I am a forty-year-old man who has been divorced for twelve years. I've had a few relationships of varying lengths over the past 12 years (three years was the longest), but this is the first time I've been interested in getting re-married. I truly feel like I've found "the one."
I'm afraid, however, that a lot of my past baggage is getting in the way. The current problem is that my fiancée does not give me much praise and reassurance, and she needs and gives much less physical affection (I'm not talking about sex here) than I am used to and expect.
I have depression, was sexually abused as a child, and adopted when I was young. My depression is very well controlled through meds and cognitive behavioral work I do on my own, as well as what I've learned in therapy in the past. Through lots of therapy I have recognized that I have huge issues with fear of abandonment and feeling I'm not worthy of being loved. I've surrounded myself with very expressive friends who constantly reassure me by telling me how great I am.
I've mostly dated women who fit this mode. I also have a history of over-achieving and doing tons of volunteer work to prove my worth to myself. I realize I have become addicted to external praise. I realize that and I'm working on it.
In my current relationship, though, I'm having a hard time drawing the line between my insecurities versus my legitimate right to tell my fiancée what I need out of the relationship.
How does one know the difference between one's own baggage, and legitimate relationship concerns that need to be addressed?
Signed, Needs PLENTY of Hugs
Dear Needs Plenty of Hugs,
Many times since starting this site I have recommended that people should seek help from a professional -- a therapist or psychologist. As your letter makes clear, this is not always the end of the road, not by a long shot. There is never any guarantee that a series of sessions with a therapist will provide the relief you seek. It might be the most appropriate course of action -- your best bet, if you will -- and many people make tremendous strides as a result of their therapy, but seeing a professional is not always a silver bullet cure-all.
There can be several reasons for this. Some clients are simply not committed to putting in the effort to help themselves. As the joke in my sidebar alludes, you have to be ready and willing to make changes in your life.
Another fundamental reason is that psychology is an inexact science. Our understanding of the complexities of human behavior is far from complete, as is our knowledge of how to intervene when things go awry. Some types of behaviors are resistant to change, and persist despite the best efforts of patient and therapist.
You can point to several reasons for your fears. Feelings of low self worth are a classic response to sexual abuse, as is fear of abandonment for those who have been adopted or who have lived through foster care. Your therapy has made you aware of the fears as well as the causes, and has given you some techniques you can use to manage the effects. You have worked out other coping strategies on your own, such as gravitating toward expressive, supportive friends.
It is obvious, though, that you have not actually addressed the roots of your fears. You still struggle to think of yourself as worthy of love, as someone that people will like and want to be around.
Think about that. After years of therapy and medication, the problems are still there. Does that mean you are destined to struggle for your entire life? I have no way of knowing whether that is true in your individual case, but many people in your situation are able to make breakthroughs once they begin addressing the root causes rather than the surface behaviors.
Let's consider your self-esteem for a moment. You can do all the exercises you want, shouting "I'm great" affirmations at the top of your lungs, having therapists and friends assure you that you really are worthy, but at some point you will have some alone-time again. That's when your inner voice will whisper to you: "Psst. Hey! You know that was a load of baloney, right? None of that play-acting changes what you and I know. We both know what people really think of you." Your therapy has not evicted this malicious tenant from your head. You have not yet gone back to the events that caused your fears, dealt with them effectively and successfully, and discarded their harmful effects.
All of this is a preamble to answering your question, which is: How does one know the difference between one's own baggage, and legitimate relationship concerns that need to be addressed?
We all have baggage, every single one of us. We are all individuals with our own hot buttons, topics about which we really don't want to be teased, and sensitivities for which we could use a little moral support. These are legitimate relationship concerns. When your fiancée chooses to be with you, she chooses all of you. Like it or not, she will have to deal with your insecurities.
The question, though, is what constitutes an appropriate way to address these concerns. You would like her to give you more praise, reassurance and physical contact, which is just another form of reassurance -- the touch or hug when passing in the kitchen, in effect saying, "Yes, I still love you." In other words, you want her to feed your insecurities. You want the quick hit, the temporary fix of external gratification so you'll feel okay for another few minutes.
And I don't blame you. For someone who feels badly like you do, of course you are looking for ways to feel better, and temporarily better is preferable to not at all. It's okay for you to ask for this type of help. If this sort of touchy-feely constant reassurance does not come naturally for your partner, though, it may be difficult for her to provide it to the level you seek. You risk straining the relationship by asking her to provide more than she has to give.
More than that, it may not be the only way (or even the best way) for her to help address your legitimate relationship concerns. Perhaps she could say, "You should keep looking for a professional who can get to the root of your problems and help you discard their effects, someone with a proven track record of helping people with their self-esteem issues."
I realize that may be difficult to hear after all your experiences with therapy, but it just might be an idea worth considering. I wish you luck in achieving a workable balance of need-versus-give with your fiancée.
All the best,
Does your inner voice take a few stabs at your self-esteem whenever you're naked, alone in the dark? Does this affect how you interact with others? Drop me an email and I'll try to help. Comments can be anonymous and the identity of email respondents always remains confidential.