Dear Therapist..."I'm Jealous and Needy in My Relationship"
I am getting married in 2024. I love my fiancé dearly and am looking forward to us spending the rest of our lives together. For the most part we are perfectly suited – friends, lovers, and with similar values and life goals. However, we can have some fantastic rows largely started by my own insecurities and fears.
I know where they come from – my parents had a pretty bad relationship with multiple infidelities. This means, at times, that I will get quite fearful and jealous if we are out and my fiancé is talking to others a lot and not including me. Or sometimes I will wonder about her working late and want proof of her whereabouts. Other times, there may not be anything so clear but I will feel she isn’t being as attentive as she could be and end up sulking.
I’m not proud of this behaviour and she has never given me a reason to mistrust her. Equally, I wish she could be a bit more empathic about where my insecurities stem from and cut me a bit more slack. Instead, she becomes quite rigid and cold and this makes me even more anxious and needy. These cycles are incredibly painful for both of us, and can take days to play out. I don’t want them to carry on for the many years I hope we have together in the future.
Jealous & Needy
I am glad you wrote. It is a great time to do work on yourself ahead of a big commitment like the one you are making next year. And there is some work to be done here.
Your earliest model of romantic relationships (that between your parents) was a pretty unsettling one. It is completely understandable that embarking on marriage would unearth anxious, vulnerable feelings in you. But you need to attend to these fears lovingly rather than act out of them. Letting the fear drive your behaviour is almost certainly going to lead to an outcome you don’t want, perhaps even the repeat of your parents’ relationship you so fear.
Let’s talk about your fiancé for a moment, and her role here. You are disappointed she won’t ‘cut you some slack’ given your family history. This feels, to you, unempathetic. Let me offer a reframe: not indulging these fantasies is perhaps the most caring thing she can do. It is a reminder that your relationship is not your parents’. That while it is perfectly understandable you would feel your fears, you need not feed them, else they can lead to the types of multi-day rows you and she find so painful. Or worse. She is protecting your relationship. What you perceive as ‘rigid and cold’ may also be a rejection of your accusations and controlling behaviour. Or anger that she has to repeatedly prove her fidelity to try and make up for the past actions of your parents. This is an impossible task. One that is unfair to ask of her. This is not her work or, frankly, the couple’s work. It is your own.
Intimate relationships provoke our earlier wounding like no other. The is actually the good news in the sense that these relationships offer perhaps the most profound route to our healing. There will be multiple times that our family of origin material gets activated.
Often times, people try to eradicate the triggers by controlling the situation. I will stay by her side at a party so everyone knows she’s with me. I will check her location to make sure she is really at work as she says. I will ask her not to have close male friends as this makes me feel uncomfortable. This is a recipe for disaster. The list of demands tends to be ever-growing as we try to control for every conceivable outcome (another impossible task!). And the other person – your fiancé here - ends up feeling both controlled and unfairly burdened with maintaining her partner’s emotional regulation.
Another reframe: Can you use each of these uncomfortable situations as a cue that old stuff is resurfacing and needs your attention? As a healing opportunity? Healing won’t come from your fiancé. It will come from you learning to identify and feel the emotional charge activated in your body. In this way, attention shifts from the external to the internal. We start to notice the physical and emotional cues indicating that echoes from the past are present. We can use these as a time to ask ‘when else did I feel this way?’ Trace the path back in time. Return to being, say, eight years old and not knowing where Mum is and when she’s coming back. Locate yourself in the situation. Allow yourself to not just acknowledge but feel the fear. Let it move through your body (I’m a big believer in physical movement to allow these trapped pockets of emotion to surface).
The support of a therapist can be very helpful at first. To identify the patterns, the physical cues and the additional support of emotional co-regulation. But over time, attending to these ‘emotional visitations’ need not require a therapy-hour or similar. We can get skilled at identifying them and processing them in far shorter time frames, and on a regular basis.
Our earliest core wounds are things that can stay with us, perhaps forever, but they need not paralyse us or keep us from forging a new relationship story of our own. And my sense is you will find your fiancé far more supportive and empathic once she sees you are taking responsibility for what is, after all, your own emotional biography.