How can I be less needy?
March 11, 2014 7:38 AM   Subscribe

My about 15-year marriage is in severe difficulty. A big part of this is me being too needy. My wife and I knew I was needy before we got married, but both thought that getting married would fix it. It hasn't. I'm taking an antidepressant, and we are in therapy and both committed to staying together. I've read some other answers on AskMi, and am following up with some book recommendations, but I feel like I need more help.

I had friends but was really lonely because I had few dates and no romantic relationships except for hand-holding with 1 girl in high school (yes, really, literally) until I met my now-wife, in our late 20s. I was very insecure. When I met her, I was starting to seriously contemplate that I might never have a partner. I thought after I got married this hole I had felt inside for so long would be filled. Didn't work. From what I've read so far, I guess this is not unheard-of.

My wife says I need to be an adult and not be needy; that I should think again about being independent like I was thinking I'd have to be before I met her. She is now continuously irritated at my neediness and its attendant anxiety. I see her point. I agree that it would be much better for both of us, and for me in work and other relationships if I were less needy.

I have some idea about how to act like I'm not needy. But even if I were good at it, which I doubt, I don't think that would be adequate for either of us. I think about what it would be like not to be needy and I feel a little excited and empowered at not feeling that constant anxiety the neediness brings. But I hated being lonely for so long, and now I'm afraid I'll always feel lonely. I've felt lonely, needy, and insecure for over 30 years. Can my feelings change? How?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (28 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Strongly suspect you don't have a neediness problem that causes you anxiety when you don't indulge it; you have an anxiety problem that you are trying to soothe through constant attention from your spouse. It's better than self-medicating with alcohol, say, but it's not a functional coping strategy, which you know. But it's not a personality issue, it's just the usual temptation to keep going back to a solution that works. Get treatment for the anxiety directly.
posted by Sequence at 7:42 AM on March 11, 2014 [66 favorites]

Here's an article about having needs vs. being needy, fwiw.
posted by lharmon at 8:00 AM on March 11, 2014 [3 favorites]

I thought after I got married this hole I had felt inside for so long would be filled.

15 years is a good run so you must have been doing something right for a long time. What's changed?
posted by three blind mice at 8:01 AM on March 11, 2014 [4 favorites]

I'm in agreement with Sequence. My SO and I both do the same sort of thing when our anxiety is spiking.

That said, there are other possibilities. Are you actually getting the quality time with your spouse you are looking for? It is definitely possible to feel the way you are feeling not because of anything wrong with you, but because you feel your spouse's emotional distance. If you're not spending much time together and she's berating you for feeling needy, you may need to try to figure out why it is that she doesn't feel like she can be supportive and present enough that you feel satisfied, but I'm assuming that's been something you've worked on in therapy.
posted by wierdo at 8:03 AM on March 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

Anon, are you in individual therapy, couples therapy, or both? Because while I think couples therapy is a good idea for you both, you really need to be in individual therapy.

To overcome your insecurity, you need to learn to be comfortable being alone. Even if you and your wife are completely committed to each other, unexpected things do happen, and you could find yourself alone purely by chance. When you get the urge to cling or to seek reassurance, remember that your goal is to feel secure in yourself without doing these things.

It can help to have a little bit of time apart, too, to give you some practice. Do you have evenings or weekend days where you each do your own thing separately, e.g. one of you goes out while the other stays in? A (very short) solo vacation could help, too.

That's just my layperson's perspective, though; I strongly recommend you form your plan of action with the help of a therapist who specializes in anxiety.
posted by Metroid Baby at 8:14 AM on March 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Get your anxiety under control, then start tackling the behaviors that attend your anxiety.

See what a good CBT counselor in your area can help you with.

This has nothing to do with your wife, per se, except that she's the focus of all of your attention. 15 years is a LONG time to deal with this, she must have the patience of a saint.

You can try to get some interests on your own, take an evening class in something interesting to you .

You can also do actual things to cut down on the appearance of neediness, limit texting and calling to your wife. Spend an hour a day on your own somewhere else in the house. If she decides to go out with friends, don't bother her unless the house is on fire.

Just giving her some breathing room can help a lot.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:21 AM on March 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

Why not an anti-anxiety?

I'm not a doctor, etc, but this sounds like it could be one of two things (or a combo of both) physical issues, or mental issues. Have you got all your hormones and chemical balances checked? Eat healthy, exercise, and all that?

Do you have a good PCP? Or psychiatrist? I'd look into some causes on the physical. Again, not dr's advice (since I ain't one!)

Mental: when did this anxiety start? Can you identify a root cause from childhood/your parents, etc? That would be my angle of attack in therapy. Also, maybe look into CBT, relaxation, and self soothing. Anxiety feeds on anxiety, and if you can identify things that are likely to make you anxious- and recognize all the physical changes and symptoms that go along with that!- and then consciously reduce those changes- calm breathing, self-consoling and encouraging, brief meditation, and so on, you can probably circumvent a lot of the anxiety.

Yes, for sure be in individual as well as couples therapy.

Also, don't be too hard on yourself. You made it this far :)
posted by Jacen at 8:24 AM on March 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

I don't like this word, needy. I've never liked it, because it seems too trivial to use in most cases where it is used.

This is a Big Thing in your life. To have not dated at all, and then suddenly find happiness with someone when you had really thought you might never manage it, and then to find that you can't enjoy that happiness... that's a big thing.

So it might be hard to pick apart, but lets try. You have needs (you're not needy, you have needs, whether or not they are up to you or someone else to meet), and these needs include to feel loved, to feel safe, to feel useful, amongst others.

When you break down these needs, how many of them do you think it's reasonable to pin on your partner? How many of them do you think you, independently, should or could fulfil, and how might you do that if you are not right now? How many of them could other people help you fulfil better?

I'll give you an example - to feel loved. I think your partner can take on about 40% of this one. Maybe 40% should be your responsibility - do you love yourself enough? Are you in individual therapy for this? And maybe 20% should be coming from others - do you have close family who you care for and who care for you? If not, good relationships with friends? If not, how can you help to build these?

I agree with others that these sorts of questions are really ideal for raising within therapy, because it's easy to come to these questions and face a brick wall of "I don't know". But if you want a place to start on your own for the moment, why not break down your needs and see how you think they could be fulfilled, see where the shortfall might be, and then fill in the gaps.

It's ace that you're dealing with this. I wish you the best with it, and your marriage, which it sounds like you're working hard to keep on track and that's half the battle.
posted by greenish at 8:25 AM on March 11, 2014 [11 favorites]

What's your wife's problem with your "neediness?" You say she is "irritated" but not why. Also, you seem to agree that she's right about you. What's wrong with this picture?
posted by Obscure Reference at 8:45 AM on March 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

Would it help at all if you had a mantra or an affirmation or a ritual saying or whatever you want to call it where you say to yourself, "I cannot control my wife. I do not want to control my wife. There is no reason to control my wife..." or something like that?

Your therapist should be able to guide you with this.

Also - 15 years? That's a nice run. You really need to keep 15 years of success in mind.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 8:48 AM on March 11, 2014

Anon, your question resonates with me because in large part, I could have written it several years ago. I come from a very similar situation, got some therapy, learned a lot about myself, and went through some changes that let me put the bad stuff behind me. Two things: First, I'm going to recommend this book, which was literally a life-changer for me. Second, you have an invitation to memail me if you want to talk one-on-one with someone who knows exactly how you're feeling.
posted by jbickers at 8:48 AM on March 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

many similar threads here, like this one "How to rebuild a life?" include recommendations to Dr. Robert Glover's "No More Mr. Nice Guy" -- the title is a bit misleading... but check it out.
posted by mrmarley at 9:17 AM on March 11, 2014

Right around the time my marriage was ending, I read a book in which it was suggested that in a relationship in which one person is always appearing to be needy, a strategy that could resolve the issue is for the other partner to approach more often, which would soothe the anxiety of the identified needy partner and alleviate his need to cling. I immediately recognized the truth of that suggestion. I don't know if it would help in your case, but there was no question in my mind that it would resolve a ton of the anxiety issues that my then-husband was facing.

The problem was that I found out about it too late and there were too many other issues in the marriage and I had absolutely lost the will to try any harder. So I can't tell you whether or not it worked in practice, I can only tell you that a veritable lightbulb went on over my head when I read that. I also can't tell you whether or not your wife would react as I did. But if you're interested in more detail on the topic, the book I read was The Dance of Intimacy. Best wishes to you & your wife.
posted by janey47 at 9:26 AM on March 11, 2014 [8 favorites]

Your feelings absolutely can change, but the only thing that's going to change them is introspection and perspective. Books are good for epiphanies, but you really need to be able to talk through them with someone, and that someone should not be your wife. This is what CBT was made for. Doing that work can be hard in the sense of coming to terms with things that are difficult or painful or embarrassing, especially when putting your past behavior under a microscope, but you should find that a lot of it is exhilarating and freeing.

I'm in agreement with everyone else who has said what you're actually experiencing is anxiety, and then instead of self-soothing for relief you are looking to your wife, coworkers etc to comfort you. You will need to learn how to self-soothe, and develop confidence so that the anxiety isn't a constant. That is also what therapy is for. And if you require medication for a while just to be able to feel what it's like to not be anxious all the time, so you can learn how to get out of your own way, do it.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:31 AM on March 11, 2014 [3 favorites]

Another one here who doesn't like the word "needy", and why? Because it's a camouflage term for whatever is really going on. One mostly only can act needy, is the point. This acting needy might even recur in a number of standard situations that (in your partner) trigger standard responses. But ultimately, it's what causes that kind of behavior you're wanting to get at.
It seems that you two together need to learn and train interaction patterns that de-trigger the don't-be-needy hotspots in your daily life. That can be done by some behavior therapy kind of approach.
To address your possible anxiety and deep-in feelings of not-having-gotten-what-you-had-a-right-to-expectiness, I suppose more is on your plate than on hers, at this point, as in: individual therapy.

(as a generally independent person, I'm very painfully aware of the moments when I act needy. It always happens when there's some underlying fear-of-something going on. It's often very difficult to detect, that fear. And ymmv obvsl)
posted by Namlit at 9:45 AM on March 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

I've been reading The Art of Loving, by Erich Fromm, and while I do not agree with everything he says, there are gems within it that are very relevant to your life and current situation.

I can't make you read it, of course, but from one internet stranger to another, I urge you to pick it up.
posted by whimsicalnymph at 10:36 AM on March 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Nthing that it sounds like you're dealing with anxiety by making your wife your coping mechanism.

My personal experience and observational is that garden variety anxiety is something that J. Random Talktherapist has a pretty good success rate at.
posted by PMdixon at 10:44 AM on March 11, 2014

You didn't date a lot of people and then got married. Maybe you married someone who needs a lot of space, and constantly keeps you at just a liiiiittle bit of distance.

Just a thought.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 11:59 AM on March 11, 2014

It's really hard to answer this without understanding what 'needy' means here. Everybody's needy sometimes, and everyone has the right to be needy sometimes.

How exactly is this manifesting itself and what specifically are your wife's objections? I agree with the above comment that the word 'needy' is kind of cruel or dismissive.

So maybe you're anxious, maybe you have real needs that aren't being addressed, maybe they're fair needs, maybe they aren't, but just your wife saying 'stop being so needy' isn't really all that helpful.

I'm pretty insecure sometimes, and it would hurt my feelings terribly if my husband's response were 'stop being so needy' as opposed to giving me a hug.

Maybe you do have major anxiety issues that need to be addressed, but the way this is framed makes it hard to tell but either way the way that it is framed makes it seem really hard on you, like unnecessarily so, in a way that might make it hard for you to find answers.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 12:14 PM on March 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

"seriously contemplate that I might never have a partner" - you see this as a downside but this is good. You do need to take care of yourself before you can help others.

From what I can tell, you are a man in the prime of your life.

You need to start asking yourself, how can I contribute more to society, what do I need to accomplish in my life for me to be happy when I die. What does the world need from me? etc.

Go read the book 'way of the superior man" by david deida, it will give you some ideas of how men are sposed to behave, you can also read more relationship advice here.
posted by joehann at 12:32 PM on March 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

A couple things:
* Go to some local Meetups and then make it a regular occurrence. This will get you out of the house and knowing some other folks. Even if you have a hard time with this at first, keep at it. I don't mean this to be harsh, but you're going to need to do this anyway if your relationship doesn't work.
* Meet with friends for lunch, dinner, drinks, etc. regularly.
* It's tough to change the dynamic once it's started this way. You're defining this problem as 100% yours, as is your wife (presumably). There is certainly work for you to do. However, you don't provide any specifics. It's also possible that some part of the issue is that your wife is tired of these issues and has checked out, exacerbating a problem that already exists.

Good luck!
posted by cnc at 12:36 PM on March 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Nothing wrong with pychiatric medicine or therapy. But why not throw in a dash of good 'ol 19th century manliness?

It did profound wonders for my life. I started working out, lifting weights, and after a life of non-competitive sport (punctuated by sport failure) I took up boxing. First year just training, second year started sparring. Stared climbing as well, getting to befriend other men who did fun men activities. As your body transforms you will feel tougher. It's not about getting 'swollen muscle.' It's about becoming rougher, more lean, more muscular, and learning how to handle yourself. If you can do something that pushes your body to the limit, you start to trust your ability to handle shit. Your wife will also find it attractive.

If your wife thinks you're too needy, and you say "oh honey let's go to therapy together' do you think she will find that attractive? Or just compounding neediness on. I'm not saying this is the normative right choice or how she should feel, or if you two are a good match, or if she has fair complaints. What I am saying is if she DOES think you're too needy, do you really think therapy is going to change that?

I think a lot of psychological issues in us--men--stems from being unable to assert our manly impulses in a healthy way. This is absolutely arm-chair pycho-analysis. But it does appear to be the case for me. If you can feel like a 'man' you start learning to rely on yourself.
posted by jjmoney at 12:36 PM on March 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

I have some idea about how to act like I'm not needy. But even if I were good at it, which I doubt, I don't think that would be adequate for either of us. I think about what it would be like not to be needy and I feel a little excited and empowered at not feeling that constant anxiety the neediness brings.

Acting like you're not needy is actually a good first step toward becoming less anxious. As Sequence said, if someone is soothing their anxiety by clinging to their partner, they need to get in the habit of letting themselves feel their anxiety and choosing to use another method to calm themselves. Once they're confident that they can take care of their anxiety on their own (which only really comes with practice, which is going to be anxiety-provoking and uncomfortable for a while), they're likely to feel less anxiety in general.
posted by jaguar at 12:44 PM on March 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

I've looked at needy from both sides now. I used to be a stage five clinger in relationships, and I've dealt with my mom's varying levels of clingy (from stage 3-5, I'd say). The conclusions I've come to about it are this:

(a) If you've got that screaming black hole of needy within you, there is no other human on the planet that can fill it for you, no matter how much love there is. This is either a problem that you solve on your own or that you learn to live with. You may always be hungry starving for affection and love that nobody, wife included, can provide for.

(b) You can't expect anyone else to fill that hole for you. So you need to live with it. Get used to the hunger. I've never figured out how to fill the needy urge myself, but hopefully someday I will and then I can tell everyone.

(c) What I mean by that is: ACT AS IF you aren't needy on that person. What needy means is that you won't let the other person breathe. Your wife can't be the only person on the planet that sustains you. Optimally, it would be best if you had other people (such as friends or family members) to talk to or complain to or rely on from time to time, if you can get them. I understand that you probably can't do that easily, though, and I suspect you'd say you have no one at all like that.

(d) But if you can't find other people to feed off of, you need to develop outside interests. Take a class, find a hobby, take up obsessive online gaming. Something that gives you SOMETHING ELSE TO THINK ABOUT. I honestly think that's about the best thing to do to work with it that doesn't involve draining your loved ones dry. If you're not sitting there alone dwelling on what you want and need and am not getting, you suddenly become a whole lot saner! God knows my mom's needyneedyneedy is a whole lot less if she's out socializing or at her various side/volunteer jobs, but if she's sitting in a car with nothing else to occupy her brain, then the crazyneedy comes out. You can't occupy yourself 24-7, but you can do it enough of the time to give your wife a break.

(e) And if you're thinking about something else, you just stop freaking caring as much! It won't cure the whole problem--this is more of a chronic disease sort of thing-- but it really does help to abate the neediness if you are focusing on something or someone else rather than your wife or what is bothering you.

I wish you luck.
posted by jenfullmoon at 5:51 PM on March 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

You used the word "needy" or "neediness" nine times in that short post! Good heavens.

I don't mean to be rude, but I have to wonder how your wife has done this for 15 years. It would be like raising a child - and 15 is commonly the age for a child to begin to strongly assert himself and strike out for independence - which is what I think she's wanting to see you do.

You went from your mother's home to your wife's. It's an old cliche', but like many others, it has some basis in fact. When a person hasn't lived on their own at all, they seem to have a much more difficult time being comfortable with independence, especially when they've had someone else to take care of them for so many years. It's not always true, but it looks that way in this case.

You can do this, but you'll have to be one to do it. It's not your wife's problem - it's yours, and it's time you deal with it. Get into whatever kind of therapy - yes, even "manly" therapy - that won't allow you to put your "needs" onto someone else to handle. If you have to deal with your own problems and no one else is going to do it for you, you'll manage. Don't wait, though - your wife is tired of waiting.

Also, "fake it 'til you make it" is sometimes very good advice. It would be a good place to start.

Good luck and courage to you.
posted by aryma at 7:43 PM on March 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think the key thing is to come to an acceptance of the hole inside. I don't think it is supposed to get filled up. It is tempting to try and annihilate it instead but this never works for long. I used to think of myself pejoratively as needy until I came to terms with the fact that I hadn't gotten many of my needs met in childhood. Now I get to be the parent I never had. This is not easy and every day I hope for someone to rescue me but that can't happen, and if it did, it would be a form of abuse.

Cf. the lovely movie Take this Waltz in which Sarah Silverman delivers what might be my favorite line ever: "Life has a gap in it, it just does. You don't go crazy trying to fill it like some lunatic."

It may seem weird to think of being able to fulfill your own needs, but really that's sort of the definition of adulthood. Perhaps exploring a psychoanalytic concept like Transactional Analysis may be interesting to you.

Anyway, I feel for you. You are not alone.
posted by macinchik at 9:47 PM on March 11, 2014 [4 favorites]

I thought after I got married this hole I had felt inside for so long would be filled. Didn't work.

Speaking personally, the screaming black hole inside (thank you jenfullmoon) is largely a response to emotional trauma I experienced as a child, which created intense pain and fear that had no safe outlet and so went inward; the festering blocked emotions created anxiety and insecurity and made it difficult to feel human and relate to people, and gradually as I grew older the challenges of living under these conditions created their own secondary problems, i.e. lack of intimacy with others, which eventually grew to dwarf the original root cause in my mind. Deliverance comes through intense hard work in therapy, a little bit at a time, starting with the most recent pain and working through the layers down to the source. My 'hole' craved (to some extent still craves) love, warmth, safety, intimacy, power, control -- all the things I lacked at my most vulnerable.

It's true the hole can never be filled. But it can be drained away, like an abscess, if you find a way to access the pain and finally feel it. After more than a year in therapy the dam finally broke for me just the other night and I cried big fat tears for hours as I grieved the loss of all those years when I could have been happy/alive and acknowledged the pain of all that suffering and deadness I lived through, silent and hidden. With repressed pain we carry around ghosts of our younger selves, locked down in chains condemned to haunt our bodies until their grievances are felt and resolved. My deliverance involves me myself being the warm loving adult that the wounded child needed so badly -- internally comforting and soothing myself -- filling the hole with myself. As the tears flowed I felt the physical release, quite powerfully physical, of the chains of decades being cast off.

Whatever the circumstances of your life I can tell you have suffered terribly, based only on the partial resonance with my own experience. Growing up and being blocked from physical intimacy and feeling like you might never have a partner is, itself regardless of any possible deeper root causes, painful, in an existential sense where it's life itself that hurts. Today you are more resourced and you have a partner who it sounds like would be supportive of you working through some of this. There may have to be some rewriting of the narratives of your life to make room for the emotions that haven't had their say to date, and there will certainly be some hard work around developing the skills to touch in with your emotions and begin to approach them, slowly and safely at first so they don't overwhelm. This is intensive work in individual therapy, but it is possible that you could completely transform your life, with the right support. Best wishes.
posted by anybodys at 9:48 PM on March 11, 2014 [8 favorites]

Came back to say.. uh, pretty much what jen and anybodys said but less eloquently.

I do think a lot of current issues in people have roots in childhood lacks- mine sure did! I think a significant part of my healing was sitting down, staring the things my parents failed to give me- some practical how too stuff, some intimate connections love, and on my dad's side, he failed to give a lot of adult guidance and stability. I could spend forever chasing that from them, but they weren't capable of providing it then, and they aren't capable of providing it now.

Admitting that lack, that loss, what it cost me, and accepting that, for whatever reasons, it happened, and here I am now, let me step off the treadmill of chasing rainbows and go 'that sucked. it still kinda sucks now. But I am enough. I can and will treat myself how I need and deserve to be treated' And that, eventually, DOES close up the black hole. Or at least paves it over with a better foundation so tomorrow is better than yesterday and next year looks even better than this year. I like and love myself, and am enough in that, that my mistakes and bad days weigh on me less (less self beating!) and my good days look happier and more fun.

And really, this is why I post on metafilter- Because I believe everybody deserves this self care. Self love. And people may not tell you enough, or people may not be in a place to hear it, but someone, somewhere, believes in you and wants the best for you. Good luck. You are worth it.
posted by Jacen at 6:24 AM on March 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

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