My girlfriend Susan and I have been dating for two years and are engaged to be married. But I’m getting cold feet because I feel like I’m losing myself in our relationship. We spend most of our free time together and I’ve dropped my choral group, which I love, as it kept us apart two evenings a week. (In all fairness, Susan dropped soccer, which I hate playing and find incredibly boring to watch).
Also, I no longer spend time with my best friend Lisa (my long-ago ex), because our friendship made Susan nervous and she said she couldn’t stay in a relationship where she didn’t feel safe. I miss Lisa and feel terrible about not seeing her. I love Susan and love being with her but I feel like I’m suffocating sometimes. It seems like I either have to refrain from doing things that are important to me or really upset Susan. Both choices seem awful. Can you give me some guidance?
Getting Lost in My Relationship
Being in a relationship is a balancing act: You are both an individual and part of a couple. If you only do what you want, you won’t have much of a relationship and may alienate your partner. And if you think of your spouse as “my other half” and are only part of a couple, you risk losing your own identity and being pretty miserable.
How are you (and Susan, for that matter) making the decision to stop doing what is important to you? If you are getting a guilt trip about doing things that you love but Susan hates, or if you guilt-tripped Susan over her soccer games, please remember that although many of us believe that our partners should not let us down, disappointment is unavoidable in relationships. You will, at times, be greatly disappointed in your partner; and you will, at times, be a great disappointment to your partner. Trying to avoid disappointing Susan is almost impossible. Even if you seek to do whatever she wants, she may wind up disappointed in your spinelessness.
You may want to consider a new tack: letting Susan down when it’s really important for you do to what you want, even though it’s what she doesn’t want. Openly disagreeing on what is most important will help both of you develop your ability to deal with conflict openly, rather than avoiding open conflict by giving in, as you have been doing.
With regard to spending time with your ex, if you aren’t violating any agreement with Susan (such as monogamy), do you know why she feels threatened? Are you doing anything to diminish Susan’s trust in you? Many of us have the fantasy that we’ll have a wonderful partner who will “make me feel safe,” but your partner’s safety is not your responsibility. When we are children, it’s our parents’ job to keep us safe, but as we grow up, the job falls squarely in our own laps. And we’re the only ones who can truly take responsibility for our own safety.
Trying to keep Susan feeling safe is just like trying to avoid disappointing her: It’s practically impossible and attempting to do so will involve major contortions —namely, avoiding saying or doing anything you fear will push her boundaries or upset her. I’m not saying that you should ever strive to be disrespectful of your partner. I am saying that sometimes your own integrity will demand that you make a move that rattles her. Trying to avoid this is a great way to feel resentful and stifled.
Speaking of which, how is your sex life? I’ll wager it’s not great, because when people worry about being themselves for fear of upsetting their partners, they don’t take risks or push for what is important to them. Are you and Susan giving up on doing what each of you really likes sexually because you are afraid that the other won’t like it?
Bottom line: Figure out what is really important to you, be respectful of your partner and prepare to tolerate open conflicts and major disappointments. You’re likely to have a more interesting and oxygen-filled relationship than the semi-stifling one you describe.
Michael Radkowsky, Psy.D. is a licensed psychologist who works with gay couples and individuals in D.C. He can be found online at personalgrowthzone.com. All identifying information in the questions has been changed for reasons of confidentiality. Have a question? Send it to Michael@personalgrowthzone.com.