Feeling Smothered in Your Relationship? - Justin Lioi, LCSW - Brooklyn, NY

Relationships can be great and many people put a lot of work and effort into finding that certain someone. Once you’re in one, though—especially if you’ve spent a good deal of time single—you may be concerned that you’re going to “lose yourself” and start to feel overwhelmed in your relationship. Here are a few things to consider if this sounds like you.

1. Avoiding Yourself

If you’re feeling overwhelmed in your relationship an important first step is to look at if that smothering is serving a purpose. Is spending all that time with the other person making it easier to avoid something about yourself? The basic reason we engage in all kinds of negative behavior, from drug addictions to binge watching Hulu, is to avoid certain feelings.

Maybe the feeling is a deep sadness, maybe shame, perhaps it’s loneliness. One of the most important parts of therapy is looking underneath all the thoughts, behaviors, and activities we engage in to mask those uncomfortable, scary, or deeply unsatisfied feelings. If you find yourself smothered in your relationship—even if you’re the one doing the smothering—it’s worth looking at what having that person with you 24/7 is keeping your from examining more fully.

What might their constant presence be providing the anesthesia for?

2. When “Stuck” is a Choice

A LOT of people come to therapy feeling stuck. It’s a word that just about all of my clients have used at one time or another. Whether it’s a man who hates his roommate, a father who is overwhelmed with having a child, or a woman who is struggling with her relationship—many feel they are boxed in.

Sometimes people are such as when they cannot get out of a situation for safety reasons and I’m not diminishing that. But I’ve found that when someone tells me they are stuck or overwhelmed in their relationship it often means that they are unwilling to deal with the outcome of their making a choice. A choice to open themselves up to—wait for it—uncertainty. The unknown of being alone, of losing a job, of couch surfing. And even these are somewhat extremes. Many people in relationships feel stuck because if they express how they feel then their partner will react. Maybe that person will cry. Maybe they’ll become angry and express that by withdrawing or bringing up negative historical events between the two of you. And you’re not sure if you want to deal with that.

I’m not saying that this isn’t difficult. It can be devastating. But it’s important to hold on to the idea that what you’re labeling as “stuck” is more of your attempts to avoid—for lack of a better word—unpleasantness.

Maybe knowing this you’ll still choose not to do anything or choose not to bring up that thing that’s eating away at you, but you take the first few steps toward being more empowered by knowing you’re making a decision to stay where you are. You’re not actually stuck. You don’t really like the outcome of making a move.

And I can’t stress enough how I’m not talking about situations of Domestic Violence, whether physical, emotional, or mental. If this is the situation you’re in, before doing anything, please get in touch with Safe Horizons via their hotline (800-621-HOPE) or website.

3. How Did You Learn What It Means to be In Relationship with Someone?

While we all collectively think we know what love will be like because of the media we’ve been consuming since, well, for some of us, since pre-natal days, our real understanding—and expectations—comes via the love that we witnessed every day during our formative years. No matter how many episodes of The Brady Bunch or Married…With Children you grew up with, the platform for how people in love respond to each other comes from what you live at home. Even growing up in a single parent home doesn’t mean that you didn’t observe the human that you’re most connected to you have relationships—even friendships. This is how we learn to be a relational person.

If feeling smothered is something you’re drawn to, take a look at the relationships that were modeled for you. If you feel you’re being smothered, take a look at the same. Did love mean that someone had strict, rigid boundaries. Were you present for parents who barely told each other when they’d be coming home late? Then your understanding of what “smothered” is can be your partner texting you to ask what you’re up to tonight. Learn more about attachment and adulthood as well!


There are not hard and fast rules for what’s too much or too little time together, but if you’re feeling overwhelmed in your relationship you’ll want to explore that. You absolutely want to hold on to your identity and have your partner hold on to theirs, but there’s a space for deep reliance on each other. You’ll need to work out the balance that makes both of you feel safe and connected. You can read more about getting un-smothered here

This article first appeared on HuffPo.

Justin Lioi, LCSW is a men’s mental health and relationship expert based in Brooklyn, NY (and online throughout New York State and internationally.) He received his degree from New York University and has been providing counseling for 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.