Dear Therapist: My Boyfriend Is Extremely Possessive

I understand the pain he has been through and I am very supportive of him, but sometimes I don’t know what to do and just give in to what he wants, because I hate seeing him unhappy. I know this isn’t the right thing to do!

I am desperate for some advice on how to build up trust between us.

Anonymous
Boston


Dear Anonymous,

You clearly care about your boyfriend and empathize with the pain he feels over having been cheated on in prior relationships. But you’re struggling with your sense that despite your mutual declarations of love, something feels off here and his demands seem unreasonable.

I want you to trust that instinct, because what you’ve picked up on when you say “I know this isn’t the right thing to do!” is that there’s a difference between being loved by someone and being possessed by him.

What you’re experiencing is a possessive partnership, and it’s a form of unhealthy love that can range in intensity from unpleasant to potentially dangerous. In a healthy relationship, partners support and encourage each other’s growth and well-being instead of trying to restrict it. In a possessive partnership, however, one person attempts to soothe his anxiety—usually, a fear of abandonment—by controlling the space between him and his partner.

Generally speaking, at the very beginning of a relationship, a temporary merging between partners occurs in which both people seek quite a bit of togetherness while somewhat neglecting their outside interests and friendships. But in healthy partnerships, as the relationship develops, a mutually comfortable balance is struck between connectedness and independence, and both people enjoy being together but also value and respect the other person’s need for time apart.

That’s not how your relationship evolved, and two years into it, you’re feeling frustrated and smothered. Your boyfriend has little interest in how you feel—about the pressure he puts on you to respond even when you’re busy, about his dictating the parameters of your platonic friendships, about his attempt to control the activities you participate in during college—because he places a higher value on his safety than he does on yours. But the safety he believes he’s creating for himself is an illusion. The kind of safety he seeks can only come from within. When you text him back quickly or agree not to communicate with your guy friends, it fills his emptiness—but not for long. It’s like pouring water into a strainer instead of a bowl.

You can’t make him feel safe, because his trust issues have nothing to do with you—and may not have all that much to do with his exes either. You say that he’s been cheated on in all of his relationships. When a pattern like this emerges, an adage comes to mind: If a fight breaks out in every bar you’re going to, maybe it’s you. Sometimes people with trust issues choose untrustworthy people, because those people feel familiar to them. Similarly, people who have angry parents often end up choosing angry partners, those with alcoholic parents are frequently drawn to partners who drink quite a bit, and those who have withdrawn or critical parents find themselves married to spouses who are withdrawn or critical.