I Want to Give This Relationship My All — I Really Don’t Want to Lose Him

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Reader’s Question

My boyfriend and I have been dating off and on for two years. Currently we are having problems with him trusting me, and with me trying to learn how to not be so selfish towards him. I’m really trying to work on my relationship, but I don’t know where to begin, or how to approach the situation to make it better. I love him to death, and I really don’t want to lose him. How do I learn to give him my all so he can trust me and get our relationship back on track?

Psychologist’s Reply

Your commitment to your boyfriend and your relationship are commendable; it sounds like you will do whatever it takes to make it work. I heard a few things in your question that I wanted to respond to.

First, you did not mention why your boyfriend is having trouble trusting you. In relationships where one person has engaged in infidelity or deception (e.g. lying), it can be difficult for the partner whose trust has been violated to regain that trust. Coming together to a place of mutual trust is typically a long road that includes both partners: one must learn to be up front and transparent about everything he or she is doing, and the other must learn to give his or her partner the benefit of the doubt despite fears of being hurt again.

Sometimes when someone has trouble trusting, it is a characteristic or struggle that he or she brings into the relationship regardless of his or her current partner’s actions. Sometimes a past relationship colors the current one. And in other cases, someone may have a tendency toward feeling anxious, or fearful of being hurt by others. If your boyfriend has had trouble trusting other partners as well as you, then he might need to spend some time considering what it is that makes trusting others difficult for him.

You mentioned that you are being “selfish” toward your boyfriend. I wondered how you and your boyfriend were defining “selfish.” Relationships do require compromise, give-and-take, and times when you put your partner’s needs first. Just as an example, if one partner is feeling ill or distressed on a particular evening, the other might be moved to cancel plans to go out with friends, in order to stay in. Choosing to be with friends on that particular night could be labeled “selfish.” However, often the word “selfish” can be confused with what is actually ‘self-care,’ or taking care of oneself in an appropriate and positive fashion. I would say, to be selfish is to put oneself first repeatedly with no regard for others’ welfare. Self-care is about maintaining your own well-being, while still being respectful of others and relationships.

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As a second example, let’s imagine a male partner shared with his girlfriend that he becomes extremely jealous and anxious every time she spends time with her girlfriends without him. She might feel pulled to stop seeing friends, in an effort to care for him. But what if it really bothered her to stop socializing, or to discontinue friendships altogether? To engage in self-care would be to acknowledge to herself and to him that this request is difficult because it goes against something important to her (e.g. maintaining friendships). In this case, whose needs should trump the other? Relationship impasses such as this require dialogue in which each partner respectfully and assertively (and lovingly) voices his or her own needs. One might even be able to argue in this scenario that it would be selfish for the male partner to insist that his girlfriend give up her friends! As you can see, there is no right or wrong that is written in stone in these kinds of situations. It is a matter of identifying and expressing needs to each other to arrive at a solution that works for both people. Harriet Lerner, Ph.D., a psychologist who wrote the book, Dance of Intimacy [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK], suggests that each person articulate his or her own ‘bottom line.’ In other words, each person must identify and express what he or she will or will not agree to in relationships. As committed as you are to putting in effort to change yourself, I wonder if it would be useful to consider your bottom line, i.e. what you are not willing to change, as well.

A final point that I will mention is that it is much easier to achieve specific, clear, realistic, and observable goals (e.g. “could you call me when you will be out past 2am?”) than vague ones (e.g. “you need to give this relationship your all”). I do not know what it would mean for you to give it “your all.” Similarly, I do not know what specifically your boyfriend would like you to do to earn his trust. These goals could mean different things to different people. However, if your boyfriend were to identify specific actions that he would like to see, then you could begin to decide whether you were able to meet those requests or not. Again, it is never one person’s job to do everything another person asks in relationship. It is each partner’s job to articulate feelings, make requests, and negotiate with the other.

When certain issues return again and again in a relationship, it can be useful to meet with a couple’s therapist to get an outside perspective and some ideas about how to move forward. Couple’s therapy can identify patterns in relationships and areas in which partners can make small, manageable changes in themselves and the relationship. I believe that it takes two people to have problems, and it takes two people to have a successful relationship. A couple’s therapist can help each partner identify what can be done to improve the relationship.

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