What might be some reasonable ways to alleviate my partner's insecurity?
February 5, 2019 9:57 PM   Subscribe

Partner's past experiences have contributed to a specific insecurity which we are unable to resolve. Details follow.

I have been in a relationship with my partner (H) for nearly two years now. We are both in our 30's and divorced. We are quite unlike each other (introverted vs extroverted, individualistic vs family oriented, emotionally less expressive vs highly emotional and sensitive among other things; the first traits describe my personality) but have found love through kindness, generosity, support, friendship, and attraction for each other.

H has experienced some traumatic relationships where he was cheated on several times (once by an ex-gf and several times by the ex-wife). In each case, the ex- cheated on him with a 'best friend' who creeped his way back into her life, only to profess his hidden feelings and love for her, which was allegedly sufficient for her to switch sides. Needless to say, H has become very anxious and insecure about the presence of a 'male best friend'.

I have a very close friend (R) of over 11 years. We've been platonic friends for the most part except 4 years ago when we slept together (we were both vulnerable from having ended our respective long term relationships (thus, single) and perhaps a rebound for each other). We realized it very quickly that a romantic equation was not possible because of various variables and put an end to it. This incident put a huge dent on our friendship and we were pretty much out of contact for two years. Eventually, we did reach out to try and see if friendship was still an option. We discussed what had happened and agreed that we made a poorly thought out decision at the time. We agreed upon setting strict platonic boundaries and have maintained them since. I can say it quite confidently that while some awkwardness still lingers, we are back to being the buddies that we have been for the longest. I must also highlight that my equation with him is one of shared intellectual interests and hobbies. We also share a similar world view. And though we make for excellent friends, anything romatic is something we neither desire nor seek.

Now, I must point out two pressing concerns:

(1) H needs frequent assurance that I indeed love him and want to be with him. I am not too expressive with my emotions and can often seem distant (something I am working on). Last year, H increasingly felt that I was emotionally unavailable for him and ended up 'sexting' his friend who was showering him with attention at the time. When this affair was unearthed, I was livid and almost ended things with him. Eventually, I was open to making it work, provided he/we sought therapy to address some of the issues. We have realised through therapy that he has deep seated insecurities, feelings of abandonment, and low self confidence. We are slowly working towards resolving these. For anyone curious as to why I gave this relationship another shot - I felt that he had genuinely slipped up in a moment of weakness and deserved a chance to work through it.

(2) Of late, H has become increasingly anxious about my re-connection with R (he acknowledges that it stems from his insecurity). I have explained to him countless times how we are just friends and want nothing more. Needless to say, this statement is the biggest cliche for H. Neither R nor I have demonstrated any inclination toward cheating on our respective partners at any point during our friendship. We had plenty of opportunity to be together as singles if that's what we wanted. We gave ourselves a sufficiently long (2 years) no contact period before even considering friendship, so I am quite confident of being on an entirely platonic terrain with him. This information does little to soothe H because he has an entirely different narrative running in his head.

Now, H would like me to drastically cut any interaction with R (to twice a year). He in uncomfortable with us meeting, talking, Skyping, or pursuing a more engaging form of interaction (such as text chatting). He seems OK with the idea on interacting via email once in a while. We're all adults here, and it puts me in a very awkward and difficult situation with R. That aside, I do not think that this suggestion is likely to offer any long term solution. H says he's actively working on his insecurity and it helps him knowing that I am not in touch with R. So, he'd like me to nearly cut contact with R for the foreseeable future (4 years tops according to him). Furthermore, I genuinely find R to be one my closest and oldest friends and it does seem like we are paying the price for something we never did. I should also point that I have never hidden my interaction with R because there is nothing to hide. I have even offered that H and R could meet if that helps (oh and, R stays two continents away, so meeting him in person is a very rare possibility anyway).

H feels that this is something he'd do for me and for the relationship if the tables were turned. He also draws a parallel between cutting off contact with the person he 'sexted' and me cutting ties with R (it's becoming challenging for me to explain that what H did was tantamount to an affair; whereas me sleeping with a person when we were both single is a very different scenario).

I find H's request to cut off contact with R unreasaoble. And I am exceedingly reluctant to give into it. This is causing considerable friction is our already fragile relationship (resulting from the affair).

Am I being unreasonble? I feel I shouldn't have to pick between my closest friend and my partner. I am aware of H's insecurity (and the reasons) but could there be a way to a more acceptable middle ground?
posted by satipatthana to Human Relations (23 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I think H is going to be insecure and paranoid that you're cheating on him even if you cut R off forever. Hell, H sounds like he'd freak out over any guy in your life, honestly. And as a friend of mine would say, if someone wants to make you pick between them, pick the one that's not making you choose. You are not being unreasonable.

I don't know if the OMG SO JEALOUS types ever get over it or not, but frankly, they are a lot of time and effort to always have to be managing the emotions of and you're always somehow "cheating" no matter what you do in their brains, because something is off with them. H will probably keep doing this to all his girlfriends unless (if we're lucky) he makes some hardcore efforts to relax about this. H certainly has reasons to be scarred, but if he's one of those guys who can't date a woman who is friends with guys, or exes, or whatever, he is probably not right for you nor you for him.
posted by jenfullmoon at 10:27 PM on February 5, 2019 [29 favorites]

H needs therapy. And if he's unwilling to get some, honestly, about his jealous insecurities, you should consider leaving him. Because it starts with something like this, and ends with him demanding you cut off from all male friends and colleagues because if you don't you don't love him don't you know I'm insecure, and also your female friends because they don't like him and aren't you committed to me so why do you need anyone else? Also your family doesn't like me so you shouldn't talk to them either they make me insecure but why do you hesitate don't you love me?

Get out now.
posted by Homo neanderthalensis at 10:31 PM on February 5, 2019 [24 favorites]

No, really, he's the one who cheated on you. He doesn't get to cut you off from your friend because he can't control his emotions.
posted by ambrosen at 10:36 PM on February 5, 2019 [73 favorites]

Wait, he's the one who was sexting his friend and you're the one who is supposed to give up a serious and longstanding friendship? And you being "distant" makes it okay (to him) to cheat on you but he's incredibly paranoid about you cheating on him?

I would not feel good about dating someone like this.

The specificity - the "in four years you may talk to him more than twice a year" bit - bothers me. That seems even more controlling and obsessive than the rest of it.

I'd let this one go. A more-or-less ten-year friendship is really valuable, more valuable than a fragile relationship where you don't have a lot in common.
posted by Frowner at 10:41 PM on February 5, 2019 [57 favorites]

And the whole "you slept with someone while you were single, that's just like cheating" thing is super gendered in a very creepy way - like if someone not a cis man ever had sexual contact with a man, that is devaluing and must be disavowed. Men who cannot handle the fact that their partners had sexual pasts are usually not that good a bet.
posted by Frowner at 10:44 PM on February 5, 2019 [32 favorites]

From personal experience, constantly reassuring someone that you're going to stay while they make your life worse and worse, so that you can't help but at least speculate about leaving? It just doesn't work. You can't promise him you're going to stay no matter what, because you aren't going to stay no matter what. Even if it isn't now, there is a point that things could reach where you would leave. If he responds to that notion by breaking down... it's a feedback loop. The less happy you are, the worse he will behave. Ad nauseum.

Four years from now, you will have just been enduring this for another four years. He will be that more anxious that you're going to leave him, and he will need ever greater demonstrations of your loyalty at the points where he deserves that loyalty least. If he can't break this cycle without you doing all of this, then he isn't going to break it. I'm not sure that you need to break up with him immediately, but you do immediately need to make this his problem to solve. He needs to become a person he believes you would stay with for affirmative reasons, not just because of lack of options. There's nothing you can do that will give him that.
posted by Sequence at 11:15 PM on February 5, 2019 [22 favorites]

H needs to find a way of dealing with his feelings that doesn't result in his trying to control your actions and other relationships.
posted by spindrifter at 12:14 AM on February 6, 2019 [4 favorites]

I asked this question which has a few different variables but boils down to the same issue- a partner’s past hurt causing them to disapprove of a friendship and trying to control my interactions with the friend. Some of the answers might be helpful to you- people have widely different opinions about this issue and for me it was useful to read the gamut and then feel which rang most true for my actual situation. At the time I decided it was more compassionate to honour the fact that my partner’s hurt was real and took steps to minimise my contact with the problem friend... but quite soon afterwards I realised this was one instance of control among a whole system of controlling behaviour (which I did not feel compelled to submit to out of compassion for the hurt that drove the need for control, because that would have been terrible for me) from my partner and so I DTMFA posthaste.
posted by mymbleth at 12:24 AM on February 6, 2019 [3 favorites]

H is being completely unreasonable due to his own issues. There is nothing you can say or do to reassure him, unfortunately. His behavior is controlling and I worry it will soon become abusive: cutting you off from friends and family, regardless of gender, is a sign. Projecting his own bullshit is another; same for not taking responsibility for past actions, which he should be focusing on more than what his exes may -- or may not -- have done. I just don't think he's a completely reliable narrator and those exes might tell a different tale. Even if everything he's said is true, you still did no wrong and should not be suffering the consequences of his own past, unresolved issues. But he can't start to work on them while he's blaming others, including you now.

There is nothing about your friendship with R, including the time you two hooked up, that would be a reason to end it or limit contact. On the other hand, there are many valid reasons to break up with H based on this and other demands.

Couples therapy could help if the therapist can call H on his bullshit. However, that'd just be prolonging the inevitable. I see the two of you eventually breaking up, which would be sad but also freeing. You deserve so much better! Reading your post gave me the shivers because it reminded me of a recent relationship with a controlling partner who was gaslighting me and made me defensive about everyone and everything. I tried so much to make her satisfied but things only got worse. Again, it's not you!! I'm so glad I got out, although it took many, many tries.

There's a great partner out there for you who will appreciate and celebrate your friendship with R! R was your rock and has shown you a standard of what you want and deserve in a partner: he's not that person but he's a model of all you'd want from that person one day. It's so good to have high standards but it's also understandable that you have doubted yourself as the divorce is still relatively fresh, and it's such a trying thing to survive.

Finally, you are still young! Should you want to have kids, there's still time. I don't mean to assume that this is a goal of yours but, lemme tell you, NOT having kids with H should be a goal because his bad behavior will only get worse.
posted by smorgasbord at 1:08 AM on February 6, 2019 [3 favorites]

I agree that this is like crazy-world: so HE does something many people consider cheating and YOU get punished for it? It seems like him being cheated on didn't stop him from cheating on you and he projects his own shadiness on you for no good reason.

Also, I must say that if the results of one year of therapy is that YOU must make sacrifices to deal with HIS issues ... well, bad therapy, bad partner, bad relationship.

Honestly, if he had not been to therapy my advice to you would be that you make staying in the relationship contingent on him going, but if this has happened after a year of therapy I'd call it a day on this one.

And my advice would hold even if you personally wanted to dial it down with your friend; I think events as you described them here show your bf has some serious character issues which he hasn't even begun to tackle - this is not just about his insecurities or your friendship; it's about being duplicitous, controlling, and overall shady.
posted by doggod at 1:42 AM on February 6, 2019 [15 favorites]

You are not being unreasonable. This is about control, not insecurity. My own take is that H is giving you such strict rules that if he “happens” to get caught cheating on you again, H can have an even more iron-clad excuse. H is trying to take ownership of your actions instead of his own. There isn’t likely to be any middle ground here.
posted by RainyJay at 1:45 AM on February 6, 2019 [4 favorites]

I can't control your partner, and neither can you. I can't control you either, but since you're the one posting, I can suggest some things you can control, and decide whether to work on. (My profession is mental health, FWIW, and [insert the applicable disclaimers here].)

What I notice in several of your Asks here on MF is a pattern of what I'm going to call people-pleasing. If you prefer a different term, please substitute that. This pattern goes back to your FOO (family of origin), by your report, and also seems to have been present in your first marriage. It's a very common pattern, around the world. It's marked by a certain passivity in agency (self-determination), weaker boundaries, and seeking out other's approval or being overly influenced by other's opinions.

Are you still in therapy and working on boundary matters? I think your growing edge is boundary work. It would be really helpful for you. If you want to get a sense of what better boundaries looks and feels like, check out some of the online material of Lisa Merlo Booth (a therapist in Massachusetts) or Carolyn Hax (a relationship advice columnist at the Washington Post).

Good luck. I think you can trust your instincts more than you seem to.
posted by dancing leaves at 3:25 AM on February 6, 2019 [13 favorites]

So H’s reaction to being cheated on is: that it has made him insecure and anxious, and you need to spend more time reassuring him.

And H’s reaction to being the one doing the cheating is: that it is because he is insecure and anxious, so you need to spend more time reassuring him.

Heads I win, tails you lose.

I would not agree to limit contact with R because of this, and I would also in your position give some serious thought to the idea of why “partner will seek sexual/romantic attention from a friend if mine slips below requested levels for a moment” is H’s fear. It’s not just because he’s had it done to him, but because it’s his own go-to reaction as well.
posted by Catseye at 4:21 AM on February 6, 2019 [34 favorites]

Quoting Catseye for emphasis: "It’s not just because he’s had it done to him, but because it’s his own go-to reaction as well."

DTMFA. Seriously. No trust, no relationship. He's a cheater. He's controlling. He's isolating you from an important friendship.

This guy is a waste of time. You're too awesome for that. Repeat that last bit until you believe it.
posted by lunastellasol at 4:32 AM on February 6, 2019 [4 favorites]

I don't think you were asking for "DTMFA" advice.
I agree that H's demand is very bad. And your first step should be "Honey I am not gonna do that. Period. That's not on the table."
So what can you do to alleviate insecurity? Ask H that! Again, be clear that you are not gonna cut off your friendship, not at all. So ask H what they think you two could do, short of that, to help the feelings H is having. If H is unwilling to have a productive conversation about that, then you are at break-up point.
posted by sheldman at 4:39 AM on February 6, 2019 [7 favorites]

This reeks of projection to me. H can't imagine being in the position you are with your close friend of the opposite sex and not being tempted to cheat. In fact with his own friend he ended up sexting. Don't let the fact that he can't control himself put a damper on your friendship. Just stand your ground and see what happens.

I know that you've heard DTMFA from other people and may not be ready to do that yet. But his reaction will tell you a lot.

I notice from a previous question that you're South Asian. I am too, and one thing I'll note is that South Asian women (generalizing horribly here) are often socialized to accept gendered norms of what is acceptable and not, when it comes to cheating. I'm just here to say that's some bullshit and don't fall for it.
posted by peacheater at 5:03 AM on February 6, 2019 [4 favorites]

His insecurity is his problem to solve. Not yours. Dump him.
posted by poppunkcat at 6:47 AM on February 6, 2019 [2 favorites]

I have health anxiety, primarily, but also anxiety about a lot of other things. A couple of years ago I took a Kaiser multi-week anxiety workshop. The number one thing I learned in that class was that my brain was like a faulty fire alarm, constantly warning me about nonexistent fires. I also learned that the best way to deal with that was to go about my business and to live my life as I had planned even when my brain was telling me that I had cancer (assuming there were no actual significant symptoms of cancer or stroke or heart disease or whatever fatal ailment of the day was triggering my anxiety). Before this workshop, a few years before, I had spent a lot of money going to Salt Lake City to get a full health analysis to convince my brain that I was healthy and I still managed to have an anxiety attack while I was there.

Your partner’s trauma or anxiety or whatever is not going to disappear simply because you blow off a deep and important friendship. Your partner may genuinely believe that, just as I genuinely believed that having a full health work up would make my health anxiety go away. But my health anxiety did not go away because it is not a rational thing. The best way in many cases to deal with it is simply exposing myself to the thing that is making me uncomfortable and doing it over and over again until it stops scaring me.

Until I started going to Al-Anon, as well as seeing a particular therapist, I thought I was responsible for the feelings of the people I loved. If any of them were unhappy, I could not be happy. If any of them were sick, I could not enjoy my good health. That turns out to be bullshit. But I didn’t know it was bullshit when one lover told me that when he felt bad it was my fault. I believed him until I found out better.

I don’t have an opinion about your staying or leaving this relationship, and you did not ask about that. You asked about reassuring your partner. I agree with the advice above to tell your partner that breaking your friendship is off the table. That you have done nothing wrong and will do nothing wrong, including betray your friend by ending a friendship that is very important to you. It’s totally fine to continue loving your partner and to support your partner in all reasonable ways. Please do not follow your partner into crazy town, however. As much as your partner may want to be rescued from their brain, that is impossible for you to do. Even if you could do it, it is not your job. Finally, as a recovering people-pleaser I have discovered that setting appropriate boundaries and sticking to them as a form of self care actually improves not only my life but also the lives of the people I love most. Not always immediately and not always directly but it has happened. There is no guarantee, of course, but modeling self-care and maturity is always a good thing even if the people you love cannot appreciate it at the time. Good luck!
posted by Bella Donna at 7:50 AM on February 6, 2019 [14 favorites]

It sounds like your relationship has an ongoing issue of your partner's emotional needs not being met. While he is acknowledging his insecurity issues as the problem, you at the same time are acknowledging you have a very close relationship with this friend. Is it at all possible that the friend himself is not the issue, it's the emotional closeness of the relationship you have with this friend that is the issue for your partner? Are his emotional needs being met in the relationship, or could he be feeling not as close to you as this friend is to you? Something to consider anyways, jealousy can be rooted in unmet needs and perhaps your partner is just not feeling as connected to you as you are to your friend right now.
posted by OnefortheLast at 8:52 AM on February 6, 2019 [1 favorite]

A lot of good advice in here, I think. But one thing you might want to address (IF and only if you decide to stick with this guy, which I'm not saying you necessarily should do) is why you describe yourself as "not too expressive with my emotions and can often seem distant" in the details of your relationship with your boyfriend, but absolutely gush about how great and important your friend is. Are you in fact making your boyfriend feel great and important? IS there something there between you and your friend, at least on an emotional level that your boyfriend feels is lacking in your relationship?

Don't get me wrong, I don't think your boyfriend's reaction is great. It just sounds like there is a little more to this situation than simply his behavior, and his reaction didn't come from nowhere.
posted by FakeFreyja at 9:07 AM on February 6, 2019 [1 favorite]

Thank you all for the insightful responses. I am not sure of the course of action yet, however, there is a lot of food for thought here.

Are you in fact making your boyfriend feel great and important? IS there something there between you and your friend, at least on an emotional level that your boyfriend feels is lacking in your relationship?

You've raised a valid point. What I meant by this is that H and I are polar opposites on the expression spectrum. I am more introverted and reserved and can often be a person of few words, he is very gregarious and vivacious. This stark contrast can often magnify our differences and it may seem that I am distant or aloof. However, in reality, I care very deeply for the few people I have in my life. And my language of love is action. Also, it takes me a long time to develop a strong emotional bond, which I attribute to knowing R for over a decade. With H, it's different - it's very intimate in a very different way. Actually, I couldn't really compare the two relationships. They mean two very different things to me. I am very fond of R, and there is something very relaxing about my friendship with him since there's no expectation, no stress. With H, things get very heavy from time to time and it can take a toll on me to reassure him that he has nothing to worry. I have to constantly work to establish and enforce boundaries with H. I do feel that H is sometimes not unable to accept the very traits he finds attractive in me. I believe H would like me to be this relaxed person that I am with R, which often becomes difficult with all the stress we are experiencing in our relationship.
posted by satipatthana at 9:32 AM on February 6, 2019 [2 favorites]

With H, things get very heavy from time to time and it can take a toll on me to reassure him that he has nothing to worry. I have to constantly work to establish and enforce boundaries with H. I do feel that H is sometimes not unable to accept the very traits he finds attractive in me. I believe H would like me to be this relaxed person that I am with R, which often becomes difficult with all the stress we are experiencing in our relationship.

When I met my life partner, things were definitely not easy. But there was an ease with him because I trust him. We make each other better and stronger. We make each other's lives fuller and brighter. Not every moment, we have been through a lot. But that came after serious life business, not out of - the fundamental interaction between us.

I'm not saying this to make you feel bad but because I just read your post and this update in the context of a two-year new relationship, and it sounds like in that time you have dealt with some infidelity, being judged on the actions of others, being judged on your past, being judged on your friend, and that you have gotten a lot of messages that you two are very different which seems really to mostly be coming from H - you aren't X enough for him, where X is (affectionate/independent/less prone to freak out.)

If he is asking you to be more demonstrative, intertwined, sensitive, are you also able to ask him to be more secure/independent/less sensitive? Or is this really a process of him defining the direction of your relationship? Because all this just sounds very controlling and demeaning to me. He cheats, so you have to stop talking to your friend.
posted by warriorqueen at 9:42 AM on February 6, 2019 [4 favorites]

As others said above, you cannot nurse your partner back to emotional health, no matter what you do. Even if you were expressly affectionate with him all the time, and never distant, he will still feel insecure.

The only way he will not feel threatened by your interactions with male friends or co-workers, or being quiet, is if he distances emotionally from you. Which is exactly what he did when he started sexting with his friend. Of course he could also do the tremendous inner work to overcome his insecurities (with therapy, books, etc) but it’s a lot harder, especially within a relationship that triggers them.

I’ve been in a relationship like this. We were together for maybe 2 – 3 months at that time, and I had an ex who would call me about once a week to just chat. There was nothing inappropriate in these calls. I was 1000% over that relationship, and he never hinted at wanting me back in any shape or form. But we reconnected after we both recovered from the break up, and would chat about mundane things like sharing news and talking about some mutual friends. This bothered my at the time boyfriend to no end. If he happed to be present when the call came in, his day was totally ruined, and we’d spend hours arguing about it. I too, didn’t feel that he should dictate to me who I’m friends with, so was trying to stand my ground while also reassuring him. Also, I started to silence my phone when we were together, in an attempt to not disturb the peace, but then he felt like I’m hiding things – more drama. He kept saying that our current relationship should be a priority to me, and much more important than being friends with any ex. And that he’d cut any ex off in a heartbeat if it bothered me even a little. Because he was fully available to me and no one else mattered, and he’d care about making me happy. I felt that he had a point there, and in a couple of weeks called my ex and asked him to stop contacting me.

A year later, and with zero contact with said ex, we still had an occasional argument because I did not cut my ex off quickly enough, and it still bothered him. It also bothered him that we still had mutual friends. I also was berated because a grocery store employee, 1.5 times my age, said from behind the counter, while I was buying ham, that I have a beautiful smile. My fault was that I did not respond by indicating to the employee that I am in a committed relationship while grabbing onto my boyfriend. I also was berated because I wanted to let my boyfriend sleep in one morning and went downstairs and had coffee by myself. When I came back up an hour later, still wearing my pajamas, I was interrogated about my whereabouts, accused of sneaking around, and acting suspiciously (because I left my phone upstairs and it’s not like me (??)). Etc. Eventually he emotionally distanced himself from me. I fought a little more because I loved him, but eventually I got fed up with the coldness and the “punishments,” and we fell apart.

So my point is – you can try and minimize your contact with the friend, but my personal prediction is that nothing will ever be enough. Also, he will find something that you do or did that will “excuse” his sexing with others, or cheating. Because that’s the only way he can cope. And he will do it again. Your heart might not let you disengage from him now or very soon, but it seems to me this relationship is unsustainable in the long term.
posted by LakeDream at 1:03 PM on February 6, 2019 [6 favorites]

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