How to deal with a boyfriend who is "needy"?
October 5, 2012 8:07 PM   Subscribe

How do I help my boyfriend, who I think has adult separation anxiety disorder? How do I deal with his neediness without feeling unhappy or guilty?

I posted a similar question a month ago and received great answers. At that time, I didn't know what was going on with my boyfriend-- I only knew that he seemed overly clingy. But some of his very specific behaviors, and some googling on my part, lead me to believe he has adult separation anxiety disorder, a condition in which an adult fixates on a loved one and becomes extremely anxious when that person is not around.

My boyfriend and I are in our 40s. We see each other every night after work and spend most of every weekend together. When I go out of town for work (1-2 days a month), he becomes miserable. He describes my time away from him as a "disaster" or a "catastrophe." He is totally serious, not exaggerating; it truly feels like a disaster to him. Whenever I tell him that I may not be available on a certain day, he becomes extremely depressed, and brings up all of his insecurities about our relationship. He will sort of "flood" me with negative statements, often for hours, the day before I'm going on a work trip. This wears me down and makes me upset. When I am out of town, or even when I'm in town but we're not spending the night together, he will often wake up with bad dreams and tell me later that he couldn't sleep and had nightmares because he missed me too much.

Even when I'm around on a normal day and just at work, he becomes irrationally upset if I don't text him frequently throughout the day. An ongoing bone of contention is that he is upset I don't send him emails. We see each other daily, and talk throughout the day; to me, sending emails in addition is over the top, and I wouldn't have time anyway, because my job is demanding.

All of this is a challenge for me, and is made harder by the fact that I am an extremely independent person. I would be happier seeing him just a few times a week and on weekends, but not seeing me every day would make him miserable, he has told me. I also love my job and love to travel for work, but he hates the fact that my job keeps me away from home until early evening and that I have to travel sometimes.

I feel like I'm losing myself in this relationship. He has so many wonderful qualities; aside from this issue, he is everything I would want in a partner, but his neediness is making me unhappy and, frankly, is making me less attracted to him and is driving me away from him. Has anyone else dealt with a situation like this successfully, where both partners ended up happy? Does my boyfriend need some kind of counseling? Do I?
posted by DianaV to Human Relations (20 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
He needs some help with this. And you need some affirmation that your perceptions are accurate and your limit setting is reasonable.

If I were you, I would encourage him to get some help, and continue to maintain reasonable limits in terms of your communication and your need to meet the expectations of your profession without his demanding more of you.
posted by HuronBob at 8:11 PM on October 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

The man in in his 40s. Tough love this situation. His behavior makes him unattractive and you are reconsidering your relationship with him every time he gets needy. Make it clear to him that this behavior is unacceptable and destructive and that he needs to do something about it. Do not feel guilty about setting boundaries, and push back if he tries to make you.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 8:12 PM on October 5, 2012 [4 favorites]

Does my boyfriend need some kind of counseling?

Therapy, yes.

Do I?

Probably not. But from the sound of it, if he doesn't agree to respect your boundaries and get the help he needs, this relationship isn't going to work.
posted by mhoye at 8:13 PM on October 5, 2012 [4 favorites]

You might benefit from therapy in that it could help you feel less guilty should you want to walk away from a situation, that, to me, seems pretty intolerable. IMHO relationships should expand and enhance, not contract and stifle our worlds.
posted by Jandoe at 8:32 PM on October 5, 2012 [6 favorites]

Did a previous GF cheat on him during work trips or at all or something? Do you have the kind of relationship where you can just say, "'re fine, have a beer," or some other way to acknowledge that this keeps happening? You don't necessarily have to find a magic bullet, just bring it up. He might just need some reassurance that whatever is getting triggered or whatever isn't in the cards.
posted by rhizome at 9:28 PM on October 5, 2012

It's really hard to answer this without knowing how things have gone when you've tried to discuss this with him. (You have tried to communicate with him about this ... right?)

Given that you value independence so much and already think you're spending a bit too much time together, while he seems to hate independence and think it's of the utmost importance to spend all your free time together, it just doesn't sound like you're compatible. Sorry.

It seems unlikely that one or both of you, in your 40s, is going to suddenly have the kind of dramatic personality transformation that would seem to be necessary for this to work out.

If you do stay together, I agree with These Birds of a Feather about tough love.
posted by John Cohen at 9:42 PM on October 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

What happens if you want to spend an evening doing something other than work, like see friends or do some activity he doesn't enjoy? I'm asking because if he guilts you out of it or makes life unpleasant for you through his behavior if you don't spend all your free time with him, I'd be worried that his "separation anxiety" is turning into a way of controlling you. That would not be OK.
posted by MadamM at 9:47 PM on October 5, 2012 [3 favorites]

To the first question, yes, assuming he has made efforts to stop doing this.... which is beyond excessive and unhealthy--and, realistically, untenable.

To the second, mmmmmmmmmmmaybe; if he has made no efforts or raised the notion of getting counseling (or had something positive to say, assuming you've brought this up), the fact that the first question was asked is more than a little surprising.
posted by ambient2 at 4:43 AM on October 6, 2012

Woah, that sounds horrible. I would not be able to deal with that at all. This is not normal behavior for a 40 year old. You need to tell him to get his shit together and toughen up.

This just sounds manipulative and annoying to me. Does he ever go out by himself?
posted by mary8nne at 4:57 AM on October 6, 2012

This sounds like a mental health problem. I don't think it's going to help to tell him that he needs to 'grow up' or get over it. Tough love rarely helps with mental health problems. I think he needs treatment, seriously. This must be extremely unpleasant for him as well as for you. I think his problems are sufficiently specific that, rather than 'therapy' in a generic sense, he might benefit from a proper assessment of what modalities of therapy are likely to be helpful for him. You seem to have diagnosed him with one condition but there are a number of different mental health issues that could lead to this kind of behaviour.
posted by Acheman at 5:37 AM on October 6, 2012 [3 favorites]

Yes to the mental health assessment. He sounds like My friend's husband before he started taking a mood stabilizer. The "flooding" you with negative remarks for hours at a time could be an episode of mania. Or it could be something else but no one will know until he gets checked out. He needs someone who is really going to dig deep to find out what's going on and not just let him talk for an hour every week.

This behavior is absolutely not ok. You need to set some firm boundaries. He wants to be together 7 days a week? Then 4 is a good compromise. Set up a schedule and stuck to your guns. Make the schedule the same every week - apart mon, wed, and thurs, something like that. If he flips out and his behavior escalates, stick to your guns. If you feel unsafe at any time (honestly, it sounds like this is where it's headed), call the police.
posted by dawkins_7 at 6:45 AM on October 6, 2012

Your post made me think of this Captain Awkward post, which is written from the perspective of a woman who is clingy with her partner and knows it's a problem. Even though there's a lot in there that's specific to that situation, I think the overarching guidance about setting boundaries and each person taking responsibility for their own shit is useful.

Your boyfriend needs to take responsibility for his shit. You need to communicate clearly and gently about what's not working for you. A healthy relationship should be able to accommodate the needs of all its members, and that doesn't sound to be the case here.

Good luck!
posted by rosa at 7:01 AM on October 6, 2012

I wanted to point out that even healthy people can have different clinginess. My partner and I both want to spend all our free time together. It works for us because we both want it. If your needs don't match, negotiate, compromise, or find someone else.

However , while we do miss each other terribly after several days apart, there are no anxiety attacks. And we may text each other once or twice at night. Some days not at all. So, yes, I think your boyfriend to find professional help. And it's certainly not your job to be his therapist or his enabler.
posted by ethidda at 8:01 AM on October 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

Way way over the top. Do not let this guy/relationship drag you under.

You sound like a cool person who has their sh!t together. Is there anxiety on your part about wanting a partner, feeling like you're 40 and needing/wanting to settle down with a long term partner, and thinking he's your best shot?

Because he isn't. He so isn't. You do not have to fix him. You are not a bad person if you decide this is not what you want for the next x years.

Step 1 is telling him, firmly, without drama, what you've said here. Come home from work, say that you need to talk, and outline the above. You are independent and like to travel and do not want to be spending 100% of your waking hours worried that you're not doing enough to quell his anxieties. It's not sustainable as it is currently. If he chooses not to change** then you are reevaluating your relationship. This isn't a threat, you're outlining your own sense of where things are headed. Talk for a few minutes and say that you're giving him some space to think it over for a day or two. You'll answer any questions he has or will talk about what needs to happen in terms of practical changes. You will discuss what that means for both of your weeks - how many days together and apart? But you're not "negotiating" with someone who will just wear you down until you give in.

Then give it a month or so. If nothing has changed, I'd break up with him. He's 40 and you are not his hostage or mother.

Best of luck.

**don't fall for the "but this is just who I am, and can't change etc" line of thinking. He is an adult who can decide to make changes or not. This might mean therapy, workbooks or him filling more of his time.
posted by barnone at 8:28 AM on October 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

You don't get to call something in your life a "disorder" or "disease" and then do nothing about it.

You don't get to just inflict your shit on people and act like a child, while not taking steps to change.

You don't get to live in a world where everyone accommodates your crazy.

As an adult, you get help. From a professional.

Also see this question
posted by French Fry at 12:33 PM on October 6, 2012 [7 favorites]

I would point out that in your very first Ask, you described your ex husband thus: He reacts very strongly when he perceives someone is "abandoning" him. Just in case you need a reality check for not-crazy, I just want you to say that I have been in a bunch of relationships in my life and none of my partners have exhibited anything near this level of neediness. "In a relationship" is not where you work out your mommy issues, I don't care what causes them.

I would be pretty okay saying to such a partner "Look, your overwhelming neediness is keeping us from developing the kind of comfort and trust we should be building six months in. Your neediness and anxiety is way outside of normal, I think this is a mental health problem, and it would make me happy if you sought help for this."
posted by DarlingBri at 2:15 PM on October 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks, all, for the great advice.

I talked to him about this issue. He is reluctant to have any sort of mental health assessment or to speak with a counselor. He doesn't feel his behavior is unreasonable and is afraid a counselor would tell him something negative about himself or about me. I told him he needs help to deal with this issue so that he isn't so upset when I'm not around. He said he'll feel much better as soon as he feels more secure in the relationship. (He wants to live together, as soon as possible, and I've told him multiple times I am not ready for that. Me not being ready makes him feel insecure.)

He thinks it's unreasonable for me to give him only a few days' notice when I have to go out of town, even though I always tell him as soon as I find out. He said two weeks' notice would be an adequate amount of time for him to prepare.

I told him if he needs two weeks' notice to prepare for me being gone for two days, he needs help with that. He doesn't think it's unreasonable.

He really won't feel secure until we are living together, that's the bottom line, but I am obviously quite wary of making such a commitment when he behaves in this manner.
posted by DianaV at 9:26 AM on October 9, 2012

Right, and then he won't feel secure until you're married, or have kids/dogs/etc., or get attached as Siamese Twins, or you work at home (if at all) so he can keep an eye on you 24/7. Of course he wants to live together as soon as possible, it's all of a piece. I'm sorry, but when his position is entirely reasonable and none of yours is, that's unreasonable. What's his solution for finding out when you're traveling before you already do, getting another job? Two weeks!

I'm sorry, but when someone is so attached to this and unwilling even to brook criticism or the chance of hearing something negative (WTF) about it/him, the prognosis does not look good. I'm sure someone will chime in with a relevant book, but this really smells like manipulative/controlling behavior. How is he about your friends?

In my comment before I was trying to root for the underdog a little and allow for at least a little legitimacy to his stance. Live and learn, I now think the guy really needs help.
posted by rhizome at 11:38 AM on October 9, 2012

Response by poster: rhizome: He is not super supportive of me doing things separately with my friends. I don't have very many friends in this area, so it doesn't come up often, but I have noticed he seems jealous if I "choose" to spend time with a friend instead of with him.
posted by DianaV at 1:23 PM on October 9, 2012

He really won't feel secure until we are living together, that's the bottom line

Honey. No. That's today's bottom line. Then it's until you're engaged, then it's until you're married, then it's until you give up your job, and then it's living in a drawer under the bed having a Special Victims Unit made about you.

He doesn't feel his behavior is unreasonable and is afraid a counselor would tell him something negative about himself or about me.

I don't even... please read that again. If a friend said this about her SO, what would you think?
posted by DarlingBri at 3:10 PM on October 9, 2012 [3 favorites]

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