Romance and uncertainty part two
January 18, 2016 12:22 PM   Subscribe

I have clarified some of my feelings and done some self-work on this relationship, but I'm having trouble trusting myself and my insights.

Reflecting on the past couple weeks of anxiety, I've realized that what motivated my last question was that the crushy feelings of infatuation seem to have mostly passed. At first I didn’t realize that this is something that happens, so I was just confused that my feelings had changed so quickly. I really like spending time with her and talking to her, I’m attracted to her, nothing about her really *bothers* me even though there are differences, and in my moments of clarity and calm I really look forward to continuing things and to spending more time with her. But the rest of the time I'm consumed by the thought pattern, “What if you don’t actually like her? Your feelings aren’t right, if you really wanted a relationship with her for the right reasons then you wouldn’t feel these anxieties at all. Your desire to fight this reality and keep working on it is only because you like the idea of it.”

I’ve been working with Pema Chodron’s teachings on uncertainty and Rilke’s letters, which led to a major breakthrough, and I feel much less trapped in this obsessive cycle than I was even just a few days ago. When I am able to be without the overlay of anxiety, my thinking is: “I like her, and I’m really glad this is a thing, but human relationships are complicated and open-ended, so I don’t need to be feeling a certain way about her or thinking constantly about her. It’s reasonable for me to feel negative or scared sometimes because I’m re-training myself not to fear the uncertainty. Furthermore, it’s okay for things to be uncertain because there is only the present and nothing bad will happen anyways and it's not the most important thing in the world.” But this bleeds away quickly, to be replaced with: “See, here it is again, I told you you’re just lying to yourself. The fact that you have to do this at all means it’s not right.”

I understand that this is basically the same question I asked last time:

I have this burning sick feeling in my stomach thinking about whether my motivations here are genuine… My worry over all of this overwhelms my actual romantic feelings for her; I feel guilty for thinking about myself and my feelings so much and not thinking enough about her… I can’t stop feeling like I’ve committed an unforgivable sin

In light of the work that I have done I would like to refocus the question as follows:

Can I trust in the insight that I have in my moments of clarity, allowing me to work through the anxious moments with faith that it does not spoil or belie my feelings for her?

I have been seeing a therapist for a long time now and have worked with him on this, and he believes I should go for it. But the uncertainty gets very hard to sit and wait with. Thank you all again for your help.
posted by myitkyina to Human Relations (10 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Can I trust in the insight that I have in my moments of clarity, allowing me to work through the anxious moments with faith that it does not spoil or belie my feelings for her?

Yes. Because what it's telling you is true. Congratulations.
posted by DarlingBri at 12:39 PM on January 18, 2016

Yes, your moments of clarity are by definition more trustworthy than your clouded moments, and your thinking at those times is correct. But what you asked is "can I trust the insight that I have in my moments of clarity." You clearly can't -- not because your insight is wrong, but because you're finding yourself unable to trust it. The main thing I'm seeing in your questions is a deep-seated distrust in your own feelings, thoughts, and experience of the world. Aside from the fact that it may be doing this woman a disservice to ask her to trust you when you so profoundly distrust yourself, it's not really about her or your burgeoning relationship at all.

So the question isn't really "can I" but "why can't I?" Hopefully, your therapist can help you work that one out before your shaky relationship with yourself kills any possible relationship with this woman. But if he can't, the most important thing is that he helps you work it out eventually. There will be other romantic prospects.
posted by babelfish at 12:52 PM on January 18, 2016 [5 favorites]

I would offer this, as someone who has dealt with relationship anxiety: When you catch yourself thinking obsessively about your partner and/or the relationship and whether it is "right", turn your attention inward and ask: "What do I need/want right now?" Write down those needs and desires. Then see how you (not your partner!) can fulfill them. As you focus more on meeting your needs and generating your own happiness, you may find that you are less anxious over whether this relationship is The Right One For You. It's the relationship you're choosing to be in right now. That's what you know for sure.

I'm not certain you can trust your moments of clarity about whether this woman is for you. What you can trust is the reality of your situation: You feel ambivalence. There is no way for any of us internet people to give you a guarantee that your fleeting moments of feeling "okay" in the relationship are an indication that you should continue dating her. The truth is that you don't know -- and we don't know either. Whether you keep dating her or not, you will be okay. The world will not end. The worse that can happen is that you will learn more things about yourself, and about love and relationships. That doesn't sound so bad, does it?
posted by Gray Skies at 2:20 PM on January 18, 2016 [5 favorites]

When you're in a relationship it's hard to know where it will go or how it will twist and turn. That's life. It's unknowable.

So put all of the philosophy aside, and enjoy being with your girlfriend. Go places and do things, experience in the NOW. Don't worry about later, not at this point in time. Get to know her, find out what's important to her, understand what she thinks her future looks like.

Dating is about discovering other people and determining if you both are on similar life paths. Sometimes you'll uncover something that's a deal breaker, and as sad as it is, you go your separate ways.

A thing to bear in mind is that all of our relationships fail, even those that end in marriage, until we find one that doesn't. You have to figure out how to know that, live with it and then put it aside and step out on hope, because this is the human condition.

Stop living in your head so much. Take your girlfriend out for beer, nachos and a stupid movie.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 2:29 PM on January 18, 2016 [10 favorites]

If you're having fun with her more often than not, try to stop stressing so much and just enjoy it. She may not be THE ONE but she is someone you can enjoy and grow with. You're in college, and if I'm reading your last question correctly, you're new to dating. You're not signing a contract in blood that this relationship has to be perfect, or last forever.

You already figured out that if you put too much expectation into someone, it's going to be off-putting and damaging to the relationship. At this point, you seem to be wanting some kind of rock-solid certainty that this is the RIGHT THING TO DO FOR THE EXACTLY RIGHT REASONS. People don't get that very often, and it's not a benchmark you can realistically use to define a good relationship. The more demands you place on yourself, on her, and on the relationship, the harder and less healthy it's going to be.

You've found someone you like being around, and that's reason enough for now. Just try your best to enjoy it. If it's really not working, you can always break up, and it's not going to be the end of the world. Every relationship we're in teaches us something -- it's your job to figure out what it is.
posted by ananci at 2:31 PM on January 18, 2016 [2 favorites]

But the rest of the time I'm consumed by the thought pattern, “What if you don’t actually like her? Your feelings aren’t right, if you really wanted a relationship with her for the right reasons then you wouldn’t feel these anxieties at all.

In my non-psychologist understanding, intrusive thoughts like this can be a form of OCD, the "pure O" form. In fact, I just googled that, and in the top hit for Pure O OCD, check out the sixth bullet point under symptoms: "excessively worrying that one does not actually love his/her partner, or is not with the “right” person (sometimes called 'Relationship OCD' or 'ROCD')." I'm not diagnosing you -- these things exist on a spectrum, and you might be on the more "typical worries" end of the spectrum, but maybe knowing that this is A Thing for some people might help you find answers.

The fact that you have to do this at all means it’s not right.

The fact that you have to do this at all more likely means that you -- like many of us -- are wired for anxiety and/or OCD and have to learn cognitive tools for retraining your brain.

"Your desire to fight this reality and keep working on it is only because you like the idea of it."

Alternatively, it's because some part of you recognizes that this anxiety is not accurate and not contributing to your well-being. I mean, it's trying to be helpful, and an important step will be understanding what kind of help it's trying to provide, and why. But despite that, it's overall not helping you now. In fact, that part of your brain is being kind of an asshole to the rest of you, in the guise of being some wise truth-teller. But he's not objectively gathering data and the expectations he's holding you to are not realistic; he's just playing gotcha and pretending that being human isn't good enough and trying to make you feel bad.

For me, in trying to get out of an anxious period, one challenge is not thinking that by relaxing I'm "letting myself off easy." You might make a list of all the ways that being anxious inhibits you, hurts your life in ways you care about, and is unrealistic, and make a list of ways that broadening your focus and relaxing help you achieve your goals in life. The more you can reorient which side of your brain you side with, the better. When those moments of peace come over you, congratulate yourself, thank yourself, for having found a healthier perspective. (It'll fade again, but saying "good job, self" will help it return.)

So yes, by all means embrace the moments of peace and clarity! The thoughts you explain having during those periods sound well-balanced, realistic, and respectful to both you and her. You are still in a very early stage where nobody knows where things will go and that's absolutely fine. This sounds like a relationship with some promise, and by relaxing, you'll be better able to experience it for what it is.

Best wishes, and I hope you can find some relief soon.
posted by salvia at 2:56 PM on January 18, 2016 [4 favorites]

Put down the Chodron and the Rilke for now and go get medication for your untreated anxiety disorder. I'm not trying to be flippant. I'm 40 years old and wish I could have told my 20 year old self how much of the hamster wheel of anxious thoughts goes away when your brain chemicals are properly balanced. Right now it's like you're trying to play basketball with a broken leg.
posted by MsMolly at 3:22 PM on January 18, 2016 [9 favorites]

Wow, I understand where this is coming from in such a personal way, but I am encouraged when you say: "When I am able to be without the overlay of anxiety, my thinking is: (etc)." You are saying what is true, in the same way that when you wear glasses what you see is true, versus what you see without them, or when you move when an injury heals, that feeling of movement is true in contrast to the discomfort of whatever wound was hampering you.

I know that having anxiety issues can make the whole world seem fragile, I get that. But what I have learned after a long time is that there is no certainty when another person's feelings are involved, and at any rate "true love" in the romantic sense is a false idea. Real love consists of those small sacrifices and tendernesses that you share willingly with a partner, at least in my experience.

Others have said it, and I'm saying it too; don't overcomplicate, enjoy what is and see what happens. The finding out is the best part of living.
posted by Ecgtheow at 4:06 PM on January 18, 2016

I have Relationship OCD, as described by salvia above, and while it's obviously not cool to try and diagnose you over the internet, the kind of obsessive thinking that you're describing is very familiar to me. It would definitely be worth reading the article that salvia linked to see if it rings any bells. This article is also good (the second page is more applicable to your situation).

I have found medication and Exposure Response Prevention (ERP) therapy really helpful, alongside practicing mindfulness to get more of an insight into what my wonky brain is up to. It definitely sounds like addressing your anxiety and repetitive thought patterns would be a good first step, rather than concentrating so much on the content of your anxious thinking (whether to be in the relationship or not). This answer to this question will generally make itself clear organically over the course of a relationship, but your anxious brain wants the answer NOW, which can (paradoxically) stand in the way of figuring it out long term.

Basically: you don't have to live with this level of fear and anxiety. Good luck!
posted by amerrydance at 9:48 AM on January 19, 2016 [2 favorites]

I have gone through periods of heightened anxiety when I suffered from intrusive, obsessive thoughts of the Pure O kind that salvia mentioned upthread, and yours sound similar. Mine were different in content and have been dormant now for quite long, but I still remember the pure hell it was, so you have all my sympathies.

The only short term relief that worked for me - and this is going to sound odd and counterintuitive - was to embrace the scary idea in my thoughts as if it were the truth. Say I was ruminating about whether or not I'm a psycho killer* who just hasn't done anything yet, and my brain would be going crazy trying to convince me of course I'm not, but then I'd go back to "but what if"... Repeat ad nauseam. The way to make it stop was to say to myself: ok then, fine, I am. It sucks, but yeah I am precisely that horrible. I'm just going to decide to not murder anyone.
*not my real obsessive thought

So I guess in your case you would tell yourself: yep, this relationship isn't right for me. I'm just going to stay in it until I want to stop.

YMMV of course, but I've heard this has brought instant relief to other Pure O's, too. As a long term solution, though, yes to therapy and maybe medication. There's no need to keep suffering like this.
posted by sively at 10:20 AM on January 19, 2016 [2 favorites]

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