Do You Feel Like a Placeholder in Your Relationship?

Don't act like your partner has one foot out the door... or they will.

Posted Sep 28, 2015

Source: Pixabay

Do you ever go out to dinner with your partner and spend the entire evening wondering which one of the charming, attractive, and successful people in the restaurant he and she would be better off with? Do you feel like your partner is constantly looking over your shoulder for someone better, not necessarily because of anything he or she has done, but simply because you don't feel good enough?

This is a common problem for people with low self-confidence or feelings of self-loathing, and I call it the “placeholder” complex. To your partner, it may look like jealousy, in that you're likely to be suspicious of any person whom your partner might be attracted to, but to you it's mixed up with the feeling that that your partner may be happier with that person as well—and that you’re keeping him or her from being happy with that other person. It may also seem like you don’t trust your partner, but this isn’t the point; you just think very little of yourself. As a result, you expect your partner to find someone else—it’s not a matter of if, but of when.

If feeling like a placeholder is an issue of trust, the main focus isn’t on your partner—it’s on you. You don’t trust yourself to be appealing enough to your partner to keep him or her interested. This is natural for self-loathers, who often do not understand what their partners saw in them in the first place. And even if they do accept that their partners are interested in them, they don’t expect it to last very long, expecting that once their partners “figure out” how bad they really are, they’ll leave—and understandably so, in the eyes of the self-loathers.

As I’ve written to my fellow self-loathers before, you have to learn to believe that your partner sees something valuable and worthy in you, even if you don’t see it yourself. (Ideally, you’d come to see it too, but that comes later.) If you don’t, then feeling like a placeholder can end up becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy: the anxiety you feel over the inevitable break-up can make you into the unappealing partner you think you were already, and that may be what drives your partner away. Contrary to your worst self-perceptions, your partner may see you as a fantastically warm, funny, and attractive person. But your constant worrying over when the relationship will end, even if you try to hide it, will eventually manifest itself and end up sabotaging the relationship. (And trust me, you can’t hide it for long.)

If you can’t feel secure in your partner’s interest in you, then take a tip from what is undeniably the best TV show ever: “Every song ends, but is that any reason not to enjoy the music?” Rather than acting as if the anticipated break-up has already happened, try to enjoy the relationship while it “lasts.” Think of it like a summer fling that you embrace with all your heart even though—or precisely because—you know it can’t last. If you do this, not only will you enjoy some happiness before the "inevitable" happens, but your partner may be less likely (than ever) to leave you for someone else, simply because you're happier and better to be with, not letting your worries and self-doubt get in the way of your positive features. In the best case scenario, this will reinforce your belief in your partner’s affections, and lessen the degree to which you feel like a placeholder—and maybe you can even learn to be comfortable with being in that seat for a while.


For a select list of my previous Psychology Today posts on self-loathing, relationships, and other topics, see here.

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