Do Anxious Feelings Always Mean He’s Not the One?

I’ve read almost your entire blog and it’s helped soothe some of my worries about my current relationship. In one way, I’m like many of your readers; I’m attractive, educated, well-traveled, thirty-three years old and in a relationship with a wonderful thirty-nine-year-old man who I don’t quite feel "great" about. I’m also the daughter of two lesbians and I have mild but pervasive General Anxiety Disorder (GAD). 

You’ve written about anxiety before, Evan, saying it’s the main indicator you are with someone who isn’t right for you, but for the

24% of American women who struggle with anxiety every year

24% of American women who struggle with anxiety every year, it can be difficult to tell if our anxious feelings are valid, or if it’s just our brain firing "flight or fight" chemicals for no damn reason. I was raised by lesbians and the men who did feature in my childhood were not good guys.

I mention this because my boyfriend tells me I seem to have a somewhat inaccurate idea of what "most" men are like. I have to accept that’s possible. I also mention it because I have a pattern of pushing men away. In the past, my anxiety has always spiked at about the 3 to 6-month mark, leading me to freak out and sabotage the relationship. When I finally recognized this pattern, I stopped. I started to take responsibility for my emotions and stopped projecting things on to my partner that weren’t there.

My boyfriend is a solid, strong and dependable guy. He is bright but never went to college, never traveled, doesn’t read books, etc. I do find him impressive for different reasons (he is disciplined, kind, generous, handsome, curious, capable, and manages conflicts maturely). He’s supportive of my goals and I of his, sex is…fine (not awesome but not terrible), his family is lovely and he gets along great with mine, and we have pretty similar wants from life. We talk about our future but have not committed to each other yet. We both want to but feel conflicted. We speak openly about this and we work to try and grow together. Our relationship up to now has consisted of some intense, semi-regular arguments (politics), but with work, we’ve learned to argue productively and kindly. We respect each other. I’d say we have a nicely developing partnership. 

The problem is, I don’t feel the easy CONNECTION I wish I felt. Our conversations feel like we’re standing on separate platforms, shooting arrows and missing each other 90% of the time. Seriously, I feel like we not only come from different planets, but we speak entirely different languages! I talk to him but don’t think he truly understands what I’m saying. Not the personal stuff - the stuff that forms bonds. He’s a pretty simple guy and I’m starting to wonder if he’s even capable of the kind of emotional depth I keep trying to get from him.

Is that important in a relationship? Can connection grow over time? Am I being "such a girl" about this? Am I somehow comparing what we have to what my parents have? (female-female dynamics are different, I’m told). Am I over-romanticizing what "connection" should feel like? I can’t get my brain to shut up about it, Evan. My anxiety brain loves to obsess about stuff, so I’m not sure I can trust my own feelings. Despite what my boyfriend says, I don’t believe there are a ton of kind, handsome, dependable men out there. I’m terrified of losing the most healthy relationship I’ve ever had, but also afraid of committing to someone when I feel attached, but not CONNECTED. 

Thanks for listening, Evan.

JJ

Thanks for writing, JJ. Apart from talking, listening is what I do best. :)

I chose not to edit your letter because it provides a lot of context for your feelings and asks a number of nuanced questions that don’t have clear-cut answers.

To boil your 600 words down to 50, you’re at a fork in the road.

Either stay in your relationship with your solid, kind, capable man with whom you don’t feel a real connection or break up with him and take your chances that you can find another man with all of those qualities with whom you DO feel a connection.

Your ability to make an empowered choice is impacted by three things: your history of anxiety, your history of self-sabotaging relationships, and your inexperience at knowing what a great relationship DOES feel like.

The good news is that your situation is quite normal and common. Lots of people experience anxiety. Lots of people push away good partners out of fear. And pretty much everyone who has ever written to me is struggling with the same existential question: how do you know when a relationship is “good enough?”

Lots of people push away good partners out of fear.

When I interviewed Eli Finkel, about his book, “The All Or Nothing Marriage,” for the Love U Podcast, he discussed what he calls “Mount Maslow” – how marriage has evolved from seeking stability to seeking much rarer qualities like inspiration. No wonder it’s harder now to find a suitable partner; our collective list of demands has never been longer.

He suggests that “the good enough” marriage may be the smartest thing to strive for because it provides everything you already have but is grounded in reality. Aim higher, like Icarus trying to fly to the sun, and you may end up permanently single or dissatisfied that you’re with a great guy who doesn’t “inspire” you. It may sound a lot like what I talk about on in my materials, BUT…

As much as I’m sometimes pilloried for telling women to compromise – on height, weight, age, education, income, and religion (not kindness, consistency, communication or commitment), there is one trait I don't think you can skimp on: CONNECTION

There is one trait I don’t think you can skimp on: CONNECTION.

See, connection isn’t “we both like hiking,” or “we are both Catholic,” or “we both want an upper-middle-class lifestyle.” Connection is akin to personal chemistry.

And when you’re planning on spending every day with the same person for the rest of your life, you’d BETTER have personal chemistry. Think of going on a 40-year road trip in a single car. You gotta have more than great playlists and podcasts to enjoy that ride.

On a more personal note, I’ve been in your shoes before: I dated a really incredible woman who, on paper, couldn’t be more perfect. Beautiful, kind, sexy, smart, sane, independent, interesting – she was totally the full package. Yet after 6 weeks together, I realized that I wasn’t “clicking” with her. We were spending time. We were having sex. We were enjoying each other’s company, but, in my mind, not as much as I’d enjoyed dating in the past. So while she may have been next to flawless, my dissatisfaction with “us” was considerable and I cut things off as soon as I realized it.

You can read that as too picky if you like. I feel like it’s confident – confident that there are good women out there and confident in my ability to attract one with a greater connection. It sounds, JJ, like you lack this confidence, which is why you’re tempted to stay in a relationship with a guy who doesn’t really get you.

That’s a one-way ticket to feeling trapped in a lonely marriage. I wouldn’t recommend it.

I know it’s confusing to try to parse these subtle messages that sound so similar, but I think these nuances matter a LOT. I compromised on age and intellectual curiosity. My wife compromised on religion and my temperament (anxious, critical). But in the grand scheme of things, we are best friends, we have no secrets, and even though I work from home and she’s a stay-at-home mom, we never get sick of each other.

We have PERSONAL chemistry, which is more important than physical chemistry and intellectual chemistry. Sure, you need physical chemistry to have a good sex life. We’ve got that. Sure, you need intellectual chemistry to have a decent conversation. We’ve got that. But I’m sure there are plenty of couples who have more intense physical chemistry AND more intense intellectual chemistry but aren’t nearly as happy and connected as we are.

THAT’s personal chemistry: liking each other, trusting each other, laughing with each other, feeling like you’re 100% accepted by each other, always having each other’s backs.

If you’re going to hold out for one quality in a partner, let it be that he’s your best friend.

Sure you CAN enter into a more old-school marriage where spouses serve different roles but don’t feel a connection, but if you have a choice, why would you?

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Comments:

  1. 1
    S. (with a period)

    Thank you for this. I’ve been considering my dating options lately (actual people, not platforms) and while I didn’t have a specific question, this answered it.

    Fortunately, I do have connection and personal chemistry with the people I’m considering. 🙂

    Didn’t expect this one but glad you posted it!

  2. 2
    Jeremy

    OP, you describe yourself as “attractive, educated, and well-travelled.”  Your first descriptor of your BF is that he never went to college (in direct contrast to your own “educated”), never travelled (as opposed to your own “well-travelled”), and doesn’t read books (again, as opposed to your own well-educated).  You describe him as solid, strong and dependable whereas you describe yourself as anxious and inconsistent – not strong, not solid.  In other words, your descriptors of him are in stark contrast to your descriptors of yourself. Yet you complain that the two of you speak different emotional languages – how did you hope it would be otherwise?

     

    This might seem a bit binary to you, but the way I see it there are 2 basic ways of partnering up – finding equals and finding complements.  If you’re looking for an equal, you’ll want someone similar to yourself.  And you’ll find it very easy to bond emotionally because you’ll recognize your own traits in your partner.  But you’ll also lack all the traits that you yourself lack.  If you’re looking for a complement, you’ll find someone very different than yourself – someone with different skills and ways of seeing the world.  In that case, your challenge will be learning to perspective-take, learning to speak new love languages, learning new emotional points of view that are very different than what you’re used to.  It is challenging, but very rewarding….if that’s your cup of tea.

     

    But what you can’t expect to do is find a complement who will also be your emotional equal, someone with whom you’ll connect as to your best girlfriend.  Your BF is right that that isn’t how men like him roll, and he’s wrong that there aren’t other men who do roll that way…..but you’ll find them less like your BF and more like…..you.  Is that what you want?

    1. 2.1
      Clare

      Jeremy,

      I have had occasion to consider this aspect of relationships (complements vs equals) many times in my dating past. There’s no right or wrong, of course, and personal chemistry is such a unique, subjective phenomenon that it is all far from being an exact science. And then of course, a person will never be a complement in all areas or an equal in all areas. Prospective partners are likely to be a combination of the two.

      With time and lots (LOTS) of dating experience, I have come to the conclusion that a man who is mostly complementary to me (and I to him) is what works best for me and what I want. I feel that my current boyfriend and I are very well-suited, and he is a good example of this.

      He is incredibly easygoing and even-tempered. And though I am also calm and easygoing, I tend a little more to the anxious side, so his very consistent nature steadies my ship.

      On the other hand, while he is very easygoing and good-natured, he can be completely oblivious to important details and emotional information which I pick up immediately and am able to interpret for him. For example, it was getting late and his son was exhausted. I could see this while my boyfriend could not, and I was able to gently suggest bedtime. Similarly, I am more routine-based while my boyfriend is more spontaneous. But I find great comfort in contrast. It’s nice to be able to trust in someone else’s good qualities even if you don’t fully understand them.

      It takes adjusting, as you say, because you have to remind yourself that the other person doesn’t think as you do. But it’s very rewarding because you get the benefits as well.

    2. 2.2
      Mrs Happy

      Dear Jeremy,

      you’re writing as though most people make logical decisions.  They don’t.  Most people make decisions, including who to partner with, emotionally.

      1. 2.2.1
        Jeremy

        LOL, I’m aware.  And guilty of same.  But ultimately when we look at our past decisions, whether or not emotion factored heavily into them or not, there is usually a sort of logic involved whether or not we were aware of it at the time.

         

        For example, because my parents were so inconsistent in my childhood, so disorganized, so uncaring about my physical or emotional well-being, so locked in their own heads, I chose a wife who was the opposite.  Scheduling rather than free-wheeling, pragmatic rather than romantic, focussed on the well-being of others.  I wasn’t aware of what I was doing at the time, but in retrospect my motivations (LOL) were crystal clear.  I wasn’t aware of much psychology at that time, I was flying by the seat of my pants (as so many young people do), thinking I was operating by one set of logic but subconsciously operating by another.  Yet having said that, there was indeed logic behind my decision along with emotion.

         

        Regarding the OP, I wonder how much of her choice in men is subconsciously to oppose what she grew up with?  Seeking a strong, silent type of man in direct opposition to the heavily female influences of her parents?  Seeking the opposite subconsciously, yet missing the good part consciously?  If so, there is a sort of logic tangled in with the emotion – she just isn’t conscious of it and would benefit from sorting it out.  That’s sort of my thing.

  3. 3
    Clare

    I particularly wanted to address this part of JJ’s letter:

    4% of American women who struggle with anxiety every year, it can be difficult to tell if our anxious feelings are valid, or if it’s just our brain firing “flight or fight” chemicals for no damn reason.”

    Unfortunately, I think there is a lot of misinformation out there about anxiety. Most people do not understand it very well, which is to be expected as it is very difficult to understand. People seem to either fall into the camp of telling anxious people to ignore all their anxious feelings and strive to get over them, or they encourage anxious people to wrap themselves up in cotton wool and avoid all situations that make them anxious.

    The truth, of course, is really somewhere in the middle. The fact is that anxious people have a heightened sense of danger (almost always brought about by very uncertain or volatile circumstances when they were growing up), particularly when it comes to situations in which they are emotionally vulnerable. Romantic relationships are the ultimate frontier for anxious people – these are the relationships in which they are required to open up the most, and in which the danger of being left is greatest. The stakes could not be higher. Every situation in a romantic relationship takes on a significance that it might not actually have.

    This might make it tempting to think that every anxious impulse should be ignored, but anxious feelings can actually be a great gift. They can tell us when something is way off in a relationship, and that is why Evan says that the absence of anxiety signals a great relationship. In general, healthy, good relationships trigger anxiety a lot less than relationships which are not right.

    But anxious people will still get anxious in the best, healthiest relationship, and it’s in how you handle it that determines the way forward. Anxious feelings that do not have a legitimate cause for concern can ruin a relationship – especially early on. Jealousy, neediness, being controlling or overbearing are all behaviours which are caused by anxiety and can end a relationship quickly. Like I said, it’s not enough to just dismiss the anxious feeling out of hand. Every anxious feeling needs to be carefully looked at and weighed up. With time, patience and skill, you start to recognise the difference between anxious feelings that just come up automatically, and anxious feelings that signal a cause for concern. Either way, you have to handle the anxious feelings 90% on your own and without the help of your partner.

    In JJ’s case, I agree she does not seem to be very compatible with her boyfriend. I think conversation and being able to connect when you are talking to each other is a lifeline of good relationships. You don’t need to be equally intelligent or educated, but you do need to be able to get on the same wavelength, in my opinion, unless you are happy to settle for the more traditional kind of marriages that our grandparents had.

    However, before she breaks up with him, I would encourage her to see how many of her anxious feelings about “men in general” she can identify, and if she takes them out of the equation, how her feelings towards her boyfriend might change.

  4. 4
    BellamyTree

    I can have a lot of anxiety in relationships, especially at the start when I don’t know what’s happening. It’s due to early abandonment ideas and insecure attachment in early life.  (For those of you who appreciate these things, my inner anxious child can be very pressing about needing instant reassurance, or certainty about when I’ll hear back from a man, or know what’s happening. Painfully, and desperately so).

    But my inner compassion, maturity and perspective (from therapeutic knowledge) is getting better and better at being able to sort out anxiety as a warning sign, and anxiety as just what comes up in the early stages of a possible relationship. It often kicks in after a first date with someone I really like.

    The absence of anxiety, though, hasn’t always indicated that it’s a promising or great relationship. I’ve just ended a 10-month relationship with many similar features to the OP’s – I’m highly educated, he wasn’t, I’m liberal, he’s conservation etc.  And he treated me very well, it was an easy calm relationship, and his steadiness was good for me. But not enough connection in day-to-day relating. And no major anxiety for me at any point, other than the first few dates normal nervousness. It was very easy to break up and move on ( a bit of a relief) for me because there wasn’t enough connection.

    And worse, it was the same in the early stages of getting to know my ex-husband. Other than early date nerves, there was no warning sign from the kind of anxiety that might have flagged up what turned out to be a deceptive and terribly abusive relationship. I was lulled into a false sense of security by a man who, later on, told me with no trace of irony that he was the perfect husband, that he was only trying to ‘perfect’ me and couldn’t understand my problem with that, and wondered if I’d noticed that he’d been punishing me.

    I think/hope I’m getting better at placing different kinds anxiety. I’ve learned that the kind of anxiety that feels and looks like an over-reaction to something, can be simply (haha) my inner child panic-ing unnecessarily about superficial parallels between early life events (e.g. waiting desperately for a carer to return) and a current situation, e.g. waiting to hear back from a man (mirroring) while within a perfectly reasonable timeframe.

    My solution is to find the compassionate, wise part of myself which is like the captain of the boat, and (a visualisation) see the anxious child as part of the crew, and a part of the crew that I have to soothe and guide to move away from the helm. The terrified child is part of me, but cannot be allowed to take charge of the ship and steer us onto the rocks in panic.

    Thanks to Evan (thank you Evan!) I’m now much better as assessing the red flags and disconnects with my rational side, and that is a much better guide than anxiety. I also trust my intuitive gut feelings and intuitive reactions to men much more than I used to (e.g. that something is just ‘off’ or doesn’t add up somehow). But this is not anxiety. If I’d listened that that side of myself, trusted it and the red flags that it pointed to (and which I didn’t know how to interpret), I might have a avoided a very destructive marriage. But that’s the past, I’m free and recovered, and in a better place than I’ve ever been. Life-long learning!

  5. 5
    Claroquesi

    I highly appreciate the distinctions you made about different types of chemistry. The personal type is so important. Thanks Evan

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