Needing vs. Wanting to be in Relationship — In or Out?

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Reader’s Question

I am a 31-year-old woman in a committed relationship of several years. I am well educated, financially independent and attractive. My boyfriend and I started our relationship while I was still dating my previous boyfriend and it wasn’t working out. My current boyfriend almost insisted we get together (wrote me e-mails, called, gave me gifts, etc.), and since I was unhappy in my previous relationship, I broke it off to be with him. Since day one, I noticed how little space he gave me, but I was too afraid of conflict to object.

Now, when I try to get more space, he accuses me of having changed, and then I have to constantly explain myself. Also, if I do not call or text as much as he wants, he pouts and is angry with me. We even have to have matching profile photos on social networks, and he prevents me from going to events alone if there would be men there. Still, I must say he treats me well: he cooks dinners, helps around the house, drives my mother to appointments, calls me all the time and generally is emotionally warm and supportive. Everybody says I should be happy to be with such a caring man.

Here’s the problem: I fell in love with another man and had sex once with him. Now I am shattered. I feel very bad for cheating on my boyfriend, who is very committed to me. I’m afraid I have a pattern here: I fall in love while still in a relationship. So, one question I have is how to deal with that pattern. Also, how do I get some space in my relationship?

Psychologist’s Reply

Although you posed two separate questions, perhaps there is one core issue underlying both: emotional or psychological dependence on being in a relationship. Of course, wanting an intimate, supportive, and loving relationship is the norm, and is considered healthy. Problems are almost inevitable, though, when we absolutely need such a relationship for a feeling of psychological security or validation. When we absolutely need a relationship, we might feel threatened by our partner’s interest in anything other than complete devotion to us. Or, we might be willing to accept a less-than-healthy relationship, and stay in that relationship until it’s clear that there is an alternative relationship into which we can jump. In other words, perhaps both clinginess and remaining in an unsatisfying relationship yet cheating are both driven by dependence.

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Often, the core of dependency on a relationship is feeling unlovable, or not good enough to be loved as is. One strategy some people adopt to handle the insecurity that results from feeling unlovable is to give and give to a partner, while also fending off potential competition. Because the individual feels like he or she doesn’t have enough to offer to warrant love, they have to self-sacrifice and/or isolate their partner from alternatives in order to ensure what feels like an undeserved relationship. Alternatively, people who are dependent on relationships may simply accept virtually any relationship that is offered, but are willing to trade up if a better partner indicates definite interest in a relationship. I’m not saying that either strategy is necessarily a conscious choice, or results in satisfying relationships. Often the strategies are only apparent in looking back at a pattern of failed or unsatisfying relationships.

Ultimately, the solution to these problematic relationship patterns is to learn that it’s possible to be happy and feel worthwhile without attachment to a romantic relationship. It’s one thing to come to this realization intellectually, but the crucial (and more difficult) task is to realize it experientially. That is, a person must be able to live a satisfying life as a single in order to be able to approach potential relationships as “wants” rather than “needs.” Unfortunately, many people who are psychologically dependent on intimate relationships experience too much anxiety over the prospect of singlehood to consider it a viable prescription for the necessary emotional growth and independence. Instead, they attribute the problem to the partner, and keep hoping that the answer to their relationship problems is simply finding the right person. Intimate relationships can be difficult enough when both partners are emotionally and psychologically healthy, so what hope is there for relationships motivated by deep-seated insecurities and a non-solid sense of self?

In addition to illustrating two common-yet-problematic relationship patterns, your comments illustrate two other valuable truths about intimate relationships. First, no one from outside the relationship really knows what it’s like to be that person’s relationship partner. So, someone who seems like the ideal relationship partner to others may not be so in actuality. Second, just because someone is intelligent, successful, and attractive does not mean that person is free from insecurities or emotional dependence on a relationship. Our psychological selves can be quite different than our social selves or our work selves.

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