Relationship plagued by fear/anxiety or is it just bad fit?
September 9, 2014 1:54 AM   Subscribe

How is it possible to feel anxious and questioning most of the time, but also feel genuine moments of excitement to see him and genuine calm/happiness to be in his presence?

I’m in my mid 20s, dating a wonderful guy 4 years older than me who is kind, patient, forgiving, very attractive (great dancer, good looks, good with kids, loves dogs); we have similar interests and values; he’s close to his family and friends (important to me because i’m the same way); independent and driven; and i feel very safe and supported by him. We are forgiving, patient, and kind with each other always. We’ve been dating for 20 months now, and aside from the first 5 months, I’ve had doubts the entire time. It was clear he fell for me harder and faster, and I felt overwhelmed by his physical and verbal affection. Immediately noticed he wasn’t very funny compared to past boyfriends, and yet I had never experienced such physical chemistry/attraction with someone before, nor had I dated someone I could have interesting, intellectual conversations with.

Though he assured me that different people show affection differently, I have still felt confused about my feelings since, though I respect and admire him more than most everyone I know, and care for him. We only see each other on weekends, so there’s very little alone time especially since we always make time for friends and family on weekends as well, which might be a good thing because that’s when I have the least doubt. When we’re alone, or when I’m alone, which is most of the time, it takes very little for me to freak out.

We’ve had a hard time just being happy this entire time, mostly because of me and my doubts, but I haven’t left because he’s just so wonderful, committed, and willing to work with me. He also feels confident it's an anxiety problem on my part. (I do have overthinking/fixation issues generally.) He feels that if I could just relax and let us be good without overthinking, we would. More than anything I just want to be happy with him, and make him happy in return, but I always feel like something is missing.

After his ultimatum to seek counseling or say goodbye, I even started talking to a therapist (only 3 sessions so far). I can’t seem to reach clarity on whether or not it’s a matter of compounded anxiety and worry that hinder feelings of love, or me refusing to accept that while he’s a perfect partner, I’m just not happy enough. Maybe not even in love enough?

I find myself still horribly confused, anxious, and worried about the following in my efforts to figure out what’s missing:

— He doesn’t really make me laugh :/ it’s better in person or over skype, but most of our communication isn’t in person, which is tricky. I don’t have as much fun alone with him as around others. (This in particular is my biggest doubt-inducer.)
— In addition to little face time, our intimacy is lacking. While he’s attentive and puts in effort, he also doesn’t last very long at all, which I know is odd to include, but may contribute to a lack of closeness.
— Sometimes turned off by his affection (too many kisses), yet so comfortable to be near him/snuggling and with PDA (always hated pda before him).
— I always find myself comparing to other couples who seem happy all the time on social media or in my incessant googling. Friends’ wedding videos practically make me sob because I worry that will never be us, thanks to me.

He’s such a great guy that I sometimes think I need to let him go and allow him to find someone who will never be unsure of him; yet, I know I’ll always hope to find someone just like him + humor/wit + less affectionate, which is expecting perfection, which is unrealistic. He even makes every effort to adjust for me; how can i still not be sure!?

I feel so lost and scared dragging this out/him through this. How is it possible to feel anxious and questioning most of the time, but also feel genuine moments of excitement to see him and genuine calm/happiness to be in his presence?

Any similar experiences out there/any insights on how to move forward? :/
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (28 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
You've said you're not happy enough. You should leave.
posted by Quilford at 2:00 AM on September 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

It sounds like you're settling.
posted by discopolo at 2:37 AM on September 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

I am an anxious overthinker and the first 18 months of my relationship were quite rocky in the way you describe. My worries were all to do with whether I loved my partner "enough", whether we were happy "enough", whether I was being a good "enough" partner or should let them go so they could be happier elsewhere. All these worries were about me and my perception of myself, at base. At no point did I have any doubt that my partner was a wonderful person and that I loved being with them. Over time, the doubts faded as I realised that most of all I wanted to be with my partner and that I could let these worries go so that we could just get on with being together.

To do that I had to really believe that they did want to be with me, that they valued me as a partner, and that if they wanted to be with someone else (someone "better" as my mind framed it) then they wouldn't be with me. That I was "enough" just as I was, that we were "enough" just as we were. Maybe this resonates with you and you can try and find some more self-security in your choices and in your relationship. I think moving away from comparison with other couples and any idea of "perfection" as a category would be a good place to start.

But, if the doubt is at heart that you don't want to be with him as he is, then you should break up and find someone who you don't find major faults in. I will add, though, that you do list some things which definitely could be worked on by the two of you- if his affectionate kissing is not what you enjoy then you can definitely ask him to behave differently, and that would not be asking to much.

Basically, you can change your attitude about yourself and you two can compromise on behaviours. What you can't change is what you want from a relationship, and who he is as a person. If the latter two are not compatible, you need to move on. But don't underestimate the difference that adjusting the first two can make.
posted by mymbleth at 2:50 AM on September 9, 2014 [4 favorites]

Have you experienced similar anxiety in previous relationships? Or just with him?
posted by prefpara at 4:04 AM on September 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

No relationship is going to look from the inside like relationships look from the outside on Facebook, etc. What you see on social media is the "highlights reel."

That said, it always concerns me when I see a relationship where it seems to be mutually agreed that one person is the source of all the problems, as seems to be the case here. Unless it's an abusive situation, relationship problems are usually both parties fault ... or no one's fault, if it's just not the right match.

As for whether or not you're the right match, I personally think it's really important to be able to have fun and laugh with your partner. Otherwise things can get dreary very fast.
posted by lunasol at 4:13 AM on September 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'm going against the tide. You seem overanalyzing to a high degree. Maybe it's right, maybe it isn't but if you just let go of your ideas of what a relationship should be, you'll figure out what this one is.
posted by Aranquis at 4:29 AM on September 9, 2014 [12 favorites]

Maybe he is a lovely man who isn't quite right for you. It happens. Or maybe your anxiety is sabotaging something good. Or maybe it's a bit of both, with the latter kicking in because of the former.

If you wanted to be really thorough about it and he is onboard, you could try to get to the bottom of it in therapy. Or you could be more immediately compassionate to him and, as you say, let him go so he can find someone who adores him unreservedly.

It's not unheard of to find people who are almost but not quite what you're looking for. It would no doubt be sad to end it, but persistent doubts, whatever they are, do tend to indicate that you're not ideally suited to each other.
posted by mewsic at 5:05 AM on September 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

Like a few others have said, DON'T use Facebook pictures/comments as a sign of a happy couple. In my experience, some of the most dysfunctional couples out there have Facebook pages full of happy pictures and mushy comments. Not because they're the perfect couple but because they want everyone to think they are.

Sometimes the best relationships are not obvious because both people don't make a big show out of it.
posted by Kimmalah at 5:21 AM on September 9, 2014 [4 favorites]

Sometimes the only way to move forward as a person is to do what your gut tells you, even if you're afraid it might be the objectively wrong thing, or that you might regret it at some indeterminate future point. This is how we grow. It is much, much harder and more miserable to try to force yourself to grow through always doing what your rational mind decides is optimal, even when you are fighting that path the whole time.
posted by pahalial at 5:43 AM on September 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

What happens when you work on these issues? Tell him you're not in the mood for kisses? Ask him if you can work together to make sex more satisfying?

There seems to be not much communication of what the actual problems are on your end. Unless there are and he's defensive or unwilling/unable to change. But if you're framing this as "no actual problems! I'm just anxious!"...he has no opportunity to change.

I think you should end it anyway because going this long with unsatisfying sex and unwanted kissing has killed your affection. Or you weren't that into him to start.

Next, time, though, speak up, be specific, give them the chance to do what you enjoy. Work together to solve the problem or not.

But yeah, break up.
posted by the young rope-rider at 5:45 AM on September 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

Also, this is classic couples' therapy territory, but the extent to which you're outwardly taking 100% of the responsibility for shared problems is confusing the issue. I'd work with the therapist on why you avoid difficult conversations, and why you feel that wanting to enjoy physical interaction with a partner is a bad impulse.
posted by the young rope-rider at 5:48 AM on September 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

"I don’t have as much fun alone with him as around others." - this would be a deal-breaker for *me*, at least for a long-term, marriage-and-kids kind of relationship. I don't know, it sounds like he meets all the things on your checklist for "a good guy to be in a relationship with" except you don't really want to be in a relationship with him.

And if you don't want to be in a relationship with him, you don't have to be. You don't have to have a good reason to break up with someone. Even if it's theoretically possible that you could work things out with this guy, that doesn't mean you're obligated to do it.

If you're not feeling it, I say forget about it.
posted by mskyle at 6:33 AM on September 9, 2014 [8 favorites]

This paragraph from your question sort of jumps out at me: "We’ve had a hard time just being happy this entire time, mostly because of me and my doubts, but I haven’t left because he’s just so wonderful, committed, and willing to work with me. He also feels confident it's an anxiety problem on my part."

Any relationship involves two people. I wouldn't personally like it if my partner "felt confident" that the problems were all mine while meanwhile he was "wonderful and willing to work with me." I know those are your words, not his, but they point to a power imbalance that would make me uncomfortable: it seems like in your view, you're the bad guy and (almost) everything he does is perfect. It's possible that instead of you having lots of issues that need to be fixed, this relationship might not be the right fit for you.
posted by ferret branca at 7:02 AM on September 9, 2014 [7 favorites]

Agreeing with the many, disagreeing with some: you are overthinking. Maybe this relationship is wrong and maybe it is right but you are clearly overanalyzing to such a stark degree that figuring that out will be nearly impossible.

So the question is: Do you like your relationship enough to work on these issues WITH him (and I agree that you're putting too much of the responsibility in your own hands, maybe let go of the idea of responsibility as a couple for a while)? You may stay or go in the end, but you'll do it with him in hand. Having someone you really love and respect and want to be with can be a powerful motivator to sort your anxiety shit out.

Or do you want to break up with him and deal with this stuff on your own? Note that it will probably crop up again in other relationships. You've got to spend some time doing some deep thinking about your own fears and insecurities.

Both are long processes. Both will be hard. It's all up to you.

I will note that one of the thing that manifests SO ANNOYINGLY AND CLEARLY when I'm having an anxious period in my relationships is projecting my own insecurities on my boyfriend. I find him less funny, less attractive, less wonderful in all ways.

I also ruminate too much on things like "Is our intimacy OK?" and "Do we have chemistry!?"

Those aren't things that can be easily analyzed and the more time I spend thinking about the nitty gritty the more I freak out.

Your relationship isn't perfect. No relationship is. But is it supportive? Do you love him? Do you see yourself loving him? Does he make you a better person and, conversely, you him? Those are the things to focus on. Maybe you'll decide that the imperfections in your relationships are dealbreakers and that's ok! But it's not fair to assess when your mind is busy going "wtfwtfwtf."

"Sometimes the only way to move forward as a person is to do what your gut tells you, even if you're afraid it might be the objectively wrong thing, or that you might regret it at some indeterminate future point."

God I could not further disagree with this. As someone who has wracking anxiety if I always listened to my "gut" I would never do anything and I would never ever grow. Ignore anything about "gut" or "head" or "heart." The human mind is a puzzle and these things are not real.
posted by good day merlock at 7:23 AM on September 9, 2014 [21 favorites]

It sounds to me like you really like him and care about him and you aren't the right match. That sucks, and I'm so sorry, but in my case these sorts of persistent doubts always ended in breakups where I missed the guy and felt guilty for a while, but overwhelmingly just felt relieved.
posted by you're a kitty! at 7:23 AM on September 9, 2014

Also, clear note that every relationship is different. Take everyone's advice with a grain of salt, into consideration but not carved into concrete. That includes my own advice!
posted by good day merlock at 7:27 AM on September 9, 2014

It's possible to have trouble with anxiety and/or self-esteem in relationships and be in a relationship with the wrong person. I don't get the sense that this guy is obviously wrong for you, but it doesn't seem like he's right, either. It's hard to tell for certain, and in the end it's your call. But when you have relationship anxiety, it's easy to assume that all of your doubts about a relationship are a product of that anxiety, and you may end up ignoring the doubts that aren't.

Therapy is great, but work on your anxiety for yourself, not for him. After you've built some healthy coping skills and developed a good model of what you want from a partner, either you'll be in a better relationship with this guy, or you'll see more clearly that he's not the guy for you. Either outcome is good for you.
posted by Metroid Baby at 7:33 AM on September 9, 2014 [9 favorites]

Something about the dynamic between the two of you reminds me of the first guy I had dated. He was a few years older than me and had more relationship experience. At some point i realised that he wasn't right for me and when i talked to him about it and told him that i didn't want to be with him anymore, he told me that we could work on it. He felt more strongly about me than i did about him, so of course he felt that it was worth working on. I felt smothered.

I think that metroid baby's suggestion to work on your anxiety is excellent. Maybe while you're doing that, you could try dating your boyfriend as if you had just met. Meet up a few times a week and do something fun together - go bowling, get coffee, eat at fancy restaurants, have picnics, whatever - and try to work on things that are bothering you ie. is there a way that he can express his affection for you without kissing you too much?

Is it possible that you feel smothered and like there are big expectations resting on you? That can be a huge source of anxiety for me.
posted by kinddieserzeit at 7:46 AM on September 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

My advice - back off, slow down, enjoy your therapy, and work on you. (If he objects to less time with you, then maybe he's not so keen on your getting help. That would be a clue. )

Like others, I can't tell if you are trying to fit a relationship template and uncomfortable in alone time because you fear intimacy, or if you are simply a person with some anxiety who is with a bad match.

Also, work on the sex. You realize you are timing him, right? That's not very nice.

And what's with the "not funny" angle. Your question is utterly humorless. Maybe you're in a bad model where he thinks it's his job to take care of a fragile flower.

Gender roles, like being a big stud or being a fragile flower, really get in the way of intimacy.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 8:04 AM on September 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

Oh and in regards to sex: a lot of men don't really last that long, but PIV sex isn't the be-all end-all. There are a lot of sexual and intimate things that can happen before or after the guy comes and i think more people would be satisfied with their sex lives if they realised that.
posted by kinddieserzeit at 8:18 AM on September 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

this question didn't go where I expected it to go. I expected your anxiety to be about whether he was into you. instead, it's about him possibly being too into you and repulsing you a little with "too many kisses" and having no stamina in bed, and not making you laugh. perhaps you're happier with more manly, physical, less intellectual types? honestly this guy sounds like weak sauce, you're underwhelmed, probably timeto move on.
posted by jayder at 8:33 AM on September 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

I think the way you're feeling is entirely reasonable. For me, I need to be with someone in-person on a regular basis to develop and maintain that feeling of closeness and attachment. Long-distance just doesn't work the same, even with Skype... there's still a feeling of a barrier there. Short visits can be too intense, there's too much pressure. And having sex with someone I've been with for a while, when I'm missing that feeling of closeness... yeah no.

I understand the notion that if someone's great on paper, then you should try hard to get around whatever hangups you have. There's wisdom in that. In practice though, those hangups might not go away. It gets harder the longer you wait, to break up with someone who is great but not great for you, because you don't want to waste your time investment. And when you don't see someone that often, and the relationship has basically been long and drawn out, time passes quickly when you only see each other once a week.

Why do you only see each other on weekends? honestly I think a good test of the relationship's merit would be to spend a week together or something, go on a trip together. The first day might be awkward, but you both stand a better chance of relaxing and just being normal people together for a while. His sense of humor might come out. He won't feel the need to shower you with kisses because your time together is so short. You can just be together and work on the friendship part. And if you still feel like some critical parts of the relationship are lacking, then end it. You gave it a solid effort. No regrets.
posted by lizbunny at 8:47 AM on September 9, 2014 [5 favorites]

If it doesn't present any financial hardships, I advise that you please continue going to therapy; this doesn't mean you have to stick with the same therapist though! Since you've already gone for 3 sessions, if you don't like your current therapist, you are always free to look for another - many therapists will list their specialties, so you could target (another) one who specializes in relationship issues and anxiety.

One thing to consider working on in therapy is working yourself up to the point where you can talk more directly with your partner about these issues, as my impression from your post is that you've talked some about these issues but have not really revealed the heart of the problem to him (though it seems like you yourself are not sure either - therapy can help with that too). Couples therapy would also be a good option, once you've built up the comfort to address it with your partner.

AskMe generally leans pretty hard to DTMFA, which seems right for about 75% of the relationship questions it gets; however, this case is in the 25% where I have to go against that advice. I think there's a lot of subtextual stuff going on that'll be really important to understand before you make a call on this either way. I'm not saying you should stay with him; I'm just saying if YOU don't know enough to make a call, then none of us internet-folk will know enough either. Therapy will help you learn enough.
posted by obliterati at 10:38 AM on September 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

So, from my reading of this, you would be giving up a good thing if you broke it off with him. I'm not totally clear on what his drawbacks are. If I have it correctly, he has an awesome personality, is smitten with you, is kind to animals and children, is intelligent and interesting, shares your values and is very attractive to you. And he is a great dancer.

In his minus column, he does not have a hilarious sense of humor. If you are a standup comedian or you really, really, really value comedy in your life I can see this being a deal breaker.

Are you sure you're not turned off by the fact that he is readily available, emotionally open and in love with you? You mention feeling overwhelmed by his affection for you. Anyway, if you are seeking the community's opinion on this, I am going to cast my vote solidly into the continue therapy and do not DTMFA column. Anyway, it may be that you just don't love him and your heart is not in it. If that is the case, break it off with him. But if you think your confusion might be coming from the complications of your own brain, I would seriously sit on this. Or that's what I try to do when my brain is complicating things.
posted by mermily at 1:31 PM on September 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

good day merlock has the best advice here.

I also wanted to thank you for sharing, even anonymously. I relate to your experience exactly, but you expressed it better than I could.

So far in my case, I have not opted to DTMFA. Because I don't want to. I enjoy our relationship, and the good days far outweigh the bad days. I wouldn't trade our problems for the problems I see in other "happy" couples. I certainly wouldn't trade them for other relationships I've had either. And it has been steadily getting better as we both communicate better, learn more about each other and feel more trusting.

I also wanted to say you're under no obligation to be 100% available to your partner all the time. Sometimes my boyfriend wants to do it and I'm just not in the mood. Sometimes I want cuddles and he wants his space. There has to be room in a relationship to be yourself. It sounds like he will give you this room, but you need to take it and use it. I hope you feel ok to tell him if / when you need space. Maybe as you feel more secure to be yourself and to act according with your needs and preferences, then maybe you'll feel a lot better in the relationship itself.

You can jokingly tell him "you have a 10 kiss maximum allotment this hour, use them wisely!!"
posted by serenity soonish at 2:51 PM on September 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

I know I’ll always hope to find someone just like him + humor/wit + less affectionate, which is expecting perfection, which is unrealistic. He even makes every effort to adjust for me; how can i still not be sure!?

I don't think you *are* looking for perfection, you're looking for the right person for you, and I think if you did find the right person for you, you wouldn't think about his/her imperfections so much, you would just think about how excited you are to be with him. You might well still feel anxious about the relationship, but I think it would be in different ways. Were you *ever* really excited about being with this guy? Did you ever think you were falling in love with him? I feel like if you haven't gotten excited about him yet, it's not going to happen.

I am willing to concede that maybe I have an overly fairy-tale romance kind of attitude. I am so picky (and socially anxious) that I spent most of my 20s and the first half of my 30s single, which in retrospect was pretty stupid. Also I'm just the kind of person who defaults to being single, and I generally take a fail-fast approach to relationships (i.e. all other things being equal a relationship that fails after three months takes up less of my resources than a relationship that fails after three years, so might as well start picking at things early), which is not everyone's style. So YMMV!

(On another note you mention several times that he goes out of his way to adapt to your needs... I'm not sure that's actually the best thing? Like, do you even know what he wants, besides holding on to you? Does he?)
posted by mskyle at 3:18 PM on September 9, 2014

Mod note: From the OP:
First, thank you all for providing a range of insight. Sometimes it helps to have someone else ask the questions and force you to think about them, rather than the way my brain seems to zip around, unfocused and terrified.

To clarify, we are extremely open and honest about this whole thing. I never want to keep him in the dark about how I feel because I understand that after a point, he might see this as worth saving either. It’s a lot of stress for him, and I’m sure it doesn’t make him feel great about himself. I harbor guilt for this. He has adjusted the amount of verbal affection well, but physical, he falls back into it. I sometimes hesitant to continuously ask for less because maybe he deserves someone who will want it/give it as much.

@prefpara — As I’m young, I haven’t dated a ton. 2 other relationships, each 2.5 years long. First boyfriend: no anxieties til we broke up. Second boyfriend: I was going through a lot and was extremely unhappy and feeling alone. I eventually felt I burdened him, assumed he must not love me anymore, and was relentless in finding the answer until it eventually became a self-fulfilling prophecy (and he made an unforgivable mistake by trying to cheat on me). I spent about 8 months being anxious and insecure leading up to that.

@Lesser Shrew — You’re absolutely right; I only mentioned the sex as a thing that has been on my mind occasionally as a negative, but rationally, I know that can be worked on, and the fact that we don’t see much of each other is likely a factor for him. Good point about humor as well. Perhaps I need someone who can readily make me smile or laugh when I’m being my neurotic self, but not necessarily someone hilarious. Hm.

What stands out the most in all the great advice is that I need to enjoy my time alone with him if I see him as a great future partner, and if I don’t, I can’t stay in it. We have every other important quality for working relationships except that right now. I only see him on weekends because we live 2 hours away from each other and work full time, so it’s been hard to have real alone time for more than a few hours each weekend, and we often see each other every 2 weeks, sometimes even 3. And currently, he has no vacation days left either (brother’s wedding, bar exam, and a trip to india for a reception). Otherwise, I’d love to really spend some time with him and see how that goes.

I do feel like I love him, though the giddy ‘i love you’ never happened for me; the doubts started immediately once he was first to say it and I wasn’t there yet.

I’m not closer to answer either way, these responses have definitely left me with important questions to answer. Thank you all so much.
posted by mathowie (staff) at 5:04 PM on September 9, 2014

He has adjusted the amount of verbal affection well, but physical, he falls back into it. I sometimes hesitant to continuously ask for less because maybe he deserves someone who will want it/give it as much.

Your physical boundaries are important. He doesn't deserve to get to touch you exactly as much as he wants to. If he genuinely needs that in a relationship it's on him to find a woman who's into it. It's normal to be like "yo, back off" right when he starts to do it. If he doesn't take that well or guilts you or doesn't listen...pull the plug.

Honestly, this speaks to low-self-worth on your part and an inability to see that your preferences have value outside of their appeal to a given man. Again, therapy for this would be excellent.
posted by the young rope-rider at 5:12 PM on September 9, 2014

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