My girlfriend Rachel recently proposed to me. Although I answered “yes,” I’m really not sure if I should marry her. She’s very sweet, is always considerate, gets along great with my friends and family and makes me laugh. But I constantly feel like she wants more from me than I want to give her. I don’t just mean sex and affection, although that’s part of it. She always wants to be together, she always wants me to confide in her and she always wants to share everything with me. As a result, I sometimes feel smothered. I want to tell her to back off but I don’t want to hurt her.
Rachel always says that she wants us to be best friends, lovers and soul mates. I love her but also need my own space, my own identity and time with other people. Is there something wrong with me for wanting this? And is it possible to have a great relationship without being glued to my partner?
One big question: Do you think your discomfort is just about Rachel’s behavior or is this also about your own uneasiness with closeness in a relationship? Consider whether you’ve had this feeling in previous relationships and how close the other person can get before you to want to back off. If this is a familiar experience, you may have some work to do on yourself.
In any case, you and Rachel are in the same boat: You each have one idea for how close you should be, while your partner has another, and both of you are trying to get your way. Rachel moves toward you and expresses the hope that you are soul mates, while you feel smothered and back off. But neither of you is speaking directly about the real dilemma you are facing: How to be both a couple and two individuals with two different ways of being.
For a relationship to work well, you need to find a balance. How much do you lean on your partner and how much do you rely on yourself? How much do the two of you function as a single unit versus pursuing your own interests and friendships? There is no one right answer to questions such as these and your own answer is likely to shift depending on what is going on in your life. For example, when you’re in a tough situation, you may lean more on your partner — or pull away. And of course, your girlfriend will certainly have different ideas about such matters, because she is a different person.
Too much togetherness does not allow space for individuals to be individuals. Because no two people always think or want to act alike, pressure to be close all the time leads to tension and strife. Similarly, ongoing dependence or neediness can become a weight on the relationship, resulting in resentment and distance between the partners.
I’m not suggesting that you and Rachel should not be close and connected, of course; without closeness and connection, there can be no solid relationship. I am saying that relationships work best when both partners usually are strong, don’t lean too much on each other and can take care of themselves.
Why not break the gridlock and talk with Rachel about what is going on? Keeping silent will not give you a chance to address and deal with your feeling smothered. And wanting not to hurt Rachel is a futile endeavor. It simply is not possible to have an intimate relationship without ever hurting your partner or being hurt by her. Because the two of you, like any two people in a relationship, are different, it’s inevitable that you will have strong differences that at times will gravely upset each other. If you want your partner to really know you, you will have to tell her things that may hurt her. And vice-versa.
If you decide to start a discussion with Rachel, remember that there is no one right way to be in a relationship. You each have your own preferences, so you each will have to develop the clarity to know what you are willing to live with and what you are not willing to live without. And please keep in mind that conversations about differing desires are tough. So if you get stuck or scared, consider seeking out a skilled couples therapist who can help you to have some difficult and clarifying talks.
Michael Radkowsky, Psy.D. is a licensed psychologist who works with LGBT couples and individuals in D.C. He can be found online at personalgrowthzone.com. All identifying information has been changed for reasons of confidentiality. Have a question? Send it to Michael@personalgrowthzone.com.