How do I stop relationship doubts from becoming self-fulfilling?
July 16, 2013 7:04 PM   Subscribe

I'm having doubts about whether I'm in love with my partner and whether I want to stay with him. We've been together 5 1/2 years and lived together for almost 4. Because I've started thinking more about doubts I have, I think I'm becoming more sensitive to things about them that bother me, which makes me doubt even more. They also make me feel guilty and isolated from my partner, which makes things feel even worse.

I'm not asking whether I should stay, but for advice on how to stop doubts from metastasizing and making me feel miserable 24/7, while still working through them. Also, for advice on how to be kind and honest with my partner during this time.

PS I have a therapist I was seeing a year ago, yes Mefi I'm calling her right now... let me know if there's anything in particular I should ask her about - CBT etc?

I am coming to realize that I have a pattern of ignoring and suppressing pretty much all negative feelings I have in a relationship (and maybe in general), until they build up and really can't be ignored any more. So my exes thought everything was ok until it suddenly wasn't, and then had no idea why I was breaking up with them. I don't want do that anymore! But I have ended up in the same situation with my current partner. It's not abuse or anything bad, just things that irritate me, as well as bigger things like diverging life values. I have been struggling with depression for a number of years now, and I can't tell if I'm depressed because of relationship doubts or a dissonant relationship, or having doubts because of depression.
posted by blu_stocking to Human Relations (13 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
I'd ask the therapist for tips on identifying the things that are bothering you and then coming up with a good way of bringing them up with your partner.
posted by showbiz_liz at 8:01 PM on July 16, 2013

This book has helped me a ton: Do I Have To Give Myself Up To Be Loved By You. It gives you very concrete ways of dealing with conflict in a relationship. (Even if your m.o. is to suck it up and, therefore, have no conflict). Maybe it would help you identify your needs and feelings better too.
posted by dawkins_7 at 8:15 PM on July 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

i'm not sure it is a good idea to try to stop the doubts from metastasizing. i do get what you're saying, but i think you need to face your doubts. you don't have to act on them though by breaking up. you can identify what is bothering you and take that to your partner and work on the issues. in therapy it sounds like it would be good to work on not denying/minimizing your negative feelings. i'm sure your therapist will have suggestions on how to deal with that.
posted by wildflower at 8:37 PM on July 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

The reason why you're feeling unease and doubt about whether you should continue in this relationship is probably this: you know you should not continue in this relationship. This is an inner voice that doesn't develop until late in one's single life. And it's unfamiliar and scary when it appears. It's a good thing. Listen to it. Get out. You'll be fine.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 8:42 PM on July 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

advice on how to stop doubts from metastasizing and making me feel miserable 24/7, while still working through them

Depression is a complication here that may just not be totally in your control for a while, but proceeding on the assumption that there's something you could control, maybe give yourself a break from internal micromanagement by establishing a rubric for assessment and a timeline for revisiting it.

For the rubric, write up every significant need you have that isn't being fulfilled (affection, chores, companionship, money, whatever--be honest with yourself about what bugs you), and also see if you can figure out which of your partner's needs are causing you trouble and/or lie in the future as problems you're not sure you want to solve. Evaluate where things stand on each issue in one go--even score them, if that makes sense to you. Then establish a timeline you can live with for re-assessing how things have improved, stagnated, or worsened--even put that on an actual calendar if you have one.

The aim of this would be to free you from obsessing over evaluations of your relationship. You'd be able to trust that an evaluation is ongoing, and you'll know that you've decided what the proper time is for that.

Obviously, you have to communicate your needs to your partner and inquire about theirs at least once if you expect any improvement to occur. In that conversation, accusations and recriminations would be sort of the worst outcome. You should both come out of that with a list of action items, and maybe there will be some follow-through or maybe not, and maybe they'll actually make you feel better or maybe they won't. But you won't have to worry about evaluating what's adding up and what isn't until it's time.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 9:48 PM on July 16, 2013 [6 favorites]

As many people are saying, it is ok to have doubts, they are pointing to things inside you that are unsettled. Ignoring or feeling guilty about these doubts will only make them grow, as you know. So you need to give them a voice without having them take control, and you need to express that voice without fear of retribution or loss.

I wish I could help you more, since I find myself often in the same place as you. I can't say I have mastered this one, but here is what I suggest:

- understand your fears of abandonment & of being alone

- it is ok to be alone, or feel alone. You are stronger than you realize.

- feeling cramped in a relationship is unacceptable; severely adjusting yourself to fit another person is not a real give-and-take relationship. It is exhausting in the long term.

- make a list of situations when you were afraid to be yourself and honor what you were seeing/feeling; next time respond according to your true voice - what you saw, heard felt & thought.

- risk "in the moment questions" instead of building it up in your head. Questions that seek to clarify what you saw or heard from him. "Hey honey I noticed your body tensed up just now - is something wrong?" or "wait are you suggesting I stop listening to Van Halen? Because 'Panama' is my life theme song." You may find that he doesn't judge you half as much as you think he does. (And if he judges you more, then now you know!)

- LISTEN to your partner, what they really say and do. When you ask an 'in the moment question,' really listen to what they say and who they are. THIS is the information of your relationship; you both being real and not perfunctory. THIS will inform you whether your doubts are valid, or whether you two are a match.

- bring up topics you need to talk about, and talk them until you are satisfied. Keep calmly talking about the subject you need to address. If your partner cannot honestly and openly talk about this topic, and dances around being clear and direct, then this could be a bad sign. Keep going until you are clear about what your partner's point of view is, and you feel understood by your partner.

- notice where you are subtly compensating for your partner's emotions & ego. When are you afraid to let them feel their own feelings? When are you trying to shield them from the consequences of their own actions? When are you shunting your own expression in order to shield them from feeling bad? Even the small bad feelings that everyone gets when they don't get what they wanted. This is a normal feeling, everyone feels it and its not your responsibility to protect people from it. So... stop doing it. Risk letting them be their individual self, and see what happens.

- if you honor yourself and they stay, then they truly love you, and you two have a relationship

- if you honor yourself and they leave, then this is the Truth of your relationship. In my life, I want the Truth, not fakery. It is better to know now then waste more time in fakery. You must come to this confirmation inside your own heart. When you fake who you are to keep a relationship, you are actually saying that you prefer a falsehood to the truth.

- being alone is ok. Keeping them around under these pretenses is a false sense of security; you think they give you security but the price to pay is your own sense of self. It's a backwards manipulation and it slowly chokes you. You must value yourself above the relationship. If you value yourself, then the rest (whether to stay or go) will sort itself out quickly.

Then when your own fears are more calm, you can assess the relationship clearly from your feelings and your point of view:

- if after expressing yourself he stays and loves you even more, decide if you like him. Now that the fear of losing him is gone, do you like him? Is he a friend? Do you respect his mind? his values? how he lives his life? what he does for you in the relationship? does he git yer motor runnin'?

- if he stays, and you like him, learn to be comfortable and relax. If you keep sabotaging the good guys, you could just be afraid of relaxing into it. The fear of "the other shoe dropping" can spin you into sabotaging behavior. The "yes but when does the abandonment come" can be terrorizing, because you just don't know when it will be goddamnit! You would rather re-create your own submissive hell than face the fear of being alive in an unknown world of uncontrolled people, uncontrolled actions and unknown consequences.

Finally, this book on schemas is excellent and I cannot recommend it enough. It was written by the students of Aaron Beck (the father of CBT) when they noticed certain patients weren't getting better with just "regular" CBT but had some ingrained emotional patterns that just wouldn't let go. They categorized these emotional patterns into "schemas" and described how they function to keep an adult crippled but "safe" from feeling bad feelings. (In your case it could be the "Subjugation Schema.") Reading this book is like looking at the Matrix. For both yourself and other people.

And if you don't even know where to start with your partner, try just telling him that you've been feeling tense inside and you don't know how to express it. Tell him "I want to X, but I'm afraid you will Y." Then see what happens from there. Good luck, may the force be with you.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 9:52 PM on July 16, 2013 [30 favorites]

This is tricky, because there's no way to know whether your doubts are justified or if you're just going through a rough patch that will eventually clear up. You will ultimately have to do the hard work of figuring that out, but don't leave your partner in the dark about it while you do that work. He should know something about what is going on with you, even if you don't tell him all the details (don't). I'd recommend writing down these doubts, parsing them, and then having a serious conversation with your partner about your feelings. It's a hard conversation, but it will help you clarify the direction you should move toward.

I was in a very similar situation a few years ago, so I'll relate my experience even if yours ends up being different. My ex and I made it 6.5 years before I finally broke it off, and it wasn't a bad relationship by any means. In fact, it was mostly good, and sometimes great, yet I spent a lot of time feeling kind of unsure about him and kind of disappointed about certain things. Sometimes my disappointments were about things he said or did, or an unresolved conflict, or personality differences. Today I wonder what might have happened if I had been able to identify and address some of those issues head-on earlier. Maybe if he'd realized these issues were major enough, we could have made some compromises. I'm actually rather glad we didn't work it out, though. I'm now with someone else who I love deeply, and he is much better suited to me.

One other thing - avoid the sunk cost trap. Just because you've spent 5.5 years of your life with someone doesn't mean you should stick with it if it really isn't working out.
posted by MsMartian at 9:54 PM on July 16, 2013 [3 favorites]

I am familiar with this whole doubts-spiraling thing. For me, they're mostly illusory, but suppression ("you're illusory, doubts, go away") doesn't work. What works better is staying in the gray area of the doubts' origin (whatever that original annoyance was) rather than heading straight for the cliff but then flinching back from the cliff edge. It's a lot more productive to say "dude, you just interrupted me again" or even something more serious than that than to go directly to "I feel like you never listen ...and therefore we must break up! no, wait, I don't want to do that! everything is fine! perfect, in fact!!" All that all-or-nothing thinking leads to drama, panic, and avoidance, which is not productive. Try to focus on describing facts without drawing conclusions. "Dude, you just interrupted me again, and now I'm feeling super let down because I REALLY want to tell you this story, uninterrupted."
posted by salvia at 11:16 PM on July 16, 2013 [7 favorites]

Couples counseling. Stat.
posted by jbenben at 12:12 AM on July 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Talk to your partner about your doubts. I'm sure he has his as well. Approach it as an opportunity to improve a situation, not as a punishment.

"Lately I'm feeling really put upon because I feel like I'm doing more of the housework than you are. You know I like a clean house, and when you leave your dishes in the sink, it makes me feel like you expect me to do them."

More than likely this is the response you'll get, "No, nothing like that, I'm just waiting for a big enough load to make it worth my while to fill up the sink."

Then you can say, "Yeah, that's not going to work for me. Can you just do them as they get dirty so that I don't have to look at dirty dishes in the kitchen?"

You see, rather than imagining the reason your partner is leaving dishes in the sink, He thinks I'm his maid, he takes me for granted, he's a slob, in actuallity it may just be that his brain doesn't work like yours when it comes to mess. This is so common that it's a staple of cartoons.

Or you can broach really big and uncomfortable topics, "I'm feeling enclosed and trapped lately. I can't put my finger on why, and I'm going to start back into counsleing for it. I want to keep our communication open, and I want you to know that I love you."

I find that 100% honesty is the absolute best policy.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:44 AM on July 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

Beyond therapy (which will help), when you are spiraling downward, you have to renew your relationship with yourself first, figure out who you are and what you want for you and work on that stuff... then you can figure out where other people fit in your life. Hard to do within a relationship, but you can ask for some space to figure it out.

I highly recommend checking out some of Pema Chodron's books.

I'm not a Buddhist, but I have a great deal of respect for people who have found working solutions for improving daily living.

If you find things to work on within yourself and stick to your plan, it becomes a lot easier to see if external things that are bugging you are real or are small things being amplified by your own unhappiness.
posted by bobdow at 9:23 AM on July 17, 2013

One thing that really 'snaps' me out of the doubt cycle is an exercise called NAME which I found from the Confidence Gap by Russ Harris. It's a bit too formulaic for some of my friends, but it works for me fo real so maybe give it a go.

Basically, when you notice a feeling, and trace it back to the thought bubble which made you feel this way, you stop and NAME
N-name what you are feeling (e.g. anxious, a tightness around my chest)
A-accept it (not just tolerate but accept that you are feeling very anxious, and that's ok)
M-make space for ('breathe into' the tight area or emotion and really let yourself FEEL it properly)
E-engage (ask yourself what is thing which would be the most helpful right now?)

And then go and do it! So if your cycle is something like
N- anxiety, an orange round pulsing tightness in your chest (this sounds new agey, but it makes sense in my head for some reason)
A- accept 'ok, I'm feeling very anxious, it's super uncomfortable and a bit painful and that's ok'
M- breathe into it and let yourself feel it properly and realise that nothing bad happens other than discomfort
E- ok so I am feeling worried about my relationship right now, specifically I am worried about x, y, z, and it is making me feel more isolated from my partner! The best thing to do right now is to
e.g. call your friend and freak out about it to get it out of your system, think about your doubts and whether they are valid and if so, consider your next step, write down your specific doubts so you can raise them with your therapist/boyfriend... You will know the answer, trust yo'self!

You sound a bit overwhelmed but it's gonna be okay. You can handle this, good luck!
posted by dinosaurprincess at 7:28 PM on July 17, 2013 [6 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you all for your helpful and considerate responses.
posted by blu_stocking at 10:53 AM on July 18, 2013

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