Dear Carolyn: I’ve been in a relationship for three years with a wonderful man. At the beginning, I was deliriously happy. Recently, though, my boyfriend is acting differently toward me — more withdrawn, needing more space, etc. I consider myself a fairly perceptive person, and so I mentioned this to him, suspecting there was just something small we needed to work on and everything would be fine. He swears there’s nothing wrong. I still think there likely is, but I also realize that continually asking him what is wrong will only make things worse.
But I don’t know how to get rid of the feeling of being insecure — and now when he says no to hanging out, I’ve started to feel anxious and sometimes even a little hurt (which I realize is silly). And I think he’s starting to notice. Help!
Insecure or Perceptive?
You can be insecure and perceptive, when you notice your relationship is no longer what you count on it to be.
It’s also OK to be concerned; in fact, writing off your hurt feelings as “silly” is so self-negating that I wonder if you do that reflexively, a bookend to needing to declare your perceptiveness. If you’re upset over every little thing then, sure, look inward — but your boyfriend has started brushing you off. Why isn’t it a given that you’d notice, and hurt?
I’d go further and call it useful. Negative feelings are our alarm system. Show someone what upsets you, how often you’re upset and what you do to address these things, and you'll serve up a pretty accurate measure of your emotional health.
Asking your boyfriend was a good way to handle his upsetting behavior change —until asking didn’t resolve anything. From there, you’ve chosen to do nothing about your distress except flog yourself for showing it. That’s unhealthy, and you have the anxiety to prove it (another emotional alarm).
To get onto a more productive path, chuck the self-doubt. You’ve noticed something, so it’s real, so concern is valid. Just giving yourself that much can help appreciably.
Next, recognize that a real change in his behavior warrants a real change in yours. Since your choices are acceptance or action, weigh these accordingly:
(1) Straight-up acceptance. Change your “I’m going to shut up in case my anxiety costs me the relationship” approach to “I realize something’s up, I don’t know what yet, but surely I will soon enough.” The latter includes both acceptance and self-assurance, and therefore a sense of control.
(2) Hedged acceptance. While you wait to see what develops, take some action by putting to good use whatever time you’re suddenly not spending with him. Those delirious hours and years with partners come from somewhere, usually from interests you pursued while single but that your partner doesn’t share. Re-engage with one or two you dropped. If your boyfriend is withdrawing for reasons unrelated to you or just evolving naturally out of the shmoopie phase, then renewed interests will help you absorb such ebbs and flows more smoothly. And if your boyfriend is falling out of love with you, then these interests will help cushion your fall. Win-win.
(3) Straight-up action. Recognize you have all the information you need, and decide for yourself where the relationship stands. He “swears there’s nothing wrong,” but you believe his actions and your perceptions more than you do his words – yet you haven’t broken up with him. His words + actions + your perceptions + actions (equal sign) four big pieces of information. Put them together, and what do you see?
I realize you just want him to either go back to the old way or explain the new one, but sometimes people don’t grant us that favor, or are themselves too confused to. In these cases, all good options involve trusting ourselves — or learning to, ASAP.