Q: All my relationships seem to end around the honeymoon phase. I’m a 24-year-old man, and it seems like I always fall in love and then get my heart ripped out every time a partner wants to leave. I’ve become a person I don’t feel proud of — needy and insecure, and I end up pushing them away, fast. In my last relationship, my ex started out as needy and insecure, and I tried to do what I could to be supportive, but when those roles switched, she left. I feel like whenever I don’t show weakness as a man, my relationships are good, but as soon as my life gets a little tough and I need emotional support from my partner, they freak out and run. What can I do?
A: For everyone, there’s a limit to how much you can ever do to make a relationship work. You can’t make a good relationship with a bad partner. Ever. No one can; this isn’t some limitation that only you have. If someone is a bad significant other, there isn’t anyone out there who could possibly have a good relationship with them. You know when you’ve already tried a locked door and someone comes up and tries it again, as if maybe they’ll make it open? Relationships with bad partners are like that. And, certainly, sometimes there are two great partners, but they aren’t right for each other.
Sometimes there’s nothing you can do to make your relationship last, not because you’re terrible at romantic partnerships, but because it’s not a good fit. The best thing I can recommend is to try your best to date people who are kind and generous with their love, and to be kind and generous with yours. I believe people have a huge capacity to change their actions, but I do think it takes a lot of sustained, excruciating work, so when it comes to getting in a relationship with someone, I strongly encourage you to not count on it. So when you’re looking for a significant other in the future, I encourage you to actively seek out people who are good communicators, who talk readily about how they feel.
I’ve focused a whole lot on your partners and their actions in this equation, but the time has come my friend to discuss what you really have control over: yourself. Woo! The hard stuff! Heck yeah!
It’s time to examine what role you play in all of this. Aside from creating boundaries with future partners, this also requires you to look inward to see what patterns you’re repeating and what beliefs you’re upholding. I don’t think you’re doing this intentionally, but in your letter, you equate weakness and neediness. And the implication is that both are bad. What makes someone needy versus having needs? Who gets to define when having a need becomes needy? What constitutes weakness — and why is it a bad thing to show your partner?
My suspicion is that, due to a bunch of harmful messaging you’ve internalized, you start relationships hiding certain parts of yourself that you believe the people you date won’t like. Or if not fully hiding them, then at least turning the volume down a bit. And in the beginning, when things are good and hot and horny, it’s often much easier to downplay some facets of our personalities. The problem is, whenever you do this — no matter how unintentional — eventually that stuff comes back up. It’s difficult to suppress your actual personality for years. While studies vary and it’s hard to have concrete information on love-levels, some research suggests that the honeymoon period and the brain chemicals that surge with it last between six months and two years. If, right as the chemicals that make falling in love with someone exciting are wearing off, you all of a sudden expose all of these parts of yourself you’ve been tamping down, that’s going to be a whole lot for any relationship to navigate at once. I also think — like some of your partners, it sounds like — you’ve got ideas about what a man does and says in relationships. I think you’re trying hard to fight those beliefs, and I really applaud you. But I also think that really early on, when you’re trying to present yourself as desirable to someone, you might still be performing some idealized, outdated “maleness” for partners, which leads you to partners who really value that. And then when you can’t maintain that forever — because it’s fake!!! — both you and your partner are disappointed.
Think about your actual needs and desires. What are your boundaries? What are your triggers? What things cause you to feel insecure? And then you need to think about how you communicate those things to a partner and what you expect them to do about them. Because — and here’s a big thing that takes a long time to learn! — just because you feel insecure about something does not mean that you need to ask your partner to change their behavior. Your partner’s job is not to keep you in a constant state of security via their actions. (And your job is not to do that for them.) The job is loving someone well and examining your patterns and talking about hard things even when it sucks. You might come to the conclusion that the way you’ve been expressing yourself to partners hasn’t been great. The realization that you sometimes suck at communicating with romantic partners is very, very, very common when you’re 24 years old. It’s also common at 47 and 62 and 16.
It’s not unusual because all of us are, in turns, good and bad at asking for what we want and need. All of us mess up and express ourselves poorly from time to time. But the people who have the most successful relationships work on it. They take hard looks in the mirror (metaphorically, unless they’re in an Oscar-nominated film) and say, “I get very clingy when my partner does X because I’m actually insecure about Y.” And then they go to their partner and tell their partner that new information and come up with a plan with their partner about how to navigate that. Or sometimes you realize “Oh, this problem in the relationship is about me and my insecurities, and I can work on that with a therapist rather than dumping on my partner before I’ve figured out where it comes from.”
Once you figure out a little bit more about yourself and about what makes you feel “needy,” then you can start addressing the ways in which that manifests in your relationships from the beginning. You can set up boundaries and expectations with your partner that work for both of you early on, ones that don’t diminish anyone’s happiness. You can say things like “It’s really important to me to get quality time with my partner, so can we do a date night at least once a week just the two of us when possible?” Please believe me when I say that I know this stuff sounds very corny when it comes out of your mouth. Almost everything that is good communication feels embarrassing and Weird Adult to say. I often feel like a school guidance counselor when I’m doing my best communicating. That’s OK! Because the other person hears exactly what you feel and what you need, which is very much worth it.
There is, of course, some chance that you start a relationship with good communication, with both people being aware of the gendered expectations that they are fighting, and it still goes *ss up. That happens to all of us. That is not a reason to be discouraged; be proud that you showed up at the top of the relationship as you actually are. That you were honest. That you were yourself from the get go. Please don’t be afraid to be insecure or to have needs — we all do, we’re all insecure from time to time. You don’t have to put that on other people, but you’re more than allowed to feel those feelings. That doesn’t make you lesser, and it certainly doesn’t make you less manly.
It’s A Pleasure appears here every Thursday. If you have a sex, dating, or relationship question, email Sophia at BustleSexAdvice@gmail.com or fill out this form.