Dear Anne — I had not been seeking to diagnose my “on again-off again” girlfriend, but your Q&A Borderline Girlfriend really resonated with me. In short, my own girlfriend would periodically deny, disclaim and distance herself from our otherwise very intimate four year relationship, leaving me devastated each time. But the point of this letter is that I don’t understand what drew me back again (and again) to this emotional version musical chairs game? “Dependent personality disorder” seems the most fitting label for me, as I seem to be all too willing to self-sacrifice (in all senses) in order to maintain a relationship with my partner. So, without going into childhood causes, etc., my question for you is: What self-help regime do you recommend for me to help me overcome my fear of abandonment while protecting my boundaries within intimate relationships? Thanks for your advice.
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- Always consult with your psychotherapist, physician, or psychiatrist first before changing any aspect of your treatment regimen. Do not stop your medication or change the dose of your medication without first consulting with your physician.
One important lesson that people who stay in relationships that they find to be chronically troubling can benefit from learning is that while people are indeed dependent on relationships with other people in general, they are not necessarily dependent on any particular such relationships. Humans are social creatures who generally don’t feel good unless they can spend intimate time (emotionally, intellectually, sexually, etc.) with others. In that sense, you do need other people. But you really don’t need particular other people in your life. You don’t need to be with this particular girlfriend you’ve got. If your girlfriend were to die (of natural causes), for instance, you could morn that loss and see yourself going on to form new relationships, right? This isn’t to say that you would not grieve the loss of your girlfriend. Indeed, you might expect to feel awful for a while. But life goes on and on until you finally die, and time really does heal many (non-traumatic) wounds. You’d feel awful for a while, and then some new relationship would come along.
So now that you know that you aren’t literally dependent on your girlfriend, the next question is, “so why do you put up with this difficult behavior you don’t appreciate”? The answer to this question lies not in what is real, but in what you perceive to be real. If you believe that you can’t cope with a breakup (that you’ll be alone forever, that you couldn’t stand the guilt of betraying her, etc.), then you’ll act in accordance with those beliefs. Especially so since you believe there to be real danger in not paying attention to those beliefs. But people used to think the world was flat and that if you sailed to the edge that you’d fall off too, remember? And old Chris Columbus showed them they were wrong, didn’t he.
What Columbus did was to perform some “reality testing”. He did an experiment to see if the prevaling attitudes about the earth were correct (betting that they weren’t and that he’d enrich himself by proving them wrong), and he won that bet. You can perform similar reality testing experiments on your troubled relationship.
I’m not suggesting that you stop seeing this woman cold turkey or anything like that. That would be testing everything at once, and maybe you don’t even want to do that anyway; maybe you love this woman, as well as doubt you want to be with her. Who can say but you? There are smaller, less dangerous ways to do some reality testing. For instance, the next time she abandons you, don’t go groveling back to her. Instead, let her cool down first and make the effort to contact you, instead. In this instance, you’ve less to lose by being wrong (becuase she is already gone for the moment, right?), and a lot to gain when you realize that she very likely needs you as much as you need her. This sort of experiment will help to rebalance the power differential between you that has become so unbalanced. Your small realization that you don’t need to grovel every moment she is angry will translate into a small amount of confidence on your part. That confidence is the seed you need to nurture and grow.
Here is another tip. Right now your head is oriented so that you judge your actions through your girlfriends eyes. She sets the value placed upon things. Her judgement is substiuted for your own. You weren’t born thinking this way. You were born a more selfish person. Watch any baby and you’ll see what I’m talking about. Babies think, “It’s all about me”. I am not suggesting that you should be thinking exclusively in terms of how your relationships benefit you; that is called narcissism when it occurs, and it is a problem. I am suggesting that at least some of your thoughts should be selfish thoughts, however. At least some of your judgements should come from your own perspective, is what I’m saying, and not be viewed through the lense of your girlfriend’s perceptions. Ask yourself, “What do I think about this event I’m living through”, rather than “What did I do wrong (In my girlfriend’s eyes)” some of the time, and you’ll get more on the right track.
A final tip: read up on Assertiveness Training. You aren’t being assertive right now; you’re being passive, and it is causing you angst.