Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Don't Let Doubts Doom Your Relationship

Overcoming relationship imposter syndrome means dealing with doubt. Here's how.

Key points

  • "Relationship imposter phenomenon" occurs when someone feels insecure, phony, or worries that their relationship is a fraud.
  • Those with relationship imposter phenomenon tend to agree with statements like "I’m afraid my relationship won’t be successful in the future."
  • To combat doubts, it's important to recognize that no relationship is perfect, and that questioning one's partnership is normal.and healthy.
Photo by Allef Vinicius on Unsplash
Feeling uncertain about your relationship?
Source: Photo by Allef Vinicius on Unsplash

Do you have a good relationship? The question is awkward to contemplate, but important to ask. We all want that storybook romance and perfect partner, but relationship reality can—and often does—fall short. When that happens, doubt creeps in.

You can’t help but wonder: Should my relationship be better? Should I be happier? Should this be easier? More perfect? Is my partner really best for me? What if there’s something better out there? Is this really what I always wanted? What if my partner isn’t actually "the one"? Am I settling?

The questions can take on a life of their own, with each question further eroding your confidence. Are you being wisely skeptical or completely paranoid? Even in the moments when you think everything is great and you’re part of a perfect couple, it may feel like a mirage, or like you’re somehow deluding yourself.

You’re likely familiar with imposter syndrome, often referred to as the imposter phenomenon in psychological research. [1] This is when successful individuals fight the feeling that their accomplishments aren’t real or valid, and that their true, less-than-stellar abilities will one day come to light. Did you really deserve that raise, merit that accolade, or earn that promotion? Will you and your skills eventually be revealed as a fraud? These types of nagging doubts affect 7 in 10 people during their lifetime. [2] (Want to gauge your own imposter feelings? You can take a quiz here .) [3]

Relationship Imposter Phenomenon

Though the imposter phenomenon has typically been portrayed as an individual problem, similar feelings can arise in the context of romantic relationships. You succumb to the relationship imposter phenomenon when your competence exceeds your confidence—usually, because you’re applying unreasonable standards, feeling phony, and worrying about exposing your relationship’s hidden truth. Relationship imposter phenomenon occurs when, despite signs that your relationship is healthy, you’re fearful, have doubts, and lack certainty. You wonder if it all seems too good to be true, what you’re missing, or if there are problems you’re not seeing.

There isn’t an official measure of relationship imposter phenomenon. However, based on assessments of individuals’ imposter feelings [4], someone experiencing relationship imposter phenomenon will likely agree with statements such as:

  • I’m afraid my relationship won’t be successful in the future.
  • I’m uncomfortable when others tell me how great my relationship is.
  • Sometimes I'm afraid others will realize how much my relationship really lacks.
  • I fear that my relationship will fall apart.
  • I worry that people I care about will discover my relationship isn’t as good as they think it is.
  • I can’t help but think that my relationship should be better than it is.
  • Even when things are going well in my relationship, I have a hard time believing it will last.

Some imposter feelings come from lofty and overly ambitious standards that encourage you to underappreciate the positive signs. Sure, things are good, but they could always be better. We take the good things for granted, while latching on to what’s not working. Because we have doubts, we worry that our partner or others (e.g., friends and family) will see that our relationship isn’t what it seems to be.

As bad as that all sounds, here’s the really important part to realize: those fraudulent feelings are often exaggerated. That’s right. You’re likely worrying about problems you don’t have, seeding unfounded doubts, and even pushing yourself toward decisions (e.g., should we break up?) you don’t need to make. It’s time to address your feelings of relationship fraud before it’s too late.

Put Things in Perspective

Step back, reevaluate, and use these four keys to build relationship confidence.

1. We’ve all got questions.

You’re not alone in questioning aspects of your relationship. Your relationship is important, so it would be odder if you didn’t question anything about it.

To get a glimpse into what people wonder about, look no further than Google’s auto-complete function. As you start typing in the search box, Google’s algorithm forecasts what you’re most likely to ask using billions of previous searches. [5] Give it a try by typing things like: “Does my rel…” or “Is my rel…”

As you’ll see, people often turn to Google for relationship answers. Searchers’ most wondered questions touch on topics like relationships lasting, surviving, being healthy, being toxic, being over, being dead, needing a break, and having a future.

What this means is that questioning is common and isn’t a betrayal or fatal flaw. It’s normal, and an opportunity to strengthen your relationship.

2. The more you know…

Your relationship probably didn’t start this way—with doubts. Early on, it's likely that you couldn’t have been more confident about your amazing partner and perfect relationship. But the funny thing about confidence is that it comes a lot easier when we have fewer facts. Researchers call this the Dunning-Kruger effect. [6]

Falling head over heels in love is easy when you don’t have all the information about the person you’re falling for. Early impressions are incomplete—but by now, you’ve filled in the blanks and see your partner more clearly, faults included. You might learn that your partner chews with their mouth open, has a temper, spends too much time at work, or simply spends too much. Each piece of newfound knowledge provides a more complete (and realistic) picture. But it can leave you wondering if this is the relationship you signed up for.

However, it’s important to realize that no relationship or relationship partner is perfect. Being more informed is a good thing because you get to know your real partner—blemishes and all. It’s also helpful to do a better job recognizing areas of strength you may have overlooked .

3. Move beyond the binary.

Relationships are complicated. Your partner's moods, thoughts, and motivations can be ambiguous. Your own feelings fluctuate. It’s a lot to deal with, and when our brains are confronted with ambiguity and uncertainty, simplification is appealing. You find yourself asking, “Am I in a good or bad relationship?”

Life would be a lot easier if everything fit neatly into these simple binary categories. That way, as soon as your relationship falters, you’d know it was "bad." When things went well, you could rest assured you had a "good" relationship. If only it were that easy.

That “all-or-nothing” approach ignores reality. The person you love may also be a major grump when they get home from work, or they may loudly slurp their cereal in the morning. Similarly, even the world’s worst partner will have some redeeming qualities. Your argumentative partner who requires you to walk on eggshells around them might also be a lot of fun, or have a knack for surprising you with the perfect gift. No one is completely awful or perpetually wonderful.

Instead, you need to appreciate your relationship reality by not thinking in absolute, either/or terms. Rather, try to think in percentages: What percentage of the time is your relationship great? What percentage is it unfulfilling? Realistically, neither will be 100 percent. But thinking this way will minimize overreactions and allow you to see your relationship more clearly.

4. Comparisons are killers.

When doubts arise, it’s natural to compare your relationship to those around you. How happy are other couples? How much do they fight? What you find can be unsettling because other couples often seem flawless from the outside. But their apparent perfection is an illusion. What looks perfect from afar is often far from perfect up close.

Blame social media, if you like. You’re seeing other couples’ highlight reels. Comparing those to your 24/7 real-life relationship isn’t fair. But those couples with all of their date nights and cute pictures together must be doing something you’re not, right? Wrong. Research shows that people tend to make their relationship more visible on social media not when things are going well, but when they felt insecure. [7] Those picture-perfect couples may actually feel more disconnected and could be compensating by posting more gushy material. [8] It’s easy to feel like an imposter when you’re benchmarking your relationship on an unrealistic standard.

Conclusion

There’s a better way. First, recognize that being 100 percent certain about your relationship (or anything) is 100 percent impossible. Every relationship has moments of doubt and uncertainty. That’s OK. It doesn’t mean your relationship is a fraud or destined to fail. Flaws don’t make your relationship an imposter. Rather, they reveal opportunities for growth. Everyone deserves a great relationship, but being too hard on your relationship isn’t how you get there. Instead, it’s important to realize that all great relationships take some work. No doubt about it.

This essay is adapted from Stronger Than You Think: The 10 Blind Spots That Undermine Your Relationship...and How to See Past Them (Little, Brown Spark, 2021, 304 pages).

Facebook image: Olena Yakobchuk/Shutterstock

References

[1] Clance, P. R., & Imes, S. (1978). The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy Theory, Research and Practice, 15 (3), 1-8. Link

[2] Sakulku, J. (2011). The impostor phenomenon. The Journal of Behavioral Science, 6(1), 75-97. https://so06.tci-thaijo.org/index.php/IJBS/article/view/521

[3] Clance, P. R. (1985). The Impostor Phenomenon: When Success Makes You Feel Like A Fake (pp. 20-22). Toronto: Bantam Books. Retrieved from: https://paulineroseclance.com/pdf/IPTestandscoring.pdf

[4] Holmes,S. W., Kertay, L, Adamson, L. B., Holland, C. L., & Clance, P. R. (1993). Measuring the impostor phenomenon: A comparison of Clance's IP Scale and Harvey's I-P Scale. Journal of Personality Assessment, 60, 48-59.

[5] https://www.blog.google/products/search/how-google-autocomplete-works-search/

[6] Kruger, J. & Dunning, D. (1999). Unskilled and unaware of it: How difficulties in recognizing one's own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77, 1121–1134. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.77.6.1121

[7] Emery, L. F., Muise, A., Dix, E. L., & Le, B. (2014). Can you tell that I’m in a relationship? Attachment and relationship visibility on Facebook. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 40(11), 1466–1479. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167214549944

[8] Seidman, G., Langlais, M., & Havens, A. (2019). Romantic relationship-oriented Facebook activities and the satisfaction of belonging needs. Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 8(1), 52–62. https://doi.org/10.1037/ppm0000165

advertisement