“She isn’t attracted to me anymore. She never acts as excited to see me when I come home. Why can’t it just be like it was in the beginning?”
My friend has just entered into the first of two common phases of relationship insecurity—rhetorical questioning. The internal investigation continues, “She takes forever to answer my texts. Doesn’t she miss me when I’m gone? She used to always laugh at my jokes. Do you think she’s interested in someone else?”
Then comes phase two—turning on himself. “It’s because I’m losing my looks. I’m away too often. She doesn’t think I’m fun anymore. I can’t make her happy. There’s something wrong with me. She wants someone better.”
We’ve all most likely been at one or the other end of this scenario; either the worrier or the partner of the worrier. Chances are, we’ve experienced both. Insecurity, as most of us know firsthand, can be toxic to our closest relationships. And while it can bounce back and forth from partner to partner, both the cause of our insecurity and its cure reside in us alone.
Unsurprisingly, studies have found that people with low self-esteem have more relationship insecurity, which can prevent them from experiencing the benefits of a loving connection. People with low self-esteem not only want their partner to see them in a better light than they see themselves, but in moments of self-doubt, they have trouble even recognizing their partner’s affirmations. Further, the acting out of our insecurities can push a partner away, thus creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because this struggle is internal and goes on most of the time, independent of circumstances, it’s important to deal with our insecurities without distorting or dragging our partner into them. We can do this by taking two steps:
1. Where does our insecurity come from?
Nothing awakens distant hurts like a close relationship. Our relationships stir up old feelings from our past more than anything else. Our brains are even flooded with the same neurochemical in both situations.
We all have working models for relationships that were formed in our early attachments to influential caretakers. Whatever our early pattern was shapes our adult relationships, a subject I address in more detail in the blog “How Your Attachment Style Impacts Your Relationship.” Our style of attachment influences which partners we choose and the dynamics that play out in our relationships. A secure attachment pattern helps a person to be more confident and self-possessed. However, when someone has an anxious or preoccupied attachment style, they may be more likely to feel insecure toward their partner.
Knowing our attachment style is beneficial, because it can help us to realize ways we may be recreating a dynamic from our past. It can help us to choose better partners and form healthier relationships, which can actually, in turn, change our attachment style. Finally, it can make us more aware of how our feelings of insecurity may be misplaced, based on something old as opposed to our current situation.
Our insecurities can further stem from a “critical inner voice” that we’ve internalized based on negative programming from our past. If we had a parent who hated themselves, for example, or who directed critical attitudes toward us, we tend to internalize this point of view and carry it with us like a cruel coach inside our heads. This inner critic tends to be very vocal about the things that really matter to us, like our relationships. Take the example of my friend, mentioned above. First the critical inner voice fueled doubts about his girlfriend’s interest in him, then it turned on him. The second he perceived the situation through the filter of his critical inner voice, which told him his girlfriend was pulling away, his mind flooded with terrible thoughts toward himself. One minute, he was just fine. The next minute, he was listening to an inner voice telling him all the ways he couldn’t measure up, that he was being rejected.
Relationships shake us up. They challenge core feelings we have about ourselves and evict us from long-lived-in comfort zones. They tend to turn up the volume of our inner voice and reopen unresolved wounds from our past. If we felt abandoned as a child, the aloof behavior of a romantic partner won’t just feel like a current frustration. It has the potential to send us back into the emotional state of a terrified child, who needed our parent for survival. As hard as it may feel to connect our contemporary reactions with beliefs, attitudes and experiences from our early lives, it is an invaluable tool for getting to know ourselves, and ultimately, for challenging behaviors that don’t serve us or even fit with our real, adult life.
2. How to Deal With Relationship Insecurity
In order to challenge our insecurity, we have to first get to know our critical inner voice. We should try to catch it each and every time is creeps into our minds. Sometimes, it may be easy. We’re getting dressed to go out on a date, and it screeches, “You look awful! You’re so fat. Just cover yourself up. He’ll never be attracted to you.” Other times, it’ll be more sneaky, even soothing sounding, “Just keep to yourself. Don’t invest or show her how you feel, and you won’t get hurt.” This voice can even turn on our partner in ways that make us feel more insecure, “You can’t trust him. He’s probably cheating on you!” Identifying this critical inner voice is the first step to challenging it. Here you can learn specific steps you can take to conquer this inner critic and keep it from infiltrating your love life.
As we start to challenge these negative attitudes toward ourselves, we must also make an effort to take actions that go against the directives of our critical inner voice. In terms of a relationship, that means not acting out based on unwarranted insecurities or acting in any ways we don’t respect. Here are some helpful steps to take:
Maintain your independence. It’s crucial to keep a sense of ourselves separate from our partner. As Dr. Daniel Siegel has said, the goal for a relationship should be to make a fruit salad and not a smoothie. In other words, we shouldn’t forego essential parts of who we are in order to become merged into a couple. Instead, each of us should work to maintain the unique aspects of ourselves that attracted us to each other in the first place, even as we move closer. In this way, each of us can hold strong, knowing that we are a whole person in and of ourselves.
Don’t act out no matter how anxious you are. Of course, this is easier said than done, but we all know our insecurities can precipitate some pretty destructive behavior. Acts of jealousy or possessiveness can hurt our partner, not to mention us. Snooping through their text messages, calling every few minutes to see where they are, getting mad every time they look at another attractive person—these are all acts that we can avoid no matter how anxious it makes us, and in the end, we will feel much stronger and more trusting. Even more importantly, we will be trustworthy.
Because we can only change our half of the dynamic, it’s always valuable to think about if there are any actions we take that push our partner away. If we’re acting in a way we respect, and we still don’t feel like we’re getting what we want, we can make a conscious decision to talk about it with our partner or change the situation, but we never have to feel victimized or allow ourselves to act in ways that we don’t respect.
Don’t seek reassurance. Looking to our partner to reassure us when we feel insecure only leads to more insecurities. Remember, these attitudes come from inside us, and unless we can overcome them within ourselves, it won’t matter how smart, sexy, worthy or attractive our partner tells us we are. No matter what, we must strive to feel okay within ourselves. This means really and fully accepting the love and affection our partner directs toward us. However, it doesn’t mean looking to our partner at every turn for reassurance to prove we are okay, a burden that weighs on our partner and detracts from ourselves.
Stop measuring. It’s important not to constantly evaluate or assess our partner’s every move. We have to accept that our partner is a separate person with a sovereign mind. We won’t always see things the same way or express our love in the same way. This doesn’t mean we should settle for someone who doesn’t offer us what we want in a relationship, but when we do find someone who we value and love, we should try not to enter into a tit-for-tat mentality in which we continuously measure who owes who what and when.
A relationship should be equal in terms of maturity and kindnesses exchanged. If things feel off, we can communicate clearly what we want, but we shouldn’t expect our partner to read our minds or know exactly what to do all the time. As soon as we get into the blame game, it’s a hard cycle from which to break free .
Go all in. We all have anxiety, but we can increase our tolerance for the many ambiguities that every relationship inevitably presents by being true to ourselves. We can invest in a person even when we know they have the power to hurt us. Keeping one foot out the door only keeps the relationship from becoming as close as it can and may even undermine it altogether. When we allow ourselves to be loved and to feel loving, we are bound to also feel anxious, but sticking it out has more rewards than we may imagine. When we take a chance without letting our insecurities dictate our behavior, the best case scenario is that the relationship blossoms, and the worst case is that we grow within ourselves. No time is wasted that taught us something about ourselves or that helped nourish our capacity to love and be vulnerable.
Read more from Dr. Lisa Firestone at PsychAlive.org