My boyfriend and I have been together for two years now, in a long-distance relationship (we live two and a half hours apart). We are both happy and serious about our relationship. He has been in a few relationships before and has been cheated on every time. This has really damaged him, and he gets very anxious that I will want to be with someone else or will stop loving him one day. He also gets worried when I don’t message for a while. I have a busy schedule and things crop up randomly, so it is difficult to message sometimes. I tell him this, but he doesn’t cope well with any change to the system.
He also gets very upset and threatens to leave any time I mention any boy I am acquainted with, and he worries about what will happen when I go to college soon. I have tried assuring him that I am never going to leave him, because I love him, but this doesn’t help at all.
He says if I am ever friends with boys at college (I currently attend an all-girls school), he will have to leave me, because he won’t know how to handle his anxiety. He even gets upset if I message any boys, who are just friends, on social media. He also hates the idea of clubs because he says that boys only go there to get girls, but I feel that going out with friends to clubs is a typical college activity.
I understand the pain he has been through and I am very supportive of him, but sometimes I don’t know what to do and just give in to what he wants, because I hate seeing him unhappy. I know this isn’t the right thing to do!
I am desperate for some advice on how to build up trust between us.
You clearly care about your boyfriend and empathize with the pain he feels over having been cheated on in prior relationships. But you’re struggling with your sense that despite your mutual declarations of love, something feels off here and his demands seem unreasonable.
I want you to trust that instinct, because what you’ve picked up on when you say “I know this isn’t the right thing to do!” is that there’s a difference between being loved by someone and being possessed by him.
What you’re experiencing is a possessive partnership, and it’s a form of unhealthy love that can range in intensity from unpleasant to potentially dangerous. In a healthy relationship, partners support and encourage each other’s growth and well-being instead of trying to restrict it. In a possessive partnership, however, one person attempts to soothe his anxiety—usually, a fear of abandonment—by controlling the space between him and his partner.
Generally speaking, at the very beginning of a relationship, a temporary merging between partners occurs in which both people seek quite a bit of togetherness while somewhat neglecting their outside interests and friendships. But in healthy partnerships, as the relationship develops, a mutually comfortable balance is struck between connectedness and independence, and both people enjoy being together but also value and respect the other person’s need for time apart.
That’s not how your relationship evolved, and two years into it, you’re feeling frustrated and smothered. Your boyfriend has little interest in how you feel—about the pressure he puts on you to respond even when you’re busy, about his dictating the parameters of your platonic friendships, about his attempt to control the activities you participate in during college—because he places a higher value on his safety than he does on yours. But the safety he believes he’s creating for himself is an illusion. The kind of safety he seeks can only come from within. When you text him back quickly or agree not to communicate with your guy friends, it fills his emptiness—but not for long. It’s like pouring water into a strainer instead of a bowl.
You can’t make him feel safe, because his trust issues have nothing to do with you—and may not have all that much to do with his exes either. You say that he’s been cheated on in all of his relationships. When a pattern like this emerges, an adage comes to mind: If a fight breaks out in every bar you’re going to, maybe it’s you. Sometimes people with trust issues choose untrustworthy people, because those people feel familiar to them. Similarly, people who have angry parents often end up choosing angry partners, those with alcoholic parents are frequently drawn to partners who drink quite a bit, and those who have withdrawn or critical parents find themselves married to spouses who are withdrawn or critical.
Why do people do this to themselves? It’s not that people want to get hurt again. It’s that they want to master a situation in which they felt helpless as children. Freud called this “repetition compulsion.” Maybe this time, the unconscious mind imagines, I can go back and heal that wound from long ago by engaging with somebody familiar—but new. The problem is, by choosing familiar partners, people guarantee the opposite result: They reopen wounds and feel even more inadequate and unlovable.
Your boyfriend may have a history of feeling abandoned and attempt to protect himself now by controlling his partners, but it’s also possible that your boyfriend has dated women who were otherwise faithful, and then when he restricted their basic freedoms with unreasonable demands, as he has with you, they started looking for the key to the jail cell, and that key happened to be another guy.
All of this is to say that the way to build trust with your boyfriend isn’t by acceding to his demands and neglecting your own needs; it’s by sharing with him how those demands make you feel and the impact they have on your relationship. You can start by telling him that you understand his need to feel safe, but that his attempts to feel safe are pushing you away rather than making you feel closer and more connected to him. You can say that you aren’t responsible for what his other girlfriends did, and that the only way for him to feel more secure in your love is for him to do the inner work required to understand his fear better. You can say that you don’t feel that your needs are taken into account, and that because you want your relationship to thrive, you hope he’ll try to learn more about himself by seeing a therapist. You can let him know that when it comes to love, vulnerability is the price of admission; we risk our hearts in any intimate relationship, and you can’t guarantee that you’ll never leave him any more than he can guarantee that to you. You can also communicate clearly what’s important to you in a lasting relationship, such as that you both have friends and hobbies and respect each other’s broader worlds while also remaining monogamous.
If your boyfriend is willing to focus inward and do the work to take responsibility for his anxiety, make sure to tell him how much you appreciate it when you catch him making changes: I felt so good about us when I couldn’t text you back right away and you managed okay without me. At the same time, when his possessiveness creeps back in, don’t ignore it—make sure to explain every time how his behavior makes you feel in the moment.
By handing responsibility for his safety back to him, you’re creating the kind of healthy and balanced relationship that will make you both feel safer in the long run. And if your boyfriend isn’t willing to do this work, if he can’t accept that nobody can save him but himself, you can do something different than his other girlfriends did—you can end the relationship with candor and compassion, maybe having left him with a glimpse of what a future relationship might look like whenever he’s ready to own his part in it.
Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.