Just about anyone who has felt the rush of falling in love would agree that the experience is like being strapped into an amusement park thrill ride — a swirling blend of conflicting emotions. Excitement and anticipation compete with a little trepidation at being in the grip of forces beyond one’s control.
But for many people, ordinary apprehension of the unknown grows into full-blown fear. For them, the psychological and emotional stakes in the relationship feel sky high, and the outcome is weighted with all sorts of implications about their own well-being and self-image.
This fear — which takes the form of jealousy or clinginess — is generally a reflexive response to emotional trauma in past relationships, including with parents, siblings, and former lovers. Old wounds prevent one from feeling secure in the present, in spite of contrary evidence.
Insecure behavior lies along a broad spectrum, from mild peevishness to full-blown panic attacks. If your partner falls on the extreme end of that scale, professional counseling is probably in order. But if you are dealing with insecurities that are merely annoying, here are five questions to ask yourself:
1. Am I a part of the problem? It never hurts to examine your own behavior in search of emotional land mines you may be unwittingly placing in your partner’s path. People who do not struggle with insecurity are often unaware how little it takes to trigger an avalanche of doubt in one who does — and may inadvertently make things worse with thoughtless words and actions.
Do you routinely fail to deliver on simple promises, like when you’ll call? Does your idea of good-natured humor sometimes include poking fun at your partner in public? Do you talk about past partners more than you should? Be honest and be ready to make appropriate changes.
2. What can I do to help? Many people respond to jealousy or neediness in a partner by expecting them to simply “get over it.” Not only is that approach uncharitable, it isn’t practical either. Insecurities are usually fueled by painful memories that are untouched by efforts to prod or shame them into silence. Self-examination is the necessary medicine, not self-discipline. You can be part of the solution by patiently creating the safest possible setting for real healing to occur.
Start by over-communicating with your partner. When an insecure person is forced to fill in the blanks, his or her assumptions are likely to be dominated by worry and doubt. Do your best to preempt that reflex.
Be generous with your affection. As medical research has demonstrated for years, the power of touch is a tremendous aid in healing from all sorts of wounds, physical and emotional.
Be conscientious about following through on promises and meeting your partner’s reasonable expectations. Sometimes an insecure person’s expectations aren’t reasonable, and it is important to maintain your own boundaries. But keeping your word and always doing your best is good practice in any relationship — and even more so when you know your partner needs extra assurance.
3. What part of my partner’s insecurity is tolerable? As the saying goes, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” In many cases, you may simply shrug off a little insecure behavior and purposely decide to live with it. That won’t prevent you from encouraging your partner to address the underlying issues, but in the meantime it needn’t dominate your relationship.
4. …and what part isn’t? Sometimes, insecure behavior can’t be so easily accepted or ignored — because it imposes unreasonable expectations upon you. It helps to give careful thought to exactly where your “can’t stand” boundary lies. Make a list with specifics. That way, if the time comes to insist on meaningful change in the relationship, you’ll know exactly where you stand and why.
5. Is this likely to change? Does your partner seem capable of change and growth in this area and willing to invest the necessary time and effort in true healing? If so, that may be an investment worth making. If, however, you conclude that he or she is likely to remain mired in insecurity no matter what you do, that’s a recipe for relational suffocation and slow death. Be prepared to move on sooner rather than later. The longer you linger, the more difficult that decision will become.
Insecurity is a common problem, but it doesn’t always signal a relationship’s demise. Be patient, be kind, and be wise about your limits.