Dear Captain Awkward:
My partner has told me that he is afraid that he’s boring and that he has an irrational fear that my ‘self-improvement’ means I will leave him for somebody “more exciting”.
A few years ago I was feeling really down, and during that period I decided to really work on myself by changing my lifestyle. I took up a sport, started eating better and got involved in my community. Now I can hardly imagine life before – the improvement in my life and moods has been significant.
It is now to the point where he’s jealous if I have too engaging a conversation with one of his friends, and has insisted that he comes along to anything I do that runs the risk of me so much as talking to men who aren’t related to me. I find this behaviour anywhere from irritating to suffocating.
I am not sure where this fear of his has come from, I don’t think I’m just ignoring my boyfriend and getting annoyed when he wants to spend time with me. I think the problem is that he has low self-esteem and that this feeling of low self-worth has turned into a fear that I’ll leave. In the past he has said he likes me because I ‘make [his] boring life interesting’, which I find extremely concerning. To me it sounds a lot like ‘I am making you responsible for making my life interesting’. Perhaps that is a harsh assessment, but I am frustrated that he has enough free time to latch on to my plans, but apparently not enough to go find something to do by himself.
He is a great guy when he’s not being gnawed on by the hounds of insecurity, but I cannot carry on like this – I don’t have a problem with telling him where I’m going or who I’m with, but sometimes I just want to do things without having to justify why I want to be alone. I am at a loss – what can I do? I’ve suggested therapy and a hobby, but he doesn’t seem to understand that his attempts at keeping me close are pushing me away.
Pushed not pulled
Dear Pushed Not Pulled:
There is a way, short of instantly blowing up the relationship, that you can test whether your partner is in fact a great guy and whether this has the potential to change. Next time you are making plans, shape the discussion like this.
You: “Hey, Partner, I’m going to hobby tomorrow night, so I’m not free then. But can we have dinner Monday? Howabout 7:00 pm?”
Partner: “Can I come?” or whatever his usual schtick is.
You: “No, I want to go alone. I’ll see you Monday.”
No elaboration, no apology, no reassurance, no negotiation. Just state the facts of how you plan to use your time, without inviting him, and tell him when you will see him next.
Partner: SEPARATION ANXIETY CYCLE: ENGAGE
You: Do not engage with any accusations he makes, like, “You just want to break up with me” or “You just want to go hang out with your REAL INTERESTING MUCH BETTER boyfriend” or “You are tired of me,” “I knew this would happen,” etc. Arguing the merits just sucks you into engaging with this on his terms. What matters is that you want to go by yourself and that you don’t want to negotiate about it. Keep sight of that, and try something like this to respond:
1)Validate the feelings themselves, don’t deny them or their severity. “That must feel absolutely awful, and I am sorry you are having these feelings.”
2) Show that you take the feelings absolutely seriously. “Monday I think we should try to make an appointment for you to see someone about this. I’ve got some names/numbers and we’ll work on it then, ok?”
3) Then set the boundary. “I love you, but I am not up for going through this cycle with you today. I am going to go home now, I will text you tomorrow, and I will see you Monday.”
Then leave. Leave the conversation, leave the building. Detach. Disengage. Go to the movies. Turn off your phone. Try not to respond to anything until your planned contact. If you absolutely must respond to something try a script like “Partner, I know the feelings you are having are very scary, but your behavior toward me is not reasonable. I want you to take these feelings you are experiencing absolutely seriously, so please please call (hotline*, therapist, friend) and talk it through with someone who can really help you.” Repeat it like a robot.
Listen, nobody likes being referred to a helpline instead of getting their sweet, sweet attention from you. Chances are he will treat it like a patronizing, insulting request and make you try to feel horribly guilty about it. Watch especially for the “why should I talk to some stranger when I can just talk to my girlfriend” fallacy. WTF are you supposed to do? Chain your life to his irrational fears? You can not be his 24-7 carer, and you cannot treat this problem. He is making your life smaller with his unreasonable demands.
Text him when you said you would. Ignore him otherwise.
Go to the thing by yourself.
See him Monday.
“No,” is a complete sentence.
Can you do it?
Will he let you? Will he show up at the thing even though you asked him not to? Will he call you 10,000 times? Will he harm himself in some way and blame it on you? Do you have this sinking feeling as you read all of this, knowing that “There’s no way that will work…” or “I can’t…“?
Can your relationship survive you saying “No?”
If he can comfort himself and recognize that these are his problems to deal with, and if he can actively seek and participate in getting help, and most importantly, if he can stop his controlling and jealous behavior toward you, maybe you’ve got something. If you can’t say “no” to him without dread and consequences, then this is already dead. I’m sorry.
Clingor The Clingarian’s controlling behavior likely springs from a wellspring of deep, actual pain and fear of abandonment. Lots of abusive and controlling men have real emotional and psychological problems that could use the help of a compassionate professional somewhere along the way. The problem is that instead of getting help, they take the misogyny cure and decide the solution for their sad feelings can be found by closely monitoring the woman in their life and making sure she never leaves or does anything that threatens their fragile sense of well-being. Their emotional problems/sad life history becomes a way for them to beat themselves up and receive comfort from her (You’ll probably leave me because I’m so boring) and guilt her into staying (But what will poor fragile me do without you?).
The constant “I’m afraid you’ll break up with me/You’ll probably break up with me” gambit is particularly hard to take. Someone acting like he is acting deserves to be dumped, not because he’s “boring” or because you’ll find someone more “interesting” but because he is suffocating you with his jealousy and need to be by your side at all times. He’s typecasting you in the present as the heartless mean woman who will break his heart by leaving someday, which manipulates you into the position of having to reassure him that you aren’t that person. Every time you have to do this dance, a piece of the love and trust between you breaks off and crumbles.
As sure as I am that his anxiety is real, I am also sure that this is not your problem to solve for him. He’s already crossed over into manipulating and controlling you and while he may cross back out of doing that at some point in the future after getting some help, this relationship is already compromised and I don’t think you should stick around to see if that happens. Fortunately you are seeing his behavior for what it is (annoying, suffocating) and not asking us what you did to your poor boyfriend to make him so sad, but the longer you stay the more precarious that self-preservation instinct becomes. There is no amount of You-ness, no amount of You-compliance, no amount of keeping his eyes ever on you that can ever fill the abyss inside of him. You’re not going to break up with him because you meet someone more generically interesting, you’re going to break up with him the day you snap and say “YOU’RE NOT MY DOG, DUDE, QUIT FOLLOWING ME.”
I feel like a cheesy breakup salesman here when I say, that day can be today!
Script: “Hey, boyfriend, I am breaking up with you. Not for someone ‘more interesting,’ as you keep accusing me, but because your clingy behavior is making me so unhappy. I hope you will get some help, and I hope you will find a way to like yourself, but I can’t like you enough for both of us, and I’m done. To make this a truly clean break, I think we should go no contact for at least a few months while we heal, so I’d ask you to not contact me until I reach out to you.”
I realize there might be some logistical and emotional things to work out before you deliver that news. I also think there is some logistical planning that goes into the delivery itself. It needs to go down in a place you can easily leave, you should have already smuggled everything you care about out of his place and have all of his stuff ready to give back to him (this guy will bug you forever for that sock that fell down behind your couch because it’s a way to get you to talk to him and for him to feel aggrieved), you should have a friend or family member on standby to pick you up, you should not stay at your place that night or for the next few nights for when he drops by, and you’re gonna need to filter his email messages to a special folder that bypasses your inbox, mute/hide and possibly even block him on social media, and probably not look at your phone for a couple of days as the threats (including maybe suicide threats) roll in. And you’re going to have to emotionally prepare yourself to answer zero communications from him going forward, no matter how much he begs. Also, make sure you each have your own transport to and from the breakup site. Especially do not get into a car with him after you break up with him.
Does that sound harsh and extreme? He’s already displaying stalker tendencies and you haven’t left him yet. The most dangerous time in relationship with a controlling man is when the woman decides to leave. It’s often when emotional manipulation first turns into physical violence. I hope with all my heart that I am wrong, and I hope with all my heart that he won’t do anything to you, but I think you need to be prepared and make sure that you can be safe and cared for and not open to the constant stream of harassment and demands for emotional caretaking that leaving him is likely to unleash.
If you haven’t read it, I recommend the book Why Does He Do That? Inside The Minds of Abusive And Controlling Men by Lundy Bancroft. In one chapters he writes brief profiles of types of abusers he’s seen. Your dude sounds like he has elements of “Mr. Sensitive” about him. I’ve excerpted that passage here, and bolded some parts I think are interesting.
Mr. Sensitive appears to be the diametric opposite of the Drill Sergeant. He is soft-spoken, gentle, and supportive—when he isn’t being abusive. He loves the language of feelings, openly sharing his insecurities, his fears, and his emotional injuries. He hugs other men. He may speak out about the absurdity of war or the need for men to get in touch with their feminine side. Perhaps he attends a men’s group or goes on men’s retreats. Often he has participated extensively in therapy or twelve-step programs, or reads all the big self-help books, so he speaks the language of popular psychology and introspection. His vocabulary is sprinkled with jargon like developing closeness, working out our issues, and facing up to hard things about myself.He presents himself to women as an ally in the struggle against sex-role limitations. To some women, he seems like a dream come true.
So what’s wrong with this picture? Nothing obvious yet. But this is exactly the problem: Mr. Sensitive wraps himself in one of the most persuasive covers a man can have. If you start to feel chronically mistreated by him, you are likely to assume that something is wrong with you, and if you complain about him to other people, they may think you must be spoiled: You have the New Age man, what more do you want?
The following dynamics are typical of a relationship with Mr. Sensitive and may help explain your feeling that something has gone awry:
1. You seem to be hurting his feelings constantly, though you aren’t sure why, and he expects your attention to be focused endlessly on his emotional injuries. If you are in a bad mood one day and say something unfair or insensitive, it won’t be enough for you to give him a sincere apology and accept responsibility. He’ll go on and on about it, expecting you to grovel as if you had treated him with profound cruelty. (Notice the twist here: This is just what an abuser accuses his partner of doing to him, when all she is really looking for is a heartfelt I’m sorry.)
2. When your feelings are hurt, on the other hand, he will insist on brushing over it quickly. He may give you a stream of pop-psychology language (Just let the feelings go through you, don’t hold on to them so much, or It’s all in the attitude you take toward life, or No one can hurt you unless you let them) to substitute for genuine support for your feelings, especially if you are upset about something he did. None of these philosophies applies when you upset him, however.
3. With the passing of time, he increasingly casts the blame on to you for anything he is dissatisfied with in his own life; your burden of guilt keeps growing.
4. He starts to exhibit a mean side that no one else ever sees and may even become threatening or intimidating.
Mr. Sensitive has the potential to turn physically frightening, as any style of abuser can, no matter how much he may preach nonviolence. After an aggressive incident, he will speak of his actions as anger rather than as abuse, as though there were no difference between the two. He blames his assaultive behavior on you or on his emotional issues, saying that his feelings were so deeply wounded that he had no other choice…
…This gentle man style of abuser tends to be highly self-centered and demanding of emotional catering. He may not be the man who has a fit because dinner is late but rather erupts because of some way his partner failed to sacrifice her own needs or interests to keep him content. He plays up how fragile he is to divert attention from the swath of destruction he leaves behind him.
The central attitudes driving Mr. Sensitive are:
• I’m against the macho men, so I couldn’t be abusive.
• As long as I use a lot of psychobabble, no one is going to believe that I am mistreating you.
• I can control you by analyzing how your mind and emotions work, and what your issues are from childhood.
• I can get inside your head whether you want me there or not.
• Nothing in the world is more important than my feelings.
• Women should be grateful to me for not being like those other men.
Is that description completely off-base? I hope so, for your sake, but I think y’all are teetering on the edge of something terrible. He is using his sad feelings to control, bind, and manipulate you. He won’t necessarily cross over into being violent or abusive, but he’s flirting with that the way you are most certainly not flirting with every dude who crosses your path. I hope he gets the help he needs someday, but forgive me for hoping that he does all of that far away from you.
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*In the USA, try Nami.org at 1-800-950-6264, in the UK try Anxiety UK at 08444 775 774 or NoPanic.org at 0844 967 4848. I found these by searching for “separation anxiety” and “helpline,” so apply as necessary for your location.