Hara Estroff Marano gives advice to a man who struggles with romantic anxiety.
You know the stereotype of the super-successful, self-absorbed executive who has a skyrocketing career and lots of money? That's me, although I am now semi-retired. I have been divorced four times, always "trading up" for a better model. I didn't really love any of them. I had a very rough childhood; my father died when I was young and my mother was mentally ill and abusive. I was homeless on and off for six years until being placed in foster care. I got full scholarships to good schools and was making over $1 million by the time I was 35.
Hara Estroff Marano is the Editor at Large of Psychology Today and writes the magazine's advice column, Unconventional Wisdom. Her newest book, A Nation of Wimps: The High Cost of Invasive Parenting, grew out the groundbreaking Psychology Today article A Nation of Wimps.
Editor: Talha Khalid
However, I was never good at connecting with people. I take advantage of their insecurities, manipulating them through a fear of rejection or humiliation. My current girlfriend is completely immune to that. But lately, some distressing things have been happening to me. I wanted to accompany her on a business trip that would take me near a city where I was once homeless. When I started to have panic attacks, she said she would protect me. Once, I would have ridiculed her for saying it, but this time it made me feel safe enough to go. Last night, when a problem kept her late at the office, instead of calling her, I started wandering our neighborhood on foot, looking for her and feeling unbearable despair. And when she's traveling, I do not sleep because I am so anxious. Am I better off not caring about anyone at all?
No! yes, you have left a lot of human wreckage in your wake. But the better model you need is a better model of yourself. Too bad you haven't spent any of your earnings on some therapy to help you wrestle with the legacy of abuse and neglect. Such early experience can really make someone question his deep-down worthiness as a human being and really mess up the pursuit of love. You are still ruled by a fear of rejection powered by a sense of unworthiness, and this is likely the source of the panic you describe in various situations. Your girlfriend sounds like a fine person and you recognize her as special. But in the long term, you can't hand over to her responsibility for your inner well-being any more than you could count on your "better models" for ultimately making you feel good enough. She can't wave a magic wand and make the fear/unworthiness evaporate, and so when she's not with you, the panic returns full force, the panic that makes you irrationally wander on foot in your neighborhood, the panic that keeps you up at night when she's away. Only you can make the fear go away.
Each of us has that responsibility to ourself; when we delegate it to others, we often wind up being contemptuous of them—and they of us. It's a fact of life that by turning over responsibility for our inner self to a partner, it erodes the relationship; over time, partners come to resent the responsibility. In the long run, we expect a certain equality of self-responsibility. You alone must find a way to deal with the panic that can well up at moments that recapitulate very threatening early-life experiences. Bad things happened to you as a kid, none of them caused by you, but they had a huge impact on your sense of self. To have no stable attachment, no protector, and no home is to have been betrayed as a child. It's scary to anyone, let alone a child. No amount of money can eradicate the panic system that was indelibly sensitized by those terrifying experiences. But a good course of therapy can help you mitigate the terrors that still surface when you feel unprotected. Because there never was as much at stake before in a relationship to compel you to face the inner unworthiness and helplessness, you are now in a perfect position to critically examine the deep-seated beliefs and feelings about yourself that have their roots in your past. It's likely you'll need some help doing it, because it will be painful before it will be triumphal. But a good therapist will also attune you to your very formidable survival skills.