchair diagnose with limited info, but this could be clinical anxiety or something like that. The reason it strikes me as a strong possibility is because you place a strong emphasis on how intrusive and uncontrollable these thoughts are.

From what you describe, it seems like you will have a pretty common thought or feeling and then be unable to stop fixating on it, and then you're in a really bad loop. Having "crushes" while in a commited relationship is normal, maybe even expected. You recognize that they're inappropriate and don't act on them, which is a healthy way to handle it. You have a thought about how if you drink you might dump him, and instead of being able to dismiss it as irrational or silly, you can't get it out of your mind and it winds around tighter until you feel panicy.

So you're having intrusive thoughts that you can't dismiss. You can't help fixating on these thoughts, despite a desire not to, and this leads to panic feelings and a sense of being out of control.

Everyone has these sorts of anxious thoughts, and sometimes have difficulty getting rid of them. But it seems like for you they are overwhelming and overly intrusive, and are having a serious impact on your life. You express great care and concern for your boyfriend, and obviously don't want to hurt him. I think that you've been great about open communication, and letting him know what's going on. That's a pretty big deal, and a great skill that you have. It will serve you well while you work on these problems.

Taking the step of finding a counselor was also a really smart move. Do you feel comfortable with your counselor? Have you explored the possibility that you have real anxiety problems? A good counselor can be key to learning how to manage these anxieties in a healthy way. And medication isn't for everyone, but is a huge improvement in quality of life for some. I, myself, have anxiety problems that I am on medication for, and it has been a godsend. It wouldn't be nearly as effective if I didn't combine it with learning skills and techniques to help me cope.

You're on the right path. You have taken the exact steps to solve this in a healthy way. You will solve this, though it might take a lot of work. Keep communicating with him, express your love and care and show him that you are working hard to figure this out. Keep with the counselor, make sure that you've found a counselor who is a good fit for you. This may or may not be related to childhood issues. Either way you will be able to deal with it.

Cut yourself some slack, you've been awesome. You've acted in the smartest, most effective way possible. You're doing everything right :)

Good luck!
posted by f_panda at 7:48 AM on February 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Going from a long-distance relationship to living together is a huge change.

You two can still date without living together, I think. Maybe your concern is living with him, but you think you have to keep living with him to maintain the relationship (you don't).
posted by the young rope-rider at 8:20 AM on February 24, 2012

Something doesn't sound right about this.

you measure time in 1/2 years and summers; drinking at parties==> young
seeing a "counsellor"; "fill my day more"==> money/credit
only work part time, but have access to "TOTALLY inappropriate men" => not heroin addicts, but older married men?
your man is "gorgeous" "affectionate" "unwavering" "supportive" "understanding"==> boring

But despite the title of your post, there is no mention of a complicated history. At all. A divorce at age 6 is hardly complicated; which leads me to conclude the "complicated" is entirely in your head-- your life is so not complicated that it is creating drama to make it interesting.

So, 24, no significant events in your life, with enough money/credit to have free time, deliberately sending out signals of availability to men you know can only be temporary/bad for you (and bad for others); and a boyfriend named Even Steven that submits to whatever you want him to do?

... and you post your relationship question to METAFILTER for an answer.

Think this through, really think this through. What answer did you expect to get here? Of course there are insightful people here but you didn't email them specifically; you crowdsourced an emotional issue to a stereotypically cerebral group. An issue that would probably have been better answered "from experience"-- in relationship forums or Cosmo Radio. That may sound silly, but their whole universe is ambivalent relationships. But they couldn't help you, only smart people can help you, smart people who can figure you out. Whose advice you can then dismiss because, after all, it's the internet.

So if I'm right from the little you've posted, then you're not looking for a relationship, you're looking for drama, passion, story. Fine. But you overthink things, fear, so rather than jumping into the exciting world you tease it, dare it, poke at it from the safety of your apartment and the arms of Even Steven, and if the world grabs you back then you can just go with it, more safely engage in it, because you didn't ask for it to happen, it just happened, to you.
posted by TheLastPsychiatrist at 8:24 AM on February 24, 2012 [3 favorites]

One of the most important ideas I got onto through therapy was that a root of my obsessive thoughts (mine tend toward I guess what you'd call "worst case scenarios" in life) was an attempt to be in control - you can't control terrible things happening but if you vividly imagine them happening you can sort of project yourself into the situation - as painful as that imagination is - and convince yourself that you would still survive, that you're not risking the complete destruction of your life and sanity by loving people, by being attached.

The problem with this (and basically all obsessive and/or compulsive behaviors and thoughts we engage in trying to feel in control of reality) is that it is crazy and counterproductive. You can't control life, you can only control your own behavior in the moment you're in. Recognize your thoughts and feelings as what they are - irrational fears and obsessive but meaningless (as far as what they say about the intrinsic value, stability or potential of your relationship) thoughts. Stay with therapy, be fearless in expressing your love and commitment and firm intent to your partner, be prepared for ups and downs but know that many, many people face and overcome these sorts of anxieties.

It really sounds like you know what you want and what you are afflicted by is not doubt so much as fear. I've always felt like that line about having "nothing to fear but fear itself" is not quite right because fear itself is plenty to be afraid of, but keep this in mind: fear cannot kill you. Fear cannot drive you insane. And fear cannot force you to do something you do not want to do. It can make you terrified of all these things happening but it can't make them happen. It takes time and when you experience setbacks it feels like you aren't really making progress but you are.
posted by nanojath at 8:26 AM on February 24, 2012 [10 favorites]

You know what? Let him go. He sounds like a great guy and you don't appear to be able to handle a mature adult relationship at this point. Don't bring him down with you.
posted by mochapickle at 9:13 AM on February 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

It sounds like anxiety. You believe it's going to end no matter what (lack of control) so you are tempted to do the ending yourself (so that you have some control).

Therapy is probably a good thing, but in the meantime asking him to move out, then back in, then out again, etc. is not really fair.

Marked in my head as best answer. You grew up without control over your circumstances. The only time you have total control is when you destroy things or when you avoid relationships altogether. So learn to deal with this control issue*

*Disclaimer--I'm still working on this too.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:21 AM on February 24, 2012 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Hi TheLastPsychiatrist, I realised after I'd posted I'd left my age out. I'm 30 (not too old for parties), we're going out for dinner on Saturday and I'm worrying about drinking then. I'm self-employed, in the office two days a week, work from home alone the rest of the time. After my parents divorced my father married an alcoholic who hit him - he stayed because he needed to be needed and I guess he felt we didn't need him enough. She made it clear from the start he belonged to her and she’d fight for him and when I was 13 I gave up fighting and moved to my Mums. I didn’t think it was relevant enough to mention above and it is what I talk to my counsellor about... at length.

My boyfriend is all the things you listed, but not boring.

I posted this here as the responses are food for thought and hearing about other people’s experiences and their advice gives a point of focus, a different perspective and a sense of calm.

Thank you so much for all the feedback!
posted by Anne Onymouse at 9:31 AM on February 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Here’s my immediate thought: This guy puts up with everything, what’s wrong with him?

Could you be having that same exact thought, even if you’ve tried to suppress it?

As a woman who’s been in a relationship with very loving and very needy men, one of the sources of my own sense of panic has been asking myself “Does he really love me for me, or is he just desperate and/or in love with the idea of love and very good at all the outward trappings of romanticism?”

Maybe what you’re doing falls under the category of testing behaviors. Let’s put judgment aside for a second- yes, testing in relationships is Not A Good Thing ethically and all that, but to some extent it’s also natural human behavior. I think you could be testing his boundaries, trying to see if he’ll crack, because you’re insecure about this question, “Does he love me for me?” Of course, the irony is that pushing someone away to see if they have self-esteem can do irreversible damage to the relationship, after you’ve gotten the results you wanted- but I think typically, people do this is smaller ways so that the entire relationship doesn’t implode. I think maybe you’ve already covered the small things and he’s doggedly hanging on, which is driving you to more extreme measures. Part of you wants him to stand up for himself and say, “I love you, but I won’t put up with this.” No? Do a thought experiment-might that make you regain some attraction to him? I know it seems like a paradox. But you’re actually protecting yourself- if he’d needy, he could leave you when opportunities pick up, but if he loves you for you, he’ll stick around for good. Or so goes the internal logic.

I could be wrong, but ask yourself if any of this rings a bell with you. Here’s where I came to that conclusion based on what you wrote.

He has been unwaveringly supportive, affectionate and understanding
I asked for three weeks apart to clear my head, and we made it to two before I wanted him here again...
This is the longest relationship I've ever had
I did the same with my current boyfriend but he took it on the chin and stuck around.
I got worried I'd do something silly so I asked him to move out for three weeks.
He's not pressuring me to do anything, but there is no doubt he loves me (which is pressure in itself).

posted by stockpuppet at 9:56 AM on February 24, 2012 [5 favorites]

I can't help but wonder (hope) this is a result of my childhood and we can work through it as I don't want to imagine life without him.

It isn't his job to work this out with you. His job and your job is to bring a whole and healthy person to your relationships. The place you work this out is in therapy and the person you work that out with is a therapist. If you are sabotaging your relationship, which it sounds like you are, you need to seek therapy ASAP.

There is no such thing as unconditional love between adults, and if you push him hard enough, he will walk. It is not necessary for you to prove that theory.
posted by DarlingBri at 11:23 AM on February 24, 2012 [7 favorites]

Take the time to figure out how you panic.

What do you picture, what do you tell yourself, what do you remember, what do you imagine, where and what kind of bodily shift do you become aware of?

Realize that these are just processes that have become linked together inside you; they may or may not have anything useful or accurate to tell you about what the world around you, or what is "right" for you.

After you notice them, deliberately modulate them.

Make the pictures bigger or smaller, nearer or farther, move them above you or below you; make the voices softer or louder or more soothing or more playful.

Notice how the feelings change.

Change the content of the pictures, and what you are telling yourself.

Register how your feelings change even more.

Do this repeatedly, for several minutes, without interruption... so you that your brain builds new links, and new automatic habits.

Do this again, and again, and again... and notice that you've now turned the old habit of panic into a new habit of guiding yourself into the feelings you want to have for yourself.
posted by darth_tedious at 12:10 PM on February 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

Has any professional ever evaluated you for OCD? If you think there is a chance OCD might fit you, be sure to find a specialist. Many therapists think they can treat it, but only a cognitive behavioral therapist trained specifically in OCD really can. (OCD can take forms quite different from Hollywood stereotypes).
posted by Original 1928 Flavor at 1:06 PM on February 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

I am not a therapist or anything, and I'm not saying you have OCD, but I have OCD and this is exactly what I do. Zoloft helps a lot but in high-stress situations it comes back. Last time, my therapist said something that really resonated: if you are actually thinking about breaking up, you'll be contemplating it for a while and thinking about when the best time is to break up with him and all that instead of being like OMGINEEDTOBREAK UP RIGHTNOWWWWWWWWWWW. Have you ever had friends in relationships that they wanted to end? How long did it typically take them to make a decision? Something to think about. Also, looking up ROCD (relationship OCD) might be helpful.
posted by tweedle at 3:23 PM on February 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

At least until you figure this out, if do not want to dump him and you are afraid that Saturday night, if you drink, you will dump him even though you haven't decided to do that and wouldn't right now if you didn't drink, then perhaps it would be helpful just not to drink on Saturday night. (And, as they say in AA, whatever causes trouble, is trouble.)
posted by Anitanola at 5:42 PM on February 24, 2012

Seconding ROCD - I've been through exactly what you're going through, and that was what I sought therapy/help for (successfully, I might add).

I know it's unbelievably tough, but please, please don't let your anxiety inform any life-changing decisions. I can't tell you how many times I've thought how glad I am I didn't make any rash choices when I was going through a rough patch.
posted by at 6:20 PM on February 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

It sounds like you're stringing him along. What kind of couple "takes a break for three weeks?" that, to me, sounds like a relationship that's circling the drain. Either be nicer to him or cut him loose.
posted by Afroblanco at 10:28 AM on February 25, 2012

Sorry about the "boring" adjective, I simply meant it as opposed to "unpredictable/emotional." Interesting link that your Dad was the one being abused/dominated by an alcoholic woman. This is not a judgment of your character, it's an observation about the generational loops that we fall into. Did your Dad and Ginny make it, or did they split up?

I posted this here as the responses are food for thought and hearing about other people’s experiences and their advice gives a point of focus, a different perspective and a sense of calm.

You want my Hail Mary longshot advice? Winner take all? Show your boyfriend this thread. I'm sure he'd have an insight about you, singular and plural, and he'd be able to read your words with greater precision, he'd know what was a little white lie and what was an understatement and what gigantic thing you left out and etc. It would be even more interesting to know what a) he would have advised a hypothetical woman in this scenario (not knowing it was you); and b) if he could tell this was you from reading it (i.e. you may think he doesn't know about the alcohol/dumping link, but he might). If you can survive that discussion with him, if you feel satisfied with the discussion, you will have attained a deeper honesty that is no longer based on trying to maintain a certain identity around him.
posted by TheLastPsychiatrist at 12:47 PM on February 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Dad and Ginny are still very much together, two heart attacks and a stroke later and she's his carer, everything she ever wanted, he needs her now too.

Tim knows everything. I'm trying to understand what is going on in my head and I want him to understand as well. I previously asked him to give me space for three weeks, he's said if I ask for anything like that again, he'll go for good as he can't keep being hurt. The more I mull it over, the more I think it has to end, but ultimately, I don't think it's the right decision. I think I'm expecting my relationships to give me some sort of total fulfilment and I don't think they ever will. I want to be happy with him.
posted by Anne Onymouse at 2:30 AM on February 27, 2012

No relationship provides total fulfilment. That is not a reasonable expectation. If you have issues because your dad left and so you expect all partners to leave and you therefore push, that's something you should address in therapy but you have the option of choosing not to do that and instead choosing to be happy.
posted by DarlingBri at 4:45 AM on February 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

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