Relationships can be incredible. They can deeply connect you with another human being. They can serve as a buffer for visits home with your family And they can mean that you don’t have to spend all Saturday afternoon on Tinder hoping to have a date for the evening.
They can also lead to you feeling smothered if you’re with someone who believes a relationship means that you can never be alone.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Do Couples Have to Do Everything Together?
While many people spend a good deal of their lives in or searching for a relationship, it is not an either/or situation.
Sometimes two people who need that much reassurance and togetherness find each other and it seems to work–for a while. Still, at some point one or both members of the couple want to do something–anything, really–on their own and may even start to worry that they’re being taken advantage of.
If you’ve spent a year defining your relationship as Always Together, it can be difficult to make this transition and the other person may feel hurt and rejected.
Why? You know you’re not rejecting them. You feel you should be allowed to do stuff on your own, even if it’s just sit at home. Even if it’s go out with a friend to the movies. You know deep down that this is ok—even healthy—behavior, but your partner is pretty convincing:
“Why do you want to spend time away from me? I want to be with you all the time. I guess I love you more than you love me.”
Maybe you’ve heard some variation of that.
Let’s dabble in a little developmental psychology, shall we?
Why Do I Feel Smothered?
Babies are notorious for needing an adult around ALL the time. Selfish little buggers, right? They can’t even click the annoying button to tell Netflix that, yes, I’m still watching Stranger Things so just auto-play the next episode already, ok?
Babies are working on something that we continue to work through with every new relationship: Object Constancy.
Side note: some genius, when beginning the psychotherapy field, decided that other people were also going to be referred to as “objects.” Not to be confused with objectifying a person.
Well, first there is Object Permanence, and this is all about a person’s ability to think. A young baby can look at a toy that you move under a blanket—and believe that’s it for the toy. It’s gone. I can’t see it and I can’t conceive that it could still exist somewhere outside of my world. (Babies are also notorious egomaniacs.)
It’s a huge developmental step when you can hide a toy and then the baby rips away the blanket and squeals at finding that toy. They’ve achieved Object Permanence because they figured out, and truly believe, that a thing still exists even if they can’t see it.
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Rarely do we regress with this. We know that the thing is still a thing even if it’s not in front of us (Ok, in all honesty, there are those days when I just miss making the 3 train and I’m sure that it’s never coming back, that it’s totally gone forever. But that’s a different type of regression.)
Object Permanence paves the way for the more emotional and abstract idea of Object Constancy. With this I can believe that daddy still exists when he leaves the room, and I can also hold his presence in my mind. I can remember that he loves me and that he’s going to come back.
Sometimes pre-K’s will have parents provide them with pictures of different family members. The child will naturally (and healthily) be upset when they are dropped off and their loved one leaves, but sometimes seeing a picture of grandpop or big brother can calm them. Why should it? It’s not the person, they’re not there (stupid Pre-schoolers!)—but it can reconnect them to that person and the feelings that being around that person elicit. Soon, that person can be internalized—I can just think about mom, feel comforted, and I’m going to be ok to play in the sand tray now.
The longer we’ve known someone, the easier this can be.
Let’s fast forward to a new adult relationship.
How to Build Trust in a Relationship
You’ve been texting for a bit. You meet, have a good first date. Make plans for a second. Third. Perhaps you’ve started having sex. Maybe you introduced them to a friend or two. Met some of their friends.
(By the way, the above paragraph could be two weeks or six months. There’s no definitive time table.)
Throughout that time you may notice a shift. You might start reading into things. If you don’t get a text back right away after that third date you’re wondering: Do they like me? Do they want to see me again? If they did, they would have gotten back to me, right? Or, How come I’m always the one to initiate? If they cared, really cared, they’d be making plans, right? Right?
Then you hear back and you laugh at yourself—until it starts again.
You’ll go to parties together and hold hands the whole time. You don’t seem to let each other go. Whole evenings, weekends even, could be spent together with just a few bathroom breaks.
You’re building up your Object Constancy with each other, because if all goes well, if trust develops, then you can go out with your friends on a Friday and so can they, and not be constantly worried that they are going to leave you. They can go away on a trip without you and you aren’t going out of your mind.
I’m not saying you don’t miss them. I’m not saying you don’t text or talk. But the intense feeling that if you DON’T text, if you DON’T talk on the phone or get an email then it’s over is not as strong.
If you’re in a committed relationship for a while and still feel that it’s hard to spend time alone, then you need to take a look at what’s going on. If you continue in this way it will be very hard to reconnect to your individuality. It will feel impossible to respect theirs. And you have a relationship that is not built on trust. Soon, you or they will start feeling smothered.
The answer seems to be to never let that person out of your site. The answer is to smother and be smothered. Feeling smothered at times feels like what a relationship should be. That’s the sacrifice you make for not being alone. You’ll say that all women or all men are like that–at least the ones that really love you. Plus, feeling smothered may seem preferable to dealing with how upset they become if you choose to spend a few extra hours with some co-workers.
Or perhaps you may be the one who doesn’t want your partner to be out of your sight for too long. You need a text or a phone call very often to feel that you’re still loved. That they have not forgotten and abandoned you.
It’s a lot to ask of someone. It’s a lot of pressure. And it robs relationships of the best they have to offer, which includes helping both of you in becoming better people. (Wondering about the health of your relationship? Check out these 3 Warning Signs!)
Fixing a Smothered Relationship
If you are feeling smothered in your relationship and it’s marked by this inability to be apart there are a few things to look at:
- Is there a real cause for the distrust? Was there any unfaithfulness on either of your parts? Do either of you feed the others’ jealousy even if no one actually cheated (ex. Comparing your partner’s body unfavorably to someone else’s; playing on their self-consciousness).
- Is this a pattern that either of you can trace in other relationships? Do all previous boy and girlfriends have to meet the stringent requirement of being Always Available?
In the first example, it’s important to take a hard look at the relationship dynamics. Do you feel that power and control are often at play? If that’s the case, and certainly if the relationship has ever become physically aggressive, you may need to seek some outside support to extract yourself from the relationship (If it’s a violent relationship you should contact an agency such as Safe Horizon and know that you don’t have to figure this out on your own.) If you feel that you need to assert your power and control all the time—and feel too vulnerable and angry without it, it will take some deep looking at yourself as to why you need this. In either situation, it will be next to impossible for you ever to feel deeply, and truly loved. In an exhausting and unhealthy way, you’ll likely spend most relationships seeking constant reassurance.
It doesn’t have to be that way.
In the second situation, you or your partner may need to look inward to see how to move beyond this constant need. You can find out the “why” if you like, and that could be eye-opening and interesting, but you’re also going to want to repair it. With all of these situations, it can be most helpful to figure this out with a trusted therapist. I say this because it is helpful to have someone who is “inside and outside” the situation. Someone to help you better understand who you show up as when you’re in a relationship.
Feeling smothered, or doing the smothering, is a recipe for a relationship to be full of drama and for both partners to regularly feel overwhelmed, angry, and even sad. It’s because you are searching for something in a partner that only you can give yourself. I’m not saying you should be alone, but that a relationship should be about bringing out your best self—not your best defenses against being hurt.
Want some actionable steps to finding space in your relationship? There’s a blog post for that!
As always, if you’d like support for figuring out the ups and downs of relationships, please give me a call and we can schedule a free phone consultation. You don’t have to figure this all out on your own, especially if you just don’t know how to bring this topic up.
Justin Lioi, LCSW is a men’s mental health and relationship expert. He practices counseling in Brooklyn, NY (and online throughout New York State and internationally.) He received his degree from New York University and has been working with men and their families for over 10 years. Justin is on the Board of the National Association of Social Workers and writes a weekly column for the Good Men Project called Unmasking Masculinity. He can be found on local and national podcasts talking about assertiveness, anger, self-compassion, all with the goal of becoming the man you want to be.