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Dating Maze #345: Off the Deep End

October 27, 2011 | by Rosie Einhorn, L.C.S.W. and Sherry Zimmerman, J.D., M.Sc.

Whenever a disagreement crops up, we both go into fear mode.

Dear Rosie & Sherry,

I found the article Dating Advice #63 on fear of abandonment speaking straight to me. I met the woman of my dreams a year ago, and things clicked from day one. We became very close friends, enjoying both the fun and the deep times. Our relationship grew stronger and I decided to take it to next level and proposed to her.

I didn't get the answer I hoped for. She said “no” because “something is not right” about her. I know in my heart that she is right for me – kind, caring and beautiful. I was able to persuade her how much I care for her and we're still together, but we have a big problem.

I always sensed that something in her past is troubling her and makes her feel insecure. At some point, I figured out that she had experienced several instances of rejection and abandonment. We spoke about it together and she gave me some details.

Knowing what she overcame only strengthened my commitment toward her. But from the day of our discussion, she has become more insecure, developing a fear that I will leave her because of the “stigma” of her past.

She becomes very anxious: "Are you going to leave me?”

She seems to re-experience these issues every time we have a serious discussion or a disagreement. She becomes very anxious and asks, "Are you going to leave me? Will you really marry me?" I have to stop our discussion because of this fear and spend time reassuring her that I’m here to stay. Even though I may diffuse the immediate situation, her fears surface again the next time.

We’re not able to deepen the emotional connection between us because we can't have a lengthy, meaningful conversation. If we have a disagreement, we never get far enough along to hear each other's perspectives and actually resolve the disagreement. (Part of this may be due to the fact that she has much better communication skills than I do.)

I do have a nagging feeling that perhaps I’m not good enough for her. I've also started to become jealous when she mentions other men in her circle. I react by wanting to restrict her, and trying to intrude into every aspect of her personal life. Of course, this gets her upset, and I know that my acting controlling and jealous is not good for the relationship.

And so the cycle goes. The way I see it, we both want each other, but are afraid of losing each other. How do we deal with these issues in a healthy way?


Dear Jay,

You letter describes a pattern in your relationship that concerns us a great deal. If this dynamic continues, your relationship will not be able to grow, and within time there won't be a relationship. Then she'll be able to say, "See, I knew you'd leave me!"

This woman’s fear of abandonment isn't a product of your relationship – it’s a personal problem that she has to resolve for herself. That's why no amount of love, assurance and promises from you will help her feel secure, and that’s why this fear keeps resurfacing after you seem to have helped her calm down.

It's important to understand that every person enters a relationship carrying their personal baggage. Sometimes that doesn't affect the relationship at all, or only indirectly. For example, a woman who doesn't always get along well with her brother may argue with him from time to time, but that aspect of her life may not impact the dating relationship she's developing. If the couple decides to get married, this will probably be something they talk about, and may even need to deal with it as a couple.

Fear of abandonment has its roots in a childhood trauma.

However, other types of baggage have a very direct affect on how a man and woman relate to each other. Fear of abandonment is one of these. It has its roots in childhood when a person is separated from her primary caretaker for a certain amount of time – e.g. a parent abandons the family, a parent or other close relative dies, the family goes through a calamity that traumatically separates them from each other. Many children don't acquire the tools to process these experiences, and instead the imprint stays with them as they grow. When they become involved in a close relationship – be it a good friendship or a courtship that becomes serious – even something that seems innocuous may trigger a fear of reoccurrence.

Each time they re-experience this emotion, they may respond by protecting themselves from abandonment and the pain it will bring. They may question their partner's intentions about staying or leaving – and not trust the answer; avoid or deflect arguments because in their mind, conflict's don't get resolved and lead to break-ups; try to control their partner's freedom to prevent them from leaving; or make extreme efforts to placate or please their partner to keep them in the relationship.

You've seen for yourself that you cannot "fix" this woman’s problem, because even though it affects your relationship, the relationship is not its source. The best way for her to address her fear of abandonment is to work with a professional therapist, who can help her identify the deep-seated roots of her fear and learn how to overcome it. The two of you can continue to develop your relationship while she works with a therapist.

Working Together

At the same time, we recommend that you work together to develop better skills in two areas: communication and conflict resolution. Hopefully the progress you make on these two fronts will compliment the progress she accomplishes on her own.

Many times, two people who deeply care for each other and want the same things out of life struggle with the ways they communicate, disagree and solve problems. She may be able to convey her thoughts and feelings more easily than you can, but when it comes to a productive dialogue, you both have a problem because you can't seem to engage in a flowing conversation in which you really listen to each other. You both come away feeling like the other person doesn't understand or respect your feelings and ideas. You don’t get to the "meat" of an issue or problem because you may hold back from expressing your deeper thoughts and emotions, and because she makes extreme efforts to avoid deeper discussions and arguments. Your unproductive communication style can leave both of you feeling angry and frustrated.

The listener has to repeat back the other’s key points.

The way to stop this vicious cycle is for you to work as a couple to learn better communication skills. One very helpful skill is called "active listening." It gives each person an opportunity to express their thoughts, ideas and feelings about a topic, with their partner totally focused on listening and understanding what they have to say. The listener can ask questions for clarification, and then describes what they heard their partner say. Then, the listener and the speaker switch roles. But the key is that the listener – before expressing his/her own opinion – has to repeat back what they understand as the other’s key points. Couples who learn this method are able to feel they've been heard and understood, and stop talking over each other and competing to get their point across.

There are a number of resources, including self-help books and Internet articles, that describe active listening techniques and suggest exercises to help develop them. (The exercises are key). When you first try the exercises, you may feel awkward about exchanging information this way. However, in a short time most couples become more comfortable with the give-and-take style and it becomes almost second nature.

Healthy Disagreement

You both also need to learn healthy ways to address another area of challenge: problem-solving and resolving disagreements. Some people learn these skills while growing up, by watching their parents have productive discussions and effectively resolve arguments. It's possible that you saw your own parents talk about their problems calmly, or disagree and then reach a resolution in a healthy, respectful manner. However, it seems that this woman probably didn't have this advantage. She may not have seen that a couple can argue, then settle their disagreement, and then continue to have a healthy, loving relationship.

In fact, this could be one of the reasons she asks if you'll leave her each time you two disagree. To her, disagreements lead to break-ups or escalate into something very unpleasant. Hopefully, as she works with her therapist, she'll learn that disagreements are normal in healthy relationships.

We recommend the self-help approach here, too, because we've seen that many couples are able to learn problem-solving and conflict resolution skills on their own. Others are more comfortable having a third party, such as a certified life coach, trained marriage educator, or couple's therapist, guide them through the process. You can look into different options and decide which one is best suited to you both.

Self-esteem and Control

We'd like to address the final issue you raised – your own insecurity about your standing in this relationship. Many of us are a little unsure of ourselves from time to time. For example, we may be nervous about speaking in front of a large group of people, or find it hard to stand up against someone who is very assertive. Your insecurities are slightly more deep-seated, and they are having a negative effect on many aspects of your relationship.

You project your insecurity by assuming she feels superior to you.

You've told us that you worry you aren't “good enough” for her and are uncomfortable with her being more articulate than you. You get frustrated when you try to express yourself, and then project your insecurity onto her by assuming that she feels superior to you. This probably leads to your over-reacting to things she says by lashing out at her when you think she's insulting you. You start to imagine that she'll decide she wants someone "better," and you react by trying to restrict her and control her, because you're afraid you'll lose her if you don't.

Like her fear of abandonment, your lack of self-esteem is an individual problem, rather than a couple's issue. You have to improve your self-image and learn how to keep your insecurities from negatively affecting your relationship. A self-help book or Internet articles on building self esteem may be resources that can help you address this problem. One book that may be helpful to you is Ten Steps to Being Your Best by Abraham J. Twerski (ArtScroll Publishers). In addition, in many cities, there are a number of workshops and courses that help build self-esteem and improve interpersonal skills.

It's important for the future of your relationship, and for each of you individually, to deal with your personal issues now, rather than later. You can continue to see each other during this time, and together you can work on improving your communication and problem-solving skills. Over time, the dynamic in your relationship will change, as each of you becomes healthier and you learn new ways to relate to each other. We can't tell you how things will evolve, but if you do nothing, chances are great that you will both grow more frustrated and will break up.

Becoming proactive gives you a good chance to have the meaningful, emotionally satisfying future that you deserve.

Rosie & Sherry

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