“Dr. Lisa — My sexless marriage is killing me! When my partner rejects me sexually, what can I do?”
As an experienced marriage counselor and relationship coach, I’ve heard this more times than I can count. I know being out of synch sexually with your partner can lead to a lot of hurt feelings and conflict in your relationship – all the things that make it (paradoxically) more difficult to create the emotional intimacy and feelings of connection that allow mutual pleasure in sexuality to flourish.
It can feel really hurtful when you want to have sex with your partner, but they don’t want to have sex with you. Feeling like you’re being rejected sexually can be painful because sex can be so tied up in our minds with love, body image, gender expectations, and some deep insecurities about being “good lovers.”
For all these reasons, feelings of rejection can curdle into a ball of toxic resentment for your relationship — if you haven’t yet learned to navigate these conversations with vulnerability, empathy, and compassion. On the flip side, if you can use this experience to create a deeper connection, your relationship and your sex life will improve dramatically.
On today’s episode of the podcast, we’re talking about why you might be experiencing sexual rejection, and what you can do if it’s becoming a problem in your relationship. Joining me today is Dori B. (M.S., SAS, MACA), a sex therapist and couples counselor here at Growing Self. Dori has helped countless couples navigate differences in sexual desire, reignite their sexual “spark” and keep things spicy for years to come. Now she’s sharing her insight about why people experience “sexual rejection” in their relationships so that you can navigate this tricky terrain like a pro.
I hope you’ll join me for all of this and more! You can tune in on this page, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen.
When Your Partner Rejects You Sexually: Episode Highlights
Sexual “misfires” happen in every long-term relationship, but feeling rejected can damage the emotional bond in your relationship if they’re not attended to with care.
If one partner feels rejected frequently, it’s easy for them to begin feeling hurt, frustrated, and resentful about it. The partner who’s less often in the mood is likely to feel defensive, and they may even begin to avoid physical affection with their partner out of anxiety that it will turn into a sexual advance and then a fight.
Nothing kills the mood like simmering in a stew of frustration, resentment, anxiety, and avoidance. If you want more sex (and a better relationship), navigating differences in desire with thought and care is important.
Feeling Rejected vs. Being Rejected
If you’re the partner who’s feeling turned down, keep in mind that there’s a difference between feeling rejected and being rejected. When your partner doesn’t want to have sex, that reflects their feelings about having a sexual encounter with you at that moment — not their feelings about you in general.
Even if your partner turns you down repeatedly over a long period of time (which happens, and is super frustrating), that isn’t a statement about their feelings for you, only their feelings about sex during that phase of your relationship. To work through it together, you’ll both need to be able to communicate about your sex life in an open and emotionally-safe way, which will be easier if you can resist taking the rejection personally.
Pay attention to the story you’re telling yourself about sexual rejection. If you’re feeling like it’s about more than sex, communicate those feelings with your partner.
Gender and Sexual Rejection
While many women in heterosexual relationships find themselves in the “pursuer” role, it is often the case that men initiate sex more often. Men tend to have stronger libidos and to experience more “spontaneous desire,” meaning that they could be moved from having a sexy thought to having sex without a lot of buildup in between.
On the other hand, women are more likely to experience “responsive desire,” which means their interest in having sex is more likely to grow gradually in response to sexy stimuli. For most women, getting in the mood is a process, and a lot can stand in the way of that process unfolding. Being tired, stressed, or preoccupied with other things can all put the kibosh on the gradual ramp-up of desire that female libido usually requires, which can leave the more sex-ready partner feeling rejected — even when their partner not wanting to have sex right then truly has nothing to do with them.
Of course, men are not the only people who feel rejected in heterosexual relationships. For many couples, the dynamic cuts in the other direction, with the female partner wanting more sex than the male partner. This desire discrepancy can be more challenging because cultural attitudes about how sex between men and women is “supposed” to work and about how men are “supposed” to feel about sex (ready and willing at a moment’s notice) can leave both partners feeling like there’s something wrong with them, or with the relationship if it’s not playing out that way.
The woman may be quicker to take it personally when her partner shoots her propositions down. The man may feel pressure to perform sexual desire he doesn’t feel to avoid hurting her feelings or stirring up conflict.
In reality, men do not want sex all of the time. Male libido can fluctuate for various reasons, from age-related hormonal changes to stress to no discernible reason whatsoever. A man not wanting sex as often as his female partner does not necessarily mean there’s anything wrong.
Navigating “Sex Rejection” in a Relationship
The “sex rejection” conversation is like so many things: less about what you say, and more about how you say it.
Your partner may feel “rejected” by you — even if you love them to pieces and enjoy being intimate with them. It’s important to let them into how you’re feeling when you’re not in the mood. Otherwise, they can personalize your not wanting to have sex in ways that feel hurtful.
When you don’t feel like having sex at that moment and need to communicate that to your partner, remember the meaning that we can make around “sexual rejection,” and how tender our feelings about it can be. Do what you can to help your partner feel loved, accepted, and desired by you, even if you aren’t in the mood for sex. Reassure them that they can still get you all hot and bothered — just not at the moment.
This is also a great time to open up a conversation about what you are in the mood for. Many couples get into an all-or-nothing routine when it comes to sex, but many alternatives meet many of the same needs, especially if your partner’s love language is physical touch. Maybe you could cuddle or go for a massage. Maybe a few sex acts are on the menu for you, even if you don’t want to commit to a full five-course meal. Communicating openly about what you want when connecting with your partner will only strengthen your relationship and your sexual connection.
If you’re declining opportunities for sexual intimacy with your partner, make sure you’re still prioritizing emotional intimacy. Continue to share your feelings — including your feelings about your sex life — so you can stay close and connected, even through “dry spells.”
When you’re the partner who doesn’t want to have sex, it can sometimes be tempting to “give in” and do it anyway, especially if not having sex has become a point of conflict. But this is a bad idea. No one should have sex they don’t want to, and doing so can create problems in your relationship and your sex life. It’s always better to be honest with yourself and your partner about how you’re feeling when you’re not in the mood, and then work through that together. This allows you to understand each other more deeply and strengthen your relationship.
Creating Rituals of Connection
There are few things less sexy than a spreadsheet, yet sometimes that’s the best way for couples to navigate desire discrepancy and have a healthy, fulfilling sex life. When you have routines in your life that intentionally support your emotional and physical connection with your partner, it’s easier for your desires to align.
If you schedule some mutually agreed upon time for intimacy with your partner — whether that means having sex or not — you might find that you have more sex with each other and experience less “rejection.” With your rituals of connection in place, neither of you will have to battle the nagging sense that you should be doing something else during your dedicated time together. There will also be more time for the excitement to build, helping both of you feel ready to go when the time arrives.
It’s true that you lose some of the spontaneous fun of sex when you have to send your partner a Gcal invite a week in advance, but if rejection has become a problem in your relationship, it’s probably been a while since you pounced on each other in the kitchen anyway. For most long-term committed couples (especially with kids!) the expectation that “sex should be spontaneous” is a myth and one that hurts their relationship.
Getting Help for Sex Rejection in a Relationship
Just about every committed relationship involves some differences in sexual desire. Still, when couples go through long periods of time where sex isn’t happening (especially when one partner is more disappointed about that than the other), it can be hard on the relationship.
The partner who wishes they were having more sex can feel rejected, creating fertile soil for hurt feelings and resentment to grow. And when you start associating sex with conflict, restoring a positive sexual rhythm only becomes more difficult.
Working with a good sex therapist can help you and your partner build your understanding of each other, deepen your emotional and sexual intimacy, and find new ways of approaching sex in your relationship that feels more satisfying for you both.
Music in this episode is by La Femme with their song “Francoise.” You can support them and their work by visiting their Bandcamp page here: https://lafemmeressort.bandcamp.com/. Under the circumstance of use of music, each portion of used music within this current episode fits under Section 107 of the Copyright Act, i.e., Fair Use. Please refer to copyright.gov if further questions are prompted.
Nobody wants to be a “jealous person.” But we all experience periodic waves of jealousy, and they can be surprisingly powerful when they wash over us.
When your girlfriend spends a little bit too much time hanging out with her hunky coworker, or your husband’s “friend” comments one too many times on his Instagram posts, jealousy can strike — no matter how secure you are, or how healthy your relationship is.
You might be gripped by feelings of anger, fear, and sadness as you think about your partner connecting with someone else. You might feel compelled to take action to prevent that from happening… or you might suppress your jealous feelings altogether because they don’t match up with the cool, confident person you want to be.
As a longtime marriage counselor and relationship coach, I know that jealousy in a relationship is not just natural and normal — it's also quite adaptive. Feelings of jealousy can bring you and your partner closer together, and both protect and strengthen your attachment bond.
But jealousy also has the power to damage relationships, depending on how you handle it. Managing a white-hot feeling like jealousy and communicating about it in a vulnerable, emotionally-safe way takes a lot of self-awareness and self-control. Then, jealousy becomes something that helps you preserve and strengthen your relationship, and create an even deeper bond between yourself and your partner.
On today’s episode of the podcast, we’re discussing how you can do that. You’ll learn all about why we feel jealous, when jealousy in a relationship is healthy and when it’s a problem, and how you can use feelings of jealousy to tune into what’s happening, start important conversations, and take positive action that helps your relationship grow.
Is Jealousy Healthy in a Relationship?: Episode Highlights
Jealousy gets a bad rap. It belongs to the family of “ugly feelings,” like rage, loathing, and disgust. “Jealous people” are often labeled possessive, paranoid, or insecure.
When you think about someone who’s jealous, you might imagine someone who obsessively monitors their partner’s Instagram likes, or accuses them of flirting with Uber drivers and waiters. This kind of jealousy certainly happens, and it can fuel some pretty toxic relationship dynamics. In its extreme form, jealousy can lead to nasty fights, controlling behavior, or even abuse.
It’s no surprise, then, that many people consider romantic jealousy categorically unhealthy, and that we’re so eager to distance ourselves from it. When we’re feeling jealous, we might shove those feelings down rather than talking about them with our partner. Or, we might translate our jealousy directly into anger, blaming our partner for “making us feel” an unpleasant, shameful feeling.
But, like all feelings, jealousy is natural and normal, and when managed in the right way, it can even be good for your relationship. If you can accept your feelings of jealousy and listen to what they’re trying to tell you, without judgment or blame, it can prompt important conversations and help you build a closer, more secure connection with your partner.
To do that, it helps to understand what romantic jealousy is and why we experience it.
What Is Romantic Jealousy?
We can feel jealous in just about any relationship, but romantic jealousy is a uniquely powerful force. Even the most easy going people can surprise themselves by how overwhelmed they feel when the conditions are right to trigger it.
From an evolutionary perspective, these feelings serve a very good purpose. Humans evolved in a context where sticking together meant survival, while rejection and abandonment meant death. People dominate the planet because we form powerful attachment bonds and work hard to preserve them, not because our ancestors were super laidback about their mates wandering off into somebody else’s mud hut.
In the modern world, you probably wouldn’t starve to death if your partner left you for somebody else. But we still attach to our partners in the same way and have the same emotional and physiological response when those attachments feel threatened. When you sense a “rival” moving in on the person you’re attached to, some deeply hardwired machinery starts whirring in your brain, and a complex mix of fear, pain, anger, and suspicion washes over you.
This is romantic jealousy, and it’s designed to motivate you to take action to ensure that your attachment bond is stable and that your partner isn’t going anywhere. Whether your jealousy is “healthy” or “unhealthy,” or “good” or “bad” for your relationship, depends on how you manage those feelings, and how you and your partner are able to communicate about them.
But, this is not an ideal world, and often the conversation plays out more like this:
You’re emotionally flooded, so you come in a little bit hot → Your partner feels attacked, so they get defensive → You end up having a fight, and the opportunity to connect is lost.
To avoid scenario #2, lead with vulnerability when you’re talking with your partner about feelings of jealousy. Tell them you’re feeling worried about the situation (because you love them and they mean so much to you) and ask them for what you need.
You might just need a little reassurance, or to set some boundaries together for your relationship. For example, you may have never talked about what’s appropriate when it comes to spending time with friends of the opposite sex. If you’re in the early stages of dating, you may have not yet had a conversation about exclusivity or your commitment to each other. If this is the case, your feelings of jealousy are your emotional guidance system’s way of telling you that it’s time to talk.
These conversations can be scary, and if you’ve been avoiding them, there may be a reason for that. Maybe you’re afraid of seeming needy, or you’re afraid of what you’ll hear. But you get to have needs in your relationship, and gaining more information about whether or not your partner is able or willing to meet those needs can only be a good thing.
And if you’re on the other side of this conversation, try to hear the vulnerability underneath your partner’s words when they’re feeling jealous. They may sound angry or accusatory, but they’re really trying to say, “I’m feeling scared right now. Please reassure me that I’m safe.”
Jealousy and Relational Trauma
Sometimes jealousy pops up because of things that are happening in the present moment. But other times, jealousy has more to do with things that happened in the past.
If you’ve been cheated on, abandoned, or rejected in a particularly painful way, that creates an emotional ripple effect that carries on long after the relationship in question is over. This is relational trauma, and it makes you hypervigilant about all the possibilities for getting hurt again. You might get carried away with a story about who they’re talking to every time your partner gets a text notification, or feel a little bit obsessed about where they’re going and who they’re with.
This is a totally normal reaction to being traumatized; it’s your brain’s effort to keep you safe from being hurt again. Unfortunately, it can cause a lot of problems in your relationship, making it difficult for you to relax, to enjoy the positive connection you have with your partner, and to trust them. It can be frustrating and hurtful for your partner as well, especially if they’ve been nothing but trustworthy for you.
Of course, if your partner hasn’t been entirely trustworthy, if they have perhaps cheated on you in the past, then your feelings of jealousy are totally expected and appropriate. Moving forward after infidelity requires a process of healing and repairing trust.
If you suspect old wounds are at the root of jealousy in your relationship, then reading articles and listening to podcasts won’t fully solve the problem. A good couples counselor or individual therapist can help you both heal from trauma, rebuild trust, and feel safe and secure in the present.
When Jealousy Is Not Healthy in a Relationship
There’s nothing wrong with feeling jealous from time to time. But when jealousy is left unchecked, it creates problems.
Jealousy is often the driving force behind abusive relationships. In an effort to manage their own anxiety about losing the relationship, an abuser may monitor their partner’s communications, threaten them or the people in their life, use physical force to stop their partner from leaving, or “punish” their partner for “making them jealous” with physical, emotional, or verbal abuse.
We can understand the feelings that lead to abusive behavior, while recognizing that abuse is never ok. If you’re in a relationship that sounds like this, visit thehotline.org for great resources that can help.
Is Jealousy Healthy in a Relationship?
Jealousy is a normal and adaptive emotion. If you can manage your jealousy with an understanding of what’s really happening, it can lead to positive things for you and for your partner.
Jealousy can happen in any relationship, even non-romantic ones.
Many people believe there should be zero jealousy in a relationship.
Jealousy can set off a chain of assumptions about ourselves and our partner.
[09:49] What Causes Jealousy in a Romantic Relationship?
Jealousy is a complex and powerful emotion rooted in primal human instincts.
Our brains interpret threats to our attachments as threats to our survival.
Although it hurts, jealousy is part of an emotional guidance system that identifies threats.
[17:49] Healthy Jealousy in a Relationship
Jealousy motivates specific behaviors and puts us on alert.
It serves a purpose: to warn us of problems so that we can take action.
You might feel jealousy even for relationships that you no longer want.
It’s critical to talk about your feelings to create emotionally bonding conversations with your partner.
[23:56] How to Handle Jealousy in a Relationship
Your partner or you may have deeply-rooted relational traumas or attachment wounds.
Relational trauma has similar symptoms to PTSD, even if not to the same level of intensity.
People with these wounds may be hypervigilant and constantly anxious, but it’s not about their partner, it’s an artifact of their trauma.
Unfaithful partners may not understand the legacy of the trauma they inflicted.
[33:25] How to Work on Jealousy in a Relationship
It’s vital to approach traumatized partners with compassion, intention, and sensitivity.
They may need a significant amount of reassurance and time.
Jealousy can create trust issues, damaging an emotional bond.
It’s essential to communicate clearly: don’t be defensive, and practice emotionally safe communication.
Professional help is likely your best option if one partner has deep emotional wounds.
[41:56] Abusive Jealousy in a Relationship
Your partner’s past traumas are not your fault, and you do not have to participate in them.
Trauma might be why your partner acts abusively, but it does not excuse their behavior.
If your partner exhibits abusive behavior, it’s critical to connect with a therapist or look for assistance.
[46:01] Learning From Jealousy in a Relationship
Pay attention to your feelings of jealousy and be honest about how you feel, your values, and your intentions for the relationship.
Jealousy can be a good warning system for problems in your relationship.
Music in this episode is by Gloria Ann Taylor with their song “Jolene.” You can support them and their work by visiting their Bandcamp page here: https://nightbeats.bandcamp.com/. Under the circumstance of use of music, each portion of used music within this current episode fits under Section 107 of the Copyright Act, i.e., Fair Use. Please refer to copyright.gov if further questions are prompted.
Lisa Marie Bobby: This is Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby, and you're listening to The Love, Happiness and Success Podcast. What we are currently listening to together is the most delightful cover of Dolly Parton's Jolene that I think I've ever heard. The artist is Gloria Ann Taylor. And she is so phenomenal. Listen to this. Sorry. It's just so good. So Gloria Ann was a contemporary, actually, of Dolly Parton's. And this is from an album of hers that came out, I think, in the mid-70s. She has several others, and they are just phenomenal. So, Gloria Ann Taylor, you can find her work on Bandcamp. I'm sure you can stream it anywhere music is available because she's a legend. And it's such good stuff.
I went for this song, in particular, today because this is like the battle hymn, the empathetic “Yes, this is how I feel” for anybody who is one, human because two, they have struggled with feelings of jealousy in a relationship. It's so hard. And when you're going through it, it is absolutely agonizing. And that's what we're tackling on today's show, we're going to be talking about jealousy in relationships. And when jealousy is actually healthy and appropriate, what to do with jealousy when it comes up, you know, signs that jealousy is problematic and what to do with it if that is the case.
All good stuff, important stuff, and all for you on today's episode, because you've told me that this is a topic that's important to you. I so appreciate it when you get in touch with me. through Instagram at @drlisamariebobby through our website growingself.com. You can email us at hello@growing self.com with your questions and the things that are on your mind so that I can design podcast episodes that speak to you specifically because that is why we're here.
If this is your first time here, welcome. I'm Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby, I'm the founder and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling and Coaching and I am here every week talking about love, happiness, and success and how to achieve more of it in your life. I have a background as a licensed marriage and family therapist. I'm a licensed psychologist, I'm a board-certified coach and I draw from all of these different orientations as an experience as a therapist, as a coach, also as a lifelong learner. And also as a fellow traveler. The things we talk about on this show are, I think, relevant for all of us, self included. So thank you for being here today and joining the conversation.
Jealousy in a Relationship
Let's talk about the green-eyed monster, shall we? Jealousy? And let's start by tackling one central question. Is jealousy healthy in a relationship? If so, why, when? And when is it not healthy? When is it a problem? When do we need to try to resolve it? All important questions and questions that I know come up a lot come up for couples. I hear this from listeners writing in counseling and coaching clients. Many people struggle with feelings of jealousy, it can happen in romantic relationships. And hey, jealousy can also raise its hand in our friendships and our relationships with family members sometimes. And I think it's important to talk about because, among other things, attitudes about jealousy can be pretty extreme.
It's not just that jealousy happens, it is how do we feel about jealousy? Do we have judgments or values around the experience of jealousy, all kinds of stuff. So on the one hand, I talk with people who believe that jealousy is just a bad feeling that they should not have healthy people do not feel jealous, is it one of the seven deadly sins it might be I think it's right up there with sloth, avarice, greed, jealousy, right? So if I am feeling jealous, or if my partner is feeling jealous, it means something is wrong. There's something wrong with them. There's something wrong with me, there's something wrong with our relationship, there's a problem.
That is actually a common attitude, an unfortunate attitude as we will discuss, but it is common. And interestingly, it is not just my observation that that is common, so harboring negativity towards jealousy. We actually have numbers on this, the dating app OkCupid, which interestingly, the organization behind it does a lot of pretty cool big data. It's the same group, I believe is still match.com, OkCupid, I think they have other horses in that stable, but because they have access to so many people and opportunities to send polls and quizzes and responses, they have a lot of data on attitudes, dating behaviors, and that's very interesting.
I've talked to representatives from their organization on previous episodes of this podcast about their findings. But more recently OkCupid has found that 1.6 million of its users say that jealousy in a relationship is unhealthy, categorically. So not sure what percentage — see, I'm getting all, like a nerdy psychologist here, I want to know what their sample size is, right? But anyway, nevertheless, it is a lot of people, okay, who believe that jealousy is wrong. Now, on the other hand, though, I also hear from a lot of people, many of whom I've worked with in counseling and coaching, who struggle with feeling jealous, but who experience these feelings as something that is a reaction to something that their partner is doing or not doing.
They don't perceive their feelings as being unhealthy or wrong. They're saying, I am having this feeling because something bad is happening to me. So for example, my partner is making me feel jealous, because when we were at the coffee shop, he had his eyes all over the 22-year-old barista, right. So he made me feel this way. And I am entitled to feel this way because he was being wrong. And there's also a lot of meaning around these kinds of jealousy experiences. So it's not just for example, that my partner is looking at the barista and making me feel jealous, I am feeling jealous because of how I am interpreting his behavior. He's looking at her and I'm standing right here, he's looking at her, because he doesn't respect me. Or he is more attracted to her than he is to me, or this is an indication that our relationship is not fundamentally secure. Because if it was, he wouldn't be doing this.
To have an experience of jealousy can also like set off this chain of core beliefs and assumptions about ourselves about our partner about, you know, the way things should be, they get very complex. And this creates a lot of stress for both people in the relationship. Not to mention the barista who is also probably not having a good time in this scenario I would imagine.
This episode is really about, you know, talking through the complexity of jealousy, in order to discuss all of its nuances. And I think also because the experience of jealousy is a very interesting entry point, to talk about a lot of other things that are common even in really healthy relationships. I mean, when jealousy is present, it sort of begs a conversation about things like attachment, boundaries, trust, et cetera. And my hope that is through this episode, we'll come to understand jealousy differently through a new perspective. And you will be ready to navigate jealousy when it comes up in your relationship, because it will, but always does.
What Causes Jealousy in a Relationship
Alright. So to start, what is romantic jealousy? Again, as I mentioned at the very beginning of this episode, jealousy can come up in all kinds of situations with, friends that we’re envious of in work situations, you know, all kinds of stuff. But for today's conversation, I do want to limit the scope to romantic jealousy, which is jealousy that comes up in the context of a romantic relationship, right.
This is a very complex emotion. I mean, I don't know if you've ever sat with the experience of feeling jealous long enough to notice all of the facets, because, again, many of our negative emotions are not comfortable, and we want to push them away as quickly as possible. So we deprive ourselves of the opportunity to really just like notice what is happening when jealousy is present. When you take the time to do that, and give yourself permission to sit with it for a little while, you notice that it has lots like it's a mixture of things, there is a lot of fear in jealousy. Right? There's also pain, like hurt feelings are happening in jealousy. There's often anger, suspicion, even kind of rage-y sorts of feelings, right.
Everybody has felt this way. If you know you've been with somebody long enough, sooner or later, you're going to feel at least a whiff of this in a situation where all of a sudden, you're feeling a little worried, or hurt, or angry, or suspicious, or all of the above, right. And even people who are, quote, aren't jealous can surprise themselves when conditions are right to trigger jealousy. And when it happens, it is a powerful experience, very easy to get swept away in the heat of the moment, when jealousy is activated.
It's not uncommon at all for people to feel a little out of control, they’re like gripped by the intense jealousy might even look a little nuts, no judgment, it's like it just is what happens to us. When jealousy has taken hold of us, it's very easy to get carried away with a story about what is happening right now, what is going on between my partner, and this real or imagined rival that I suddenly have here. So it's all kinds of things are happening internally in the moment when your partner glances at the barista.
What causes romantic jealousy, what is going on here. So when jealousy flares up, it is always due to a real or perceived threat to your secure attachment bond. Your attachment bond, as we have discussed in previous episodes of this podcast, is your emotional and physiological bond to your partner. That is very real. And it has biologically-based components as well as emotional components and psychological components. But when there is a circumstance that all of a sudden makes that attachment bond feel less secure or threatened. Jealousy wooshes in. And there are really good reasons for this evolutionarily.
As you may remember, from previous discussions on this topic, humans are built to bond to other people. And these attachment bonds are evolutionarily necessary to the survival of our species. So our attachments our need to attach, are, you know, related to fundamental survival drives. They're very, very deep. They're very powerful, and they exist for a reason. So if we take ourselves back to 200,000 years ago, if a rival lures away your mate, and they go wandering out of the mud hut, into their mud hut, and they're not your person anymore, it actually, evolutionarily speaking, will threaten your survival and the survival of your offspring.
Remember, humans are a collective species. We survived by organizing ourselves into tribes with kinship relationships, and we stuck together, we helped each other, we defended each other. And that is why I am here today talking to you is because our people stuck together. And it worked well enough to ensure that, that all of our ancestors had at least one child that survived long enough to reproduce. And then people can't do that alone, right. So, deep stuff, old stuff, powerful stuff. And because this is so fundamentally important, our attachments to each other, or something that needs to be protected, any ruptures to our attachment, or threats to our attachment, need to be prevented and repaired no matter what. And this is not conscious.
This is stuff that is so old and so deep, and so baked into the machinery that when your partner glances at the barista, it sends a danger signal into a deep old part of your brain that the does not have language even it's just this like, kind of feeling that is involuntary. It's immediate, if you are interpreting that on some level as a threat.
I personally have been married so long, and my husband is a ladies’ man. And he'll be like, that barista was hot. And I'll be like, yeah, she was hot. And we go and we have our coffee, because it's like, not a threat to me at this point in my life. But I will tell you that there have been other situations that have felt more threatening to me relationally, the 22-year-old barista does not feel like a threat. But there have been other situations where, you know, if my husband is developing a friendship with somebody and they seem to be — like a lot of emotional intimacy, you know, that, that feels different for me. And we have had conversations about that.
I know that, you know, he has his, his own triggers, too, because we're human, and we're attached and we love each other. And these are feelings that come up, it is part of our emotional guidance system, informing us that our attachment is all of a sudden, not in question in you know, like a very real way, but like there's a threat, the shadow of the hawk is flying over. And we need to talk about those feelings. Because if we don't talk about those feelings with our partner, then what happens, you know, we internalize it, we get angry, we get hurt, often, with no reason for getting angry or hurt. We're making assumptions.
Healthy Jealousy in a Relationship
The other thing that is so important to understand about feelings of jealousy is that like all other emotions, they motivate certain behaviors. When we feel jealous, all of a sudden, we are on red alert, we're paying attention to what's going on with our partner, and the emotion motivates us to reach out to connect to get more information. And if you handle it, well, what it turns into is a bid for connection that stabilizes your attachment.
It leads to an authentic conversation that is vulnerable, that is emotional. And that ideally, when that vulnerability is met with responsiveness and empathy and kindness, there is not just a repair, it doesn't just soothe the jealousy, it actually strengthens your relationship because you felt vulnerable, you reached out and there was reassurance, there was kindness, and your bond is strengthened because of it. So in that way, jealousy is very functional.
Also in the same way it can be very healthy, because all emotions are functional. Our feelings serve a purpose. When you put your hand on a hot stove, it hurts and because it hurts, you remove your hand, thereby solving the problem. And the emotions that come up in relationships, particularly that relate to our attachment bonds work very much in the same way. Our emotions guide our attention and they also motivate action and so your feelings of jealousy can help you be alert for possible problems and take action that will restore your bond before a problem occurs.
It's also important to understand that because the origins of these feelings are so deep and so automatic and so you know, a part of our emotional kind of animal mind they are not even remotely rational. They're not things that are typically reasoned or considered in language, they just flare up. It's not like you're kind of consciously connecting dots, something like, “Oh, I think I should feel jealous.” By Jove, it's not that it is something that is immediate.
It is also irrational in the sense that it happens anytime we have an attachment bond to somebody, even if it's an attachment bond that we don't want anymore. So for example, I hear this all the time, probably, nine out of ten of the comments on my blog are a question related to the phenomenon of having broken up with a person and feeling intense feelings of jealousy. Now that that person is dating someone new, and it's Dr. Lisa, we broke up three years ago, I initiated the breakup. Because of all of these, let me tell you all the ten good reasons why we broke up and was moving on with our life, everything is fine. And then I saw a picture of him with his new girlfriend, or vice versa. And I am out of my mind, I can't sleep. It's all I'm thinking about what is happening to me, I'm going crazy. Please help me in the comment section of this blog. And I'm just kidding.
Valid question, because people are genuinely like, puzzled. This doesn't make any sense. Why am I feeling this way? And the short answer is because this goes back to that really old deep part of your brain that flares into action whenever it perceives a threat to your survival. Whether or not you are objectively in any danger from like your conscious, rational thinking brain who we're sitting here, in the year of our Lord 2022, which, you know, is not a fully safe place. But generally speaking, if a partner or ex-partner gets a new partner, you're not going to starve to death in the woods somewhere, right? That doesn't happen anymore. But the part of your brain that evolved in that context, doesn't know that and still has the same feelings of I'm about to die, I'm going to do something. So that is where it comes from. And that is why you feel the way that you do.
Those are some reasons why jealousy happens. I hope you understand the anatomy of jealousy in a different way. It's related to our attachment, it is a largely biological process, there is nothing wrong with you, because you have those feelings. And in certain contexts, really many of them. It is related to attachment-promoting behaviors, connection-promoting behaviors, because when you are tapped into your feelings of jealousy, you notice what's going on. And it leads to hopefully, productive and emotionally-bonding conversations about your commitment to each other. It helps you have productive conversations, if maybe there's some boundary stuff going on that you would like to have be different.
By both of you adopting the stance that jealousy is healthy, it's telling us something important that we need to listen to about our relationship and be able to talk about it together. That can be a really positive thing for both of you. And as part of you know, a living, breathing normal relationship when these feelings come up from time to time.
How to Handle Jealousy in a Relationship
Now, there are also some other situations that as I'm sure you know, where feelings of jealousy can come up, and we need to handle them differently. Because sometimes feelings of jealousy can be maladaptive in the sense that they're not actually reliable sources of information about your relationship in the present moment. They are more artifacts of perhaps past relational trauma, or, you know, the biggest relational trauma which is attachment wounds from very early in life.
For example, in situations where someone has been betrayed, cheated on abandoned or emotionally harmed by someone who they had, perhaps believed was committed to them and who ultimately wasn't, you know, because again, our attachment bonds are so vital. When those attachment bonds are injured, it actually does create a trauma. So we think of trauma as being, you know, if you flip open the DSM and look up post-traumatic stress disorder, what you see is a cluster of symptoms that is related to actual neurological changes that occurred in humans, who have been exposed to very, very scary, life-threatening kinds of things.
In the DSM, it's, you know, a car accident, being in combat, sexual assault, somebody dying or afraid that somebody's going to die. I mean, like, you know, really serious stuff. And so it can be easy, then to miss the fact that there are other things that create trauma responses in humans that are not like the threat of death in an objective sense the way they know it now. But going back to that conversation about how elemental attachment is to human survival on an evolutionary sense, our brains and bodies register attachment trauma as being just as significant of a threat, whether or not our, you know, rational minds like that idea, it still happens.
What you see is that when people have endured relational traumas, when they've been abandoned, cheated on, you know, those kinds of things, they will experience essentially symptoms that are, you know, milder versions, but still very present of actual post-traumatic stress disorder. So they will have nightmares, intrusive thoughts about bad things happening, they will experience heightened anxiety and hypervigilance, they'll also have, like, some emotional dysregulation kinds of things going on and there is also avoidance can go along, along with that, too, I think, to a lesser degree than actual PTSD, which often has a lot of avoidance associated with it.
Okay, tangent, coming back to the point, which is that if you have been cheated on, or if you have a partner who has experienced relational trauma in the past, it is very normal for them to have that they're hypervigilant, they're anxious, they're worrying about things that are maybe kind of surprising, or that don't make sense. And just like a lot of anxiety because of what they've lived through. And so what this can look like in relationships is a lot of jealousy, because their threat sensors are like, cranked up to 11. And they don't feel safe in situations where they are safe.
As you can imagine, this can create a lot of problems in a relationship. If one partner is constantly anxious, and, you know, frankly, like accusatory about “You looked at her, I know what you're thinking and let me tell you what's happening because I feel scared, therefore, I know that something bad is happening.” And I mean that that can turn into very difficult relational dynamics because the other partner is like, “Maybe I glanced at her but I'm alright, we're okay. I love you.” And, you know, trying to show their partner that they're safe. I'm committed to you, I love you, you can trust me. But because of that attachment trauma, the person who's having that flareup. Information doesn't touch that feeling like you saying, I love you. I'm committed to you. You can trust me, it doesn't change the way they feel because the way they feel is not actually coming from anything that's happening in the relationship with you. It's an artifact of that trauma.
I did a whole podcast on this topic, trust issues in relationships. And for more information on this topic, you can listen to that podcast. And I would also like to add very explicitly for any interested parties that if you are in a relationship where cheating did happen between the two of you, it is normal and expected for your partner to now be very hypervigilant because of the trauma they experienced with you, I have also spoken at length on this subject, I'll refer you back to some of my past podcast episodes about, you know, affair recovery.
One of the biggest challenges even for you know, like, myself as a marriage counselor and repairing this dynamic is that one person has been thoroughly traumatized by what they experienced but the partner on the other side, who did the cheating, and who is now not, does not understand the legacy of the trauma that they inflicted. And so they will then take the perspective of that's in the past, you shouldn't be upset about that anymore. I'm not doing anything these days here, let me tell you all the reasons why. And that can start to feel very frustrating for them, because they expect that they're, you know, I said I was sorry, like, you know, that there has been forgiveness, they decided to stay together, let's let it go. Let's have it be in the past.
It is crucial to understand the legacy of trauma, and to understand what is happening inside of their partner in terms of those big intense feelings of jealousy, anger, fear, all that stuff that comes up is not under their partner's control, because they have been traumatized. And we have to handle that very, very differently and intentionally. And if there has been an affair or some kind of betrayal in a relationship, you can expect, the other person might be having these traumatic you know, flareups, these anxious thoughts and feelings, and that it is the job of the person who did the betraying to very consistently and intentionally be responsive to that, be empathetic to that be everything that they need you to be whether it is providing information, emotional reassurance.
It's just like, you know, attachment is broken through trauma, attachment is repaired through empathy, validation, and responsiveness. And so it is now your new job to be doing all of those things consistently and reliably forevermore with your partner. Because even once that trauma has been healed, to a degree, it never goes away forever, there will always be a little bit more anxiety because of what they experienced that will need to be managed very intentionally, and very sensitively and with a lot of compassion.
We can certainly repair and strengthen relationships after affairs, but there will always be a scar. And that scar often looks like jealousy, and anxiety in reality, so I just wanted to mention that in case that was salient for your circumstances.
How to Work on Jealousy in a Relationship
There's that kind of attachment trauma. And also I think this does relate to somebody who has a very anxious attachment style, which is different than a relational trauma, which is often something that was you know, an isolated event, you can kind of identify what happened, yes, when I was in college, this boyfriend cheated on me, and you know, it really hurt me. And now this is why I feel the way I feel like with those kinds of things, you can kind of connect the dots and see that like traumatic response, but attachment stuff that is even on a deeper level.
As we've discussed in previous podcasts, attachment styles in relationships develop in our first few years of life typically, in response to the way our caregivers interacted with us and in people who have inconsistent or had inconsistent caregivers where, you know, they've kind of ran hot-and-cold, they weren't sure if their parents were going to show up for them or not. Or even sometimes, if there was a lot of like conditional love like if they had to perform to win their parents’ approval. I have to be the best at gymnastics or ice skating or the best grades or the best athlete you know.
If their love was kind of performative, from a very early age, it can leave people with an anxious attachment style where they're never quite sure, if they are good enough, they kind of worry that they're not. And they don't assume that other people love them automatically, the way that you know, somebody with a more secure attachment style has a core belief of I am okay, I am worthy of love and respect. And I can expect good things from other people, I can know that somebody loves me and has positive feelings for me, even if they're not always telling me that or you know, that calm connection endures inside of them psychologically, whereas somebody with an attach an anxious attachment style does not view themselves or other people in that same way.
In that sense, they do not feel secure in relationships, or in themselves, fundamentally, they need a ton of reassurance that they are loved, they are good enough, you think they're great, you're saying the right things, doing the right things, but they're also very, very, very vigilant, any signs that you aren't committed to them? That you might like somebody else better than you like them. And so there can be a lot of maladaptive jealousy that happens in relationships with somebody who has an anxious attachment style, they're very preoccupied with it.
The reason why I bring this up and wanted to talk about it a little bit is because you know, either of these are problematic in relationships, because it very easily turns into conflict where one person has all this anxiety, they're accusing the other person and, you know, I'd like to reframe accusation, air quote, as an expression of anxiety, and a bid for reassurance. So when somebody says, I saw you looking at her, you know, they're really trying to communicate, I'm feeling scared right now, I feel worried, please reassure me but because of this, like big emotional flareup, that's not always how it comes out. It can feel oftentimes, like an accusation or, or anger that for, you know, the person on the receiving end of that can be very, very difficult.
It can also get kind of exhausting, like, if it's just all the time and it feels like nothing I can say or do can make you believe that you can trust me. So, you know, that also turns into a trust issue. I don't trust you, to think well of me, or to believe in my commitment to you like that, in itself can start to damage an emotional bond.
If these things are coming up in a relationship, the first thing to understand is that these are always safety-seeking behaviors. The person who is feeling jealous and who is communicating these feelings wants reassurance, wants to strengthen the connection, because they're feeling scared, or worried or potentially harmed. And so to understand this, and be able to address that core need and have compassion for what they're communicating, is, you know, my first piece of advice, it's easy to get defensive when it feels like somebody is accusing you of something, you're not doing and getting defensive is not helpful. So try to understand how they're feeling and attend to those emotions.
If what the engine of jealousy actually is, is related to old attachment wounds, or past relational trauma, that would be an indication that you guys should probably get some professional help to work through this because it's very difficult just between you and your partner to kind of get to the root of it. It's hard to do because, you know, you're not a trained professional, you don't know what questions to ask, you can't provide psychoeducation about how trauma works, you know, and be able to see it when it comes up.
It's like, you know, you guys are sort of swimming in that pool together. And in this case, a couple's camp counselor or a marriage counselors like, you know, somebody like riding in the boat on the surface who can look down and kind of see what is happening in terms of that dynamic and be able to provide coaching and guidance about how to handle these moments, not just differently in terms of your interactions or communication styles. But the really cool thing is that particularly with evidence-based forms of psychotherapy that are designed to heal and strengthen attachment bonds, so emotionally-focused couples therapy would be one of them.
Being able to work through these feelings of jealousy, through something like emotionally-focused therapy, again, will not only help the interactions feel better, it will actually heal those attachment wounds in the process. So it is truly psychotherapy in the sense that it is healing, something that hasn't been wounded. And it's really worth doing, if you're in a relationship where there's a lot of jealousy. And it's, it's coming out in maladaptive ways, that would maybe be my advice to you. Look for a licensed marriage and family therapist who does emotionally-focused couples therapy, specifically, because they'll be able to help you dive into the emotions and the reactions and those attachment bonds.
Other forms of marriage counseling are also very effective. There are many other kinds of evidence-based couples therapy, but some of them can be more behavioral, you know, like talking more about what we're doing, or, you know, try saying that differently. And it doesn't really get into that attachment trauma, the way emotionally-focused couples therapy does. So just wanted to offer you some guidance there.
Abusive Jealousy in a Relationship
One other piece that we should probably talk about. So another component of jealousy is that there can be sometimes when there's a lot of anxiety in relationships, there can even be like abusive components there. For example, if somebody has a ton of anxiety, and it's turning into really intense feelings of jealousy, that can also turn into controlling behaviors where the other partner is being limited about like what they can do or can't do, in unhealthy ways.
In many, like relationship abuse situations, domestic violence situations, if you really crack into that, at the core, there is profound anxiety and jealousy in the partner who is the perpetrator of abuse or violence from their perspective, they're trying to control their partner in order to manage their own feelings of jealousy or anxiety and that is not okay, ever even though we can you know, kind of intellectually understand it. Not appropriate, not okay. And you do not have to participate in that it is not your fault, or in some ways your problem if your partner is struggling to that degree with unresolved anxiety, attachment injuries, and it's coming out as a lot of jealousy and controlling behaviors that are directed towards you.
My advice to you would be to get connected to a great therapist who conducts therapy that is centered around abusive relationships and the cultivation of healthy ones. You can go to thehotline.org is a free resource where they have a ton of information about abusive relationship dynamics. And they also have hotlines and even text chats where you can get in touch 24 hours a day with a counselor who has specialized training and experience in domestic violence and they'll be able to help you right then and there. But also get you connected with local resources in your area. Like if you have to get out of there. They can help you. Legal resources too so thehotline.org. It's great stuff. Great stuff.
Okay. So we talked about a lot of things today. But to summarize, some kinds of jealousy are normal and very healthy. To be able to manage this with an understanding of what's really happening, can lead to actually very positive things in your relationship. But you first have to understand that these feelings of jealousy are actually healthy and adaptive. They're your emotional guidance system giving you great information that strengthens your relationship and leads to a stronger attachment bond. So this is a good thing. And, and lots of good can come of that when you're conceptualizing jealousy in those ways.
Maladaptive jealousy happens as a result of relational trauma, or attachment injuries and needs to be handled differently, that is a situation where you're going to want to get a therapist involved. And at its most extreme cases, it can be a component of abusive behaviors, which are never okay. And I gave you some resources for what to do, if that is actually the case.
Learning From Jealousy in a Relationship
Very lastly, I think there's a third piece of this that we should talk about as well. And that comes from being able to pay attention to your feelings of jealousy or insecurity in a relationship, as well as those of your partners, and use it in order to have increased awareness. And also, I think, increased honesty, about how you're both feeling, where your values are, what your hopes and dreams are for your relationship, and what you're doing together.
An example of this, I have also, you know, been involved in conversations, either a couples counseling, or more commonly, you know, with an individual clients, I'll see where they're telling me about their own feelings of jealousy, or those of their partner. And as we are talking, I am understanding that there is a difference in the level of commitment between two partners, or there can be a difference in the level of co-created understanding about what the boundaries in our relationship are, or should be.
For example, I have had clients who have complained to me about you know, how jealous their girlfriend is, and always wants to know where I am and what am I doing. But I also happen to know that this person is not really fully committed to their partner, is actually spending time with other people. And so what I hear in that story is that their partner’s air quote, jealousy is not inappropriate. It is actually their emotional guidance system, telling them that there is a problem in the relationship. They need to listen to that because they are having a connection with somebody who is not as committed to them as they are.
Again, it's functional and so to be paying attention to feelings of jealousy and to saying, What is this telling me about the situation? If you're dating somebody and you're feeling jealous and kind of worried about it, you know, that? Pay attention to that? What are we doing? Are we committed to each other? Where's this going? Like, let's have a conversation about it. Your feelings are telling you that you need your connection affirmed.
If you're, you know, long-married and starting to feel jealous about a certain situation, that can be a good opportunity to say what is going on, you know, we have been disconnected lately. My partner is spending more time away. I feel like maybe they are developing a friendship with somebody that I'm not entirely comfortable with. And to be able to honestly and compassionately examine those feelings and use them as a window into yourself to say, I want more connection. I want to spend more time with them. I want to do more fun things with them. I feel jealous when they're always running out the door to go do stuff with their friends. I want us to be doing stuff together like you know not to push away or reject our dark emotions that are uncomfortable.
We don't like those feelings, but they are such a wealth of information, when we're able to allow them and really understand what they're trying to communicate to us and then use that information to have meaningful and emotionally intimate conversations with our partner that help us create positive change in our relationships.
Similarly, there can also be feelings of jealousy that come up, that are related to differences in expectations, or sometimes values. So, for example, you know, we are all carrying our little handbooks about the way things should be, that were assigned to us pretty much at birth, and over our life experiences and our family of origin. We all inherited these core beliefs about what relationships are, what is okay, what is not, okay, what people should do, what they shouldn't do. And these are largely subconscious, we're not aware of them in ourselves, until we are in a relationship with somebody that has a different operating manual than we do, because, you know, we all come from different places, right?
There can be things that come up that, you know, jealousy is the first indication, you know, it's almost like your, your sense of smell, I smell smoke is there a fire those feelings of jealousy are, oh, there, we have a difference in expectation around some boundaries situation, you know, my partner grew up in a family where it was absolutely common to have, you know, maybe friends of the opposite sex, or to spend more time away from home or to, you know, have a different kind of orientation towards a social life or, or maybe even it's around, you know, communicativeness around where I'm going and what I'm doing, you know, there are these just unspoken ways of being that are very much inherited from our families. But that can feel like a boundary thing to your partner.
Those feelings of jealousy can again, just alert you to a difference there. And the need to have a conversation about it so that you can create a shared reality and shared agreements around you know, how we are operating together, what have we decided are the boundaries, and this relationship that feels good for both of us, because that is something that's really important for every couple to do.
Similarly, it can also be helpful for couples to have open conversations about how we will maintain our agreed-upon boundaries together. So for example, you know, I have also worked with couples where feelings of jealousy are emerging in one partner, not because of something that their partner is doing necessarily, but because of a third person's involvement. So maybe a co-worker is being inappropriately flirtatious, you know, they are feeling threatened by a certain situation, the partner isn't doing anything wrong, necessarily. But maybe their partner isn't handling that in a way that would feel appropriate and safe for their partner.
The emotion of jealousy is coming in, that's communicating, we need to have a boundary here, I need to have an agreement and a commitment from you about how you are going to handle these situations when they come up. That helps me feel more secure and safe. And that strengthens our attachment bond to each other. And I think that that is an appropriate conversation for a couple to have, in a situation where an attachment bond is being potentially threatened by an outside source. And that can look like a lot of different things. But again, you know, the path forward is just having an open conversation that is productive, and that helps each person understand each other's perspectives and feelings and needs. And that ideally creates a stronger, deeper, more secure connection to each other. That is the hidden gift of jealousy when you know how to use it.
I hope that this conversation was helpful for you and kind of, you know, understanding what jealousy is, how it works, and kind of mapping out some of the differences between healthy helpful jealousy and jealousy. That is, that is problematic. Thank you so much for spending this time. With me today. I always enjoy the time we spend together and I will be back in touch with you next week with another episode of the podcast in the meantime, Here's more Gloria Ann Taylor.
Harness Your Differences for a Stronger Relationship
Mother nature is no dummy.
She knows, for example, that if we chose our mates by soberly assessing their personality traits, comparing them to our own, then calculating whether or not they’re a compatible match for us, the human population would have dwindled beneath the replacement threshold several thousand years ago.
Luckily for us all, that isn’t how people evaluate a love interest. You focus on their dimples, their shoulders, or the funny voice they make when they’re impersonating their dog. Questions about long-term compatibility are a problem for another day, for the newly smitten.
Until the honeymoon period fades. Then, you begin to see the person in front of you more clearly, and to question whether nice shoulders can outweigh their bewildering approach to personal finance, or housekeeping, or their relationship with their mother. You begin to wish the dog would just shut up.
Sometimes, the answer is no. But much more often, the couple is as “right” for each other as anyone else, and the discomfort they’re feeling is the seed of growth. They have woken up from the fever dream of infatuation and arrived on the threshold of a stronger, deeper, and more functional partnership — and they can move into it together by learning to accept their differences and harness the unique strengths they each bring to the table.
On today’s episode of the podcast, I’m going to tell you how to do that. We’re talking about what really makes a couple compatible, and how you can use your differences to build a stronger relationship.
Personality Type Compatibility in Relationships: Episode Highlights
Too often, we think about compatibility in relationships in terms of “sameness.” But the strongest relationships are between people who know how to make good use of their complementary differences, which admittedly is easier said than done. Couples who have major irreconcilable differences often get caught up in power struggles over whose way of being is “right.” One partner is messy, the other is a neat freak. One is a saver, the other is a spender. One wants to party every weekend, the other wants to merge with the sofa. The question becomes, who will get their way?
But rather than getting locked into neverending conflict about who needs to change, they could learn to appreciate each other and allow themselves to be pulled slightly toward the center, and become a more well-rounded unit as a result.
This would ultimately be good for the relationship, and for both of the people in it; we get into trouble when we go to the extremes of our personalities. Partnering with someone who is different from you will tamp down your excesses, and help you lead a more balanced, happy, healthy life.
Shared Interests vs. Compatibility
People who are dating often search for someone who shares a lot of their interests. This makes sense — having things in common gives you something to talk about, and something to do together. But liking dogs, or tennis, or beach vacations is not actually a signal that you’re compatible on a deep level. Neither are similar political or religious views. These labels can be points of connection, but they don’t actually tell us much about who a person is at their core.
Our interests and worldviews change over time, while our deeper personality traits remain relatively stable. Fifteen years from now, it won’t matter whether your partner still enjoys rock climbing, but it will matter how well they attune to other people’s feelings, or follow through on what they say they’re going to do, or consider the long-term impacts of their actions.
If you’re wondering which personality types make a good match, you may be disappointed to learn that there’s no definitive answer. Compatibility is more about what you do in your relationship, and less about who you are.
When an introvert and an extrovert get together, it can be rough. An extremely extroverted partner will want to spend every evening out with a crowd, while an extremely introverted partner will look for any excuse to stay home. They can get pretty frustrated with each other, and they may even call it quits in the relationship over this difference.
But something beautiful happens when an introvert and an extrovert allow themselves to grow toward each other.
The extrovert, who may be used to distributing their energy among a large number of people they don’t know very well, will be forced to go deeper into the pool of a single relationship. They’ll become more introspective, and have a greater tolerance for calm. Their capacity for emotional intimacy will expand.
Meanwhile, the introvert will be forced out of their comfort zone from time to time. They’ll go to parties that they would have skipped if it wasn’t for their partner, and over time, they’ll feel more at-ease socially. Their number of friends and acquaintances will grow, and their life will be richer for it.
But when a spender partners up with a saver, it doesn’t have to be a disaster. The thrifty partner can learn to loosen up a bit and enjoy the money they work so hard to earn. The spender can adopt some of their partner’s healthy financial habits, like keeping a budget and putting money away for retirement.
As long as they are having open, honest, ongoing conversations about money and the role it’s playing in their relationship, they can find a middle ground that allows them both to live more prosperous lives than they otherwise would.
It’s hard for one person to fulfill every need that children have. When you partner with someone who has a different parenting style than you, that can help your children get everything they need — if you and your partner can avoid tearing each other apart over your differences.
For example, kids need structure, rules, and consequences, but they also need grace, patience, and freedom. When someone who leans more authoritative in their parenting style partners with someone who leans more permissive, they can make decisions together about when to use each approach, and give their kids a more well-rounded upbringing as a result.
Many couples find this hard, but working with a parenting coach can help you and your partner learn to appreciate that both styles have merit, and that allowing yourselves to be pulled toward each other is in your children’s best interest. Going to either extreme would be a mistake, but helping each other find a healthy balance can be an incredible gift to your children.
Personality Type Compatibility: Ps Vs. Js
A major difference that couples run into is one that you likely would never consider at the start of a relationship. That’s the difference between “perceivers” and “judgers” (aka Ps and Js) on the Meyers-Briggs personality inventory.
A perceiver is a go-with-the-flow type, who likes to remain open to new information and experiences, and doesn’t enjoy closing off options or making definitive plans. Ps tend to be very rooted in the present moment, which helps them be flexible, adaptable, and spontaneous. They have a deep appreciation for complexity, and they don’t feel a need to categorize things in black-and-white terms. They may have trouble with commitment and planning for the future.
The term “judgers” here is not a synonym for judgmental. Instead, Js are people who like order and the feeling that things are settled and decided. They like to categorize the external world and make firm plans for the future, which gives them a sense of control. They can sometimes be all-or-nothing thinkers, and they can experience a lot of distress when things are up in the air or don’t go as planned.
Both of these types exist on a spectrum. Everyone does some “perceiving” and some “judging” every day. But when someone with a strong P orientation partners with someone with a strong J orientation (which often happens — they both see in each other a way of being that they’d like to embody), power struggles can result.
The J will try to impose more order and structure over their shared life than the P is comfortable with. They may plan a vacation six months in advance, and then feel frustrated when their P partner tries to radically revise those plans 48 hours before the plane boards (after giving it zero thought up until that moment). The P will wish their partner could relax and stop being so uptight, and they may feel a bit infantilized, as if they have a manager rather than a partner.
But, if they can learn to understand, accept, and leverage each other’s unique strengths for the benefit of the relationship, Ps and Js can make an incredibly compatible pairing. For example, Js can run the family calendar, and create a structure in their shared life that the P would never have on their own. Meanwhile, Ps can use their go-with-the-flow superpower to adeptly handle all of the unexpected curveballs that life throws at them. Ran out of ice in the middle of the dinner party? No problem. Just found out your kid needs an owl costume for the school play…tomorrow? P will grab their glue gun and some feathers and handle it, without a lot of stress.
And being around someone with an easygoing inner narrative can offer huge benefits to a J. We attune to our partners not only emotionally but also physiologically. Being around a calm person can literally slow your breathing and your heart rate, which can counteract the negative health impacts of a J’s stress.
Compatible Personality Types
If you’re looking for someone you’ll be compatible with, or questioning whether you and your partner are really a good fit, remember that compatibility isn’t about how alike you are. By embracing the strengths that come along with your partner’s unique personality (and your own), you can create a well-rounded unit together that helps you take on the world.
[1:03] How to Know if You Are Compatible in a Relationship
Couples often think differences create relationship problems. However, compatibility isn't about being alike.
A healthy relationship is about appreciating your partner for who they are and what they bring to the table, not about finding someone who is exactly like you.
[6:48] What Makes a Compatible Relationship
Anxiety over compatibility can last until marriage.
When you're dating or in the early stages of a relationship, it's easy to get a false sense of security because you have common interests and worldviews with your partner.
These initial similarities can change over time in a long-term relationship, so focus on deeper connections rather than labels.
[14:07] Compatibility of Personality Types
Instead of focusing solely on your relationship's similarities, look for complementary differences.
The introversion/extraversion continuum is one example of a compatible pairing.
[23:41] Myers-Briggs Personality Compatibility
Perceivers and Judgers on the Myers-Brigg Personality Test can create a compatible pairing.
They can balance each other out and bring out the best in each other.
It's not about forcing or changing your partner to be more like you; it's about putting your strength into the relationship so that both parties benefit.
[49:36] Resolving Conflicts in Your Relationship
If you're having trouble resolving compatibility issues and recognizing differences on your own, consult a licensed marriage counselor or therapist or even a relationship coach who specializes in the subject.
A counselor, therapist, or coach can provide a safe environment for you to discuss your relationship's problems without getting into an argument.
Music in this episode is by Night Beats with their song “Right-Wrong”. You can support them and their work by visiting their Bandcamp page here: https://nightbeats.bandcamp.com/. Under the circumstance of use of music, each portion of used music within this current episode fits under Section 107 of the Copyright Act, i.e., Fair Use. Please refer to copyright.gov if further questions are prompted.
Lisa Marie Bobby: This is Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby, and you're listening to the Love, Happiness and Success podcast. On today's show, we're talking about personality types and compatibility in relationships, and why true compatibility might mean something different than you have been conditioned to believe that it does. We're going to be talking about how to create harmony, alignment, and appreciation in your relationships, not in spite of your differences, but because of them.
I'm so pleased to introduce you to my new favorite band. I cannot get enough of Night Beats. This song, Right / Wrong, I chose because it relates to our topic about compatibility, but they have so much good stuff. Check them out: nightbeatsbandcamp.com. They have upcoming tour dates, albums, all kinds of good stuff—Night Beats.
How to Know if You Are Compatible in a Relationship
So let's talk about personality type compatibility in relationships and why it is so important to address this topic directly before it starts to cause trouble in your relationship. When couples start to run into trouble, or if relationships feel difficult, many people are quick to go to the idea that it is a problem having to do with compatibility.
“If we were more alike, if we were more on the same page, if we had a more similar worldview, our relationship would feel easier.” Sometimes that's true, right? Some chasms are wider than others. But at the same time, having a healthy relationship is not about finding somebody who's just like you. It's about knowing how to build bridges to the center and how to appreciate the partner that you have for who and what they are.
It is also true that compatibility, again, is not about sameness. It is about happy and beneficial differences. Believe it or not, the strongest relationships are often not between two people who are very similar. It's people who have compatible strengths, different strengths.
That's what we're going to be talking about on today's show, not just about compatibility, although we'll be talking about that as well. But how you can really understand some of these relationship differences and harness them for a stronger and more satisfying partnership.
Thank you very much for listening today. I'm Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby. If you are a longtime listener of the show, you'll know that I'm often tackling tough relationship questions on this podcast. I'm a marriage and family therapist, among other things, and so I really love creating podcasts that offer hopefully helpful relationship advice, so that you can cultivate healthier and stronger relationships in your life.
I often invite listeners to ask me questions about their relationship issues or things that they'd like a little bit of insight into. Thank you, first of all, if you're one of the many who's gotten in touch lately, through Facebook, Instagram: @drlisamariebobby. You can track me down on my website, growingself.com. Send an email. We still do that: email@example.com if you want to reach out directly.
But so many of the times when I get these relationship questions, particularly when people have been struggling for a while in their relationship, it really starts to boil down to, “Are we fundamentally compatible? What's happening right now, Dr. Lisa, does not feel good. I feel like the way we are interacting with each other currently is not sustainable for me or for us.”
Often it is, “Can I get my partner to change? Can I change enough in order to be a good partner for them? Because it seems like they want something or somebody so different than who I fundamentally am.” While, certainly, a lot of what we do in high-quality, evidence-based couples counseling, marriage counseling is exploring opportunities to modify the way you're doing things in order to get better results in your relationship.
Over the years, I have been humbled so many times because, often, the best and most successful marriage counseling, and couples therapy, and relationship coaching outcomes are not necessarily around getting either person to be substantially different. Yes, we can absolutely use skills and strategies in order to help each other feel more love and respect—very worth doing.
But when relationships truly and fundamentally change, when the relationship changes, it's often much less about either person changing in terms of who they are and how they operate. The fundamental change truly often comes from helping people understand and appreciate their complementary strengths. So that what had been a point of annoyance or conflict in a relationship doesn't necessarily change what was happening.
But the way that people view it and experience it and respond to it, is transformed into being a positive thing that is valued, as opposed to a negative thing that we're going to have fights about. This often requires diving into different aspects of compatibility—fundamental compatibility—to understand how people can almost, like, create puzzle pieces that fit together beautifully and kind of become a harmonious whole, as opposed to being in a wrestling match around whose way is right, and who should be more like who and less like the other.
What Makes a Compatible Relationship
That's what we're gonna dive into today. First of all, I always find it so interesting, the degree to which I think people will look for signs of compatibility in quite honestly the wrong places, right? I mean, and I know that we're all vulnerable to doing this. But there's, like, astrology or personality quizzes or palm readers, like all kinds of things. I think good and no judgment about people who are trying to seek kind of confirmation in those areas.
I think that's just the simple fact that they are, speaks to this real anxiety that we so often have around, “Is this person the one? Is this the right person for me?” Certainly, this is very present for people who might be dating or an early stage relationships trying to evaluate a new partner. But I have to tell you, this anxiety also comes up again, further down the line, after people are partnered, after they're married, right?
Maybe things aren't as blissful and easy as they were in the early days. It turns into, “Oh, no. Why doesn't this feel difficult? Is this something that can be resolved? Because it feels like we're just in this gridlock; feels like we just totally want different things.” Again, it can easily transform into this very, very real anxiety around, “Maybe we're just not right for each other. Maybe we're too different. Maybe we're too far apart in terms of the things that we want in life.”
That can be true. I have certainly encountered couples who are on very different ends of the spectrum in terms of their values and their life goals. That again, there's always a middle path. I mean, almost always, you can't have one baby, or I mean, point five babies, right? You have to, it’s either, It's a binary kind of thing.
But with pretty much everything else, when there is the desire to help your partner feel loved and appreciated and understood and that their needs and values are important to you, too, there are always things that you can do to create that shared meaning and shared value in the center.
It starts by understanding people's differences as strengths. That's what I think of when I think of compatibility. Again, people can get into labels as indicators of compatibility, right? Similar interests, we like the same music, we enjoy doing the same things for fun, we agree politically, maybe with the same religion, etc. It's so interesting, too.
While some of those things can broadly be indicators of, like, wide ranging values, for example, people with a similar religious orientation may have some values in common, but what is so interesting to me is that when you dig beneath the surface of even things like religion, politics, different orientations to things, similar interests, there is such a wide variety of difference kind of underneath those big categories. It's really not even helpful, in my opinion, to look at some of those “similarities” as points of connection, especially in relationships.
I'll just share that as a tip for people who might be dating. It's really easy to go through a dating profile and see if that person checks your boxes, right? Maybe they mentioned they are a dog person and not a cat person, and you think, “Check you there.” They mentioned a particular political affiliation or philosophy or a religion. It's very easy to assume that if this person is mentioning those things that are important to you, “Well, then that must be that we have many similarities in these areas.”
What that does is that if you are looking for people who are mentioning these things specifically, and kind of making the assumption that there is compatibility and common values because of those labels. Sometimes it's true, certainly. But you may also find that when you dig under the surface, you're actually interacting with somebody who is quite different from you in pretty fundamental ways.
You may have missed the opportunity to connect with somebody who is really much more compatible with you, even if their labels may be different, right? The things that make people truly compatible are often more around personality, and kind of cognitive orientations, believe it or not. Because here's the other thing, when you get stuck on labels, and I think this is very true for people in long-term relationships.
I mean, even I'm an example, right? When my husband and I first got married so long ago, we had these things in common. We were compatible, and it was shared interests and worldviews and all these things. I feel that we're still very compatible, but it has been interesting as an observer in my own life, as well as a marriage counselor and other people's lives that it's the things that we want to hang our hats on at an earlier stage of our life—we get our 20s—that can be very, very different and change so much over the span of decades.
Again, not get too caught up in these superficial trappings of what you think it means to be compatible, because you might find, well, newsflash, you will find that if you're in a long-term relationship that lasts more than, gosh, five years, much less a decade or two, that you are going to be living with somebody who is very, very different than the person you originally connected with or got married to.
The points of connection and your relationship will also have evolved, but that your ideas about compatibility need to go much deeper. For example, when my husband and I connected, he was super into snowboarding, and so we would go snowboarding together. That was, like, something that we really enjoyed. I still enjoy going snowboarding. Now, sometimes I have to do that with other people because he's not as into it anymore, and it's fine.
He's just—his interests have evolved. He's into other things. But if I was making a—sticking a claim on the fact that we were both outdoor enthusiasts and had shared interests in terms of what we do for fun, that starts to wear thin by about year 15. So just keep that in mind. Then, what is real compatibility then, right?
Compatibility of Personality Types
If we're thinking about things that are points of compatibility for people, we need, again, to move away from similarities and more to complementary differences. A great example of this that I think we can all relate to some degree is the concept of introversion and extraversion, right?
We all fall somewhere on that spectrum. I'm a solid center introvert, right? What that means is that I come to limits when it comes to spending time around other humans, and I need to go read a book or sit by myself and not talk to people.
People who have a high extraversion tendency really feel energized when they are around other people. They like talking to people. They like bopping around and doing things, and they have an active social life. A point of contention for many a couple has been relative to that introversion/extroversion kind of continuum.
The extrovert is like, “Why are you so boring? Let's go do something. Hey, these people want us to come over and visit, let's go.” And the introverted partner is like, “Oh, please. That sounds like the third ring of hell, alright?” Just doesn't enjoy social situations in the same way. Of course, you can see how this could, like, easily disintegrate into conflicts between a couple, right?
Where people are criticizing each other and making value statements around whose way of being is right and all of this. But when you can actually have productive conversations where each person is supported and talking about what it means to them, either to have deeper, fewer more intimate connections and more solitude to have a relationship with yourself, right? Versus an extroverted orientation, which is social.
It's connections; it's talking to people; it's being with people. When people are assisted and really understanding those points of view, and respecting them, and seeing the value in each of them, what can begin to happen is that a couple can start to build a relationship that takes the best of, and is kind of intentionally building a life together that incorporates the best of both worlds, and moves into a space where they are now allowing themselves to be grown by each other.
For example, somebody with fairly strong extroverted tendencies tends—and this is a generalization—but they tend to have to enjoy many relationships. They like chatting people up and telling anecdotes and stories and laughing and small talk and all that. The risk there—while it's fun, and they know a lot of people and everybody's buddy—the risk is ultimately having shallower, less intimate relationships. That starts to feel hollow for people after a while.
For an introvert to partner with an extrovert, it creates balance in that relationship where the introverted partner is creating kind of a reason to not do quite as much. “Actually, let's stay home. Let's talk to each other rather than go to a party with 27 other people, half of whom we don't even like that much.” Right?
The introverted partner’s kind of drawing a naturally extroverted person kind of deeper into the pool of emotional intimacy, connection, deeper conversations that are not just satisfying and helpful for the introverted partner, but really allow that extroverted partner the opportunity to have some quiet time, reflect on how they feel, invest in more emotionally intimate relationships with fewer people than they might naturally do on their own.
By being able to view it this way, an extroverted partner can over time come to really value the impact that their more introverted partner has on their life instead of struggling against it. Like, “Let me tell you about all the reasons why you're wrong.” It's like, “You know what, this is helping me actually grow in ways that I wouldn't have grown had I not had you in my life.”
Of course, the opposite is very much true for an introverted partner to be with somebody who is more extroverted on that spectrum, they're going more places than they probably would; they're talking to more people; they're making more friends; and they will also benefit because of it. A hardcore introvert has lots of reasons to not want to do stuff, and to want to stay home and actually,”No, I don't feel like going and talking to people.”
While there can be a lot of benefit in that: solitude, reflection, quiet time, we also know that people tend to, over a lifespan, ultimately be healthier and happier when they have a strong community support system. When you are partnered with somebody who helps you get out the door and go talk to other humans, you will benefit because of having that energy in your life. You have somebody helping pull you towards the center when it comes to that. It's really positive.
Yes, you might still be at the party talking to one person for 45 minutes. But that is a person that you probably wouldn't have talked to at all, had your extroverted partner not, basically, kidnapped you and pushed you in the car and driven you to the party. It's really about understanding how those things can go together and appreciating them—appreciating the energy that we wouldn't have in our life.
Otherwise, same is very true of pretty much anything that a couple can become polarized around. Spending versus saving is something that we've talked about on the show in the past—topics of money and marriage, and financial counseling for couples. When people are kind of bringing each other to the center, that's usually a positive thing. When people get in trouble with pretty much everything is when they tend to take it to extremes.
They go to the far end of the spectrum on one side or the other. That is where weird things start to happen is when we overdo it. When you are partnering with somebody who's kind of bringing you back to the center, or helping you create balance around whatever that thing is that you may become naturally sort of polarized towards, ultimately, that's going to be a positive thing, because it's going to help you grow if you allow it.
You can certainly be checked out and permissive to the point where it is really bordering on neglect and indulgence. That is not good for children. Kids need to have warm, loving relationships with parents and also some expectations that they can rise to meet, right? Being too far on the anything goes or certainly neglectful end of the spectrum isn't good for anyone.
But on the other end of this to have an authoritarian kind of home, where it's all about the rules. “You will do what I say,” and structure, and law and order. Everything is micromanaged to the point where children aren't allowed to grow or make mistakes or, God forbid, experience unconditional love, even if they do—aren't performing perfectly. Like, that's not good for anybody either.
Again, it's so easy for parents to fight tooth and nail about how we're treating the children and whose way is right, “You're too permissive,” and, “You're too harsh.” Again, to be able to recognize the value that each partner is bringing to the situation and how we use those differences to create balance for our children, for our family. Yes, they do need warmth and nurturance and compassion and understanding.
They also do need some boundaries, some guidance, some consequences if they're really getting too far out of line, so that we can guide them and teach them and help them develop their own sense of right and wrong and competence in the safe space of our family, as opposed to figuring all this crap out for the first time once they stumble out the door and into college, assuming that they get into college if they've been raised in an exceptionally permissive home.
Myers-Briggs Personality Compatibility
Anyway, all good things. I did also want to talk about another area of compatibility in relationships that I don't think is discussed often and not—enough, rather. I think that it can, more than almost anything else I've seen, create very real relationship issues if people don't understand the reason for these differences. That is related to something that I call Ps versus Js.
If I were to give any one of you a Myers-Briggs Personality Test, which is kind of the pop psych version of this, there are a number of different qualities that are kind of measured on a continuum. But I feel like one of the most important, with the exception of introversion and extraversion, in terms of the dimensions that it assesses, is one around a perceiver versus a judger. Other personality assessments attempt to measure this in different ways.
If you look at the Big Five, like, psychological assessments, there's conscientiousness sort of continuum, and I think perceivers versus judges on the Myers-Briggs kind of taps into it. But speaking broadly, people who are high on the perceiving end of the continuum, they are open; they're flexible; they don't really have the high need to have things settled and decided. They can go with the flow; they can be spontaneous; they can be adaptable.
On the other side of that, people with a very strong and perceiver orientation, can sometimes feel a little anxious or uncomfortable about being locked in to like really firm plans. Because in their mind is like, “Well, what? I don't know how I'm gonna feel three weeks from now. You want me to commit to that.” So committing can be a deal. Making plans can be a deal, and they have a much more kind of, “Let's see how I feel today,” kind of orientation to life.
This can be a really positive thing in terms of psychological flexibility, adaptability. Again, they're resilient; they're responsive; and it's whatever's happening in the moment. That's usually okay, and if it's not okay, we'll deal with it when we need to deal with it. It's a very kind of present moment, flexible, open orientation. I think that sometimes it shows up in a number of different situations. Certainly, planning in advance can come up for people with a perceiving orientation.
But there's also actually a high degree of psychological flexibility with this personality orientation, in that people with a high perceiver orientation have a deep appreciation for the fact that there is very seldom black and white answers to things. There is instead, many, many, many shades of gray. That everything complex in this world is multidimensional. It has many different facets.
Different things can be true that are in complete opposition, but they're also still true depending on your viewpoint, right? When it comes to a perceiving orientation to the world, this flexibility can extend into open-mindedness, tolerance, being able to see things from multiple points of view, being able to hold sort of mutually exclusive ideas in your mind at the same time, and that maybe several things are all true, and really not having to not feeling a need to kind of categorize and like, “This is the answer.”
It's just not something that people with a high P orientation have. In contrast, on the other end of the spectrum, is what the Myers-Briggs refers to as a judger orientation, not in the sense of judgmental, but I think in the sense of, like, decisiveness. Again, you can find this on the conscientiousness scale of the Big Five. These are people who are very thoughtful. They plan things in advance. They tend to appreciate order in their lives—routines can be important.
They have their vacation plans locked in six months from now, if they're on the high side. They, psychologically and mentally, really want to know what is going to happen next. Even if it's not making a plan, like a plan to do something, “We have scheduled the hotel,” it's really thinking a lot about the future, and possible problems and actions they can take now to create good outcomes for themselves in the future.
This is a very positive thing, conscientious, thoughtful, thinking about things in advance is often useful. They will often have long-range plans that can turn into things like saving money, or you're working towards long-term goals, which is very positive. Though psychologically speaking, and this can also be very positive, but psychologically speaking, people with a high judger orientation, they tend to categorize different things.
They compartmentalize things. They sort of evaluate it, and like, they will often have a strong sense around what is good and what is valued. What is something to strive for versus something that goes in a different category. “This is something negative. This is something I want to stay away from.” It can in extreme versions kind of lead to this black white worldview. It can turn into some all-or-nothing thinking.
Like, if somebody does this thing, they're more likely to globally kind of have a negative impression of them, as opposed to the idea that it can be a fundamentally decent human. Why has this person engaged in a behavior as opposed to, like, focusing on the behavior itself, and kind of turning it into a right/wrong, good/bad, black/white kind of generalization stance.
There are always—there's always a spectrum. Some people are more towards the high side of this continuum than others. I think most of us are probably somewhere in the middle, but we tend to trend in one direction or the other. It is really important to be aware of this difference, in particular, when it comes to personality compatibility in relationships.
Because, remember, at the beginning of our conversation, where we were talking about how those broad kind of labels can create a false feeling of security. Sometimes, when people are like, “Oh, we're the same political orientation or the same religious orientation. We both like dogs.” You can find card-carrying Ps and Js under the big top of any of these things.
What happens to couples and relationships is that they can look at the big picture stuff—our values, the things we want out of life are generally in alignment—and miss the fact that they may have very real and pronounced differences in this P versus J continuum, in terms of their personality, in terms of their psychological flexibility, versus a tendency towards rigidity.
In the way they orient themselves to the world in terms of how much they need to think in advance and have things decided, versus how much they value openness and spontaneity and flexibility. I cannot tell you how many couples I have sat with in my years as a marriage counselor, who have gotten into very, very nasty and angry, truly like, power struggles around who is right and who is wrong when it comes to this orientation in particular.
You can apply this difference to literally everything that you can think about in a relationship, from the way we parent to the way we handle money to the way we do things with our social lives with our work to housekeeping. The J wants a plan; wants to know that things are going to be done. If they're not done, and when we're breaking the plan, it causes a great deal of anxiety and stress.
The person on the other side of that is like, “Why is this such a big deal? Why do we have to know what we're doing two weeks from now? Why can't we wake up on Saturday morning and decide then?” Right? And have much less rigidity around things being done a certain way or planning in advance.
I really, really wanted to talk about this because many times when couples come into marriage counseling and they're all twitterpated about “our compatibility,” it is ultimately about this difference, “We're just fundamentally incompatible. We just see the world so differently. Our way of being is so opposite.” Right?
What happens is that they cannot see how to possibly come back to the center. Because here's the secret: they both are so, so firmly convinced that their way of being is the right way of being, and if only their partner was more like them, then, we would be so much happier. So the work here is not getting either of you to change.
It is not getting the perceiver to be more planning and think putting things in boxes, because, like, even if you did make plans cognitively, that's just not who you are. It isn't who you'll ever be. It's not you, right?
Then, on the other side, for the person who has that more of a judger orientation, you might want to go with the flow and be spontaneous and sort of be open-ended and flexible and see all the gray and the light and dark and all things, and naturally it is just it goes against your grain to be that way. Your brain doesn't work that way.
When you try to make your brain work that way, and it often creates a lot of anxiety and tension for you. It doesn't feel liberating. It doesn't feel relaxed. It feels stressful. We don't want to put you in a situation where you are stressed and unhappy either.
What can happen and here that is so, so beautiful is to be able to unpack these differences with your partner in a series of honest and authentic and emotionally safe and emotionally intimate conversations, where you're each able to make space for each other's truth without getting reactive; without getting triggered; and give each other time and space to be talking about what feels real and true for you.
It is difficult sometimes to get on your partner's side of the table and really view the world through their eyes. But so many magical things can happen in a relationship where you're able to do that. Couples who are able to successfully do this work together, are not going to change each other.
There may be some points of compromise, for example, to be able to say, “I know that my partner gets stressed when we don't have the summer camp thing all dialed in. It's March because they're worried about what are we going to be doing with the kids in July. Okay.” It may be that you have to participate in more of those conversations in advance than you would naturally want to, and that's a growth moment for you.
On the other side, there can certainly be opportunities for people that are hardcore Js to be able to be more spontaneous, to be flexible, to have open-ended plans, and experience the fact that it usually is okay, even if it turns out to be different than what you thought it was going to be. It's alright, you still had a nice time. That can be a really positive and important growth moment for you, too.
If you let your P partner take you by the hand into an uncertain reality and experience the fact that it all is okay, generally speaking, in the end, so those are both wonderful. But the real strength of these relationships is by allowing each other the opportunity to actualize these strengths in the partnership, and for the benefit of the partnership in a way that really helps both of you.
For example, sometimes people who have a strong J orientation can feel a lot of stress and anxiety. They feel like they have to have things settled. They need to have plans. They need to know what's happening. Things have to feel under control—”These are the right ways to do things.” If this isn't happening, and then that can feel very uncomfortable for them.
So where a P partner can really be so helpful to you, and really such a gift—such a gift—is the, I think, level of emotional connection that a P partner can offer you is different than you might have if you are partnered with somebody who was a lot more like you in that J end of the continuum.
Because the P person isn't going to try to fix you. They're not going to rush to solve the problems and say, “Okay. Here’s what we’re going to do instead.” That P will have a lot more tolerance for the emotional ambiguity, the shades of gray, the fact that you can have feelings that they're like, “Yeah, I can understand how you would feel that way. It’s different from how I feel, but I understand what you're saying.” Right?
Also, I think, to be able to—because Ps are usually much calmer in terms of that stress and anxiety level than the Js are. The other thing that happens in intimate relationships between two partners is also the same thing that you see happening with parents and very young children, is that we actually, believe it or not, borrow each other's nervous systems.
I know that sounds crazy, but when you are physically in proximity of somebody whose heart rate is lower than yours; who is relaxed physiologically; who's breathing slowly; that they're okay, you will automatically attune to their physiological state. That is just a biological process. It's not something that we make happen.
Why this can be so good for a J partner is that your natural tendency is to get really wound up and like, “Oh, This. This. This,” and like thinking all these things out to the future, and to be partnered with a J or P, rather, who's like, “It's alright. It's gonna be alright, and it doesn't actually matter. It's gonna be alright either way.”
Not only can hearing that, their inner voice, their inner narrative sometimes help calm you down, and get you out of that, like, need to the future orientation that can create so much anxiety. But even just physiologically, to be in the presence of somebody who's much more relaxed than you; are able to go with the flow, it kind of rubs off on you. It's a positive thing to move a little bit more towards the center.
Yes, you will still want to make plans. You will still want to make lists. You will still want to know what's happening. But to be partnered with a P and allowing them to have some influence in your life, and to help you calm down, we'll help you stay more in the center of flexibility. You'll be probably more emotionally okay as a result.
On the other side of this P person, I mean, it can be easy to get annoyed with the J trying to—chasing you around with a calendar, and “What are we going to do?” And wanting you to participate in decision-making and list-making and the doing of the things and all of that. Even though it is not your natural tendency, I think it would be difficult to argue with the idea that to have some of that kind of planning and thoughtfulness in your life is generally a positive thing.
Yes, it is good to be flexible and to be spontaneous and to see many options and to keep your mind open. Nobody is arguing with that. But when it comes to actually getting things done, at some point, somebody does need to make a decision, and then do something most of the time in order to actualize that good intention.
What can happen with P people who are just sort of living free, is that because you don't plan in advance, you actually can't go camping because you can't get a camping reservation. By the time you get around to signing your kids up for the summer camp, “Oh, they're actually all closed,” and now they're on a waiting list. You miss opportunities. If you don't make plans, you don't do things that you would have wanted to do, right?
Showing up at a place and being like, “Oh, if only I had thought to bring this piece of equipment,” or, “You know what, we could have done this thing.” To really allow your J partner to initiate conversations around, “What are we going to do?”—making plans, making decisions, talking through things, and to be able to evaluate pros and cons.
Even though it might not feel natural to you to say, “All things considered, this is probably the best direction for us.” You might be willing to stay in that middle space forever. But to practice being able to make a decision, and then turn that decision into a series of actions that lead to your desired outcome at some point in the future is a very positive and useful life skill.
That may not be totally natural; it may not be totally comfortable, but to be partnered with a J who wants to do that is going to help you come into the center, and your life will benefit for it. Some of these are conversations and things that you can do together and kind of allowing yourselves to be pulled towards the center by each other, right? Allowing influence from your partner.
But this can also be a really beautiful thing where you make space in your life for each person to almost have, like, spheres of responsibility that are in alignment with their core strengths. While a J partner might really want to have a series of discussions, where we talk about the pros and cons, what we're doing this summer, and making all the plans and like, “Okay, you do this, and I'm going to do that. We're going to stuff up the calendar,” like want to have unity in that area.
What may actually be true and more functional for a couple with a J and if P is for the J person to go ahead, and maybe the P can have some input to the degree that they're comfortable. But if it's also true that a P doesn't really have that strong of opinions around what they do or where they end up or where they do it. J you can go ahead and make those decisions for the both of you and tell your partner what time to show up and what to wear.
They'll be there, and it's all going to be alright. Yeah. To have that liberty, that freedom to go ahead and do the things that you want to do. If it is an understanding with your partner, that is kind of your superpower in this relationship, and if they're not participating actively in that with you, they are essentially giving consent for “Okay, I might end up in the middle of Nevada and all right.”
On the other side of this, I think that the P partner can really shine when it comes to dealing with unexpected things. A J person often kind of freezes or feels very anxious or can get very upset when things don't go according to plan. Where a P person shines is being able to show up in the moment no matter what's happening, and be able to deal with it without having to think about it in advance.
With being able to stay relatively calm, and usually in those moments, being able to make excellent decisions. Because they are able to act in the moment quickly without having to think about it for three days, right? Like, “Here's what we need to do, and I'm going to do it.” While the future planning and taking actions for future events aren't as natural or easy for Ps, they're incredibly flexible and effective and take fast action in the moment, and it is a gift.
For a J person to be able to really appreciate this innate wisdom and the ability to kind of just do things on the fly and have things work out with a P; to be partnered with a P can help you just withstand the ups and downs of life and not have to feel like you need to control everything in advance. Because, usually, you don't.
For the P person, for your domain of responsibility to be kind of the catcher for all the things that come up in the moment that maybe nobody anticipated, but that have to be dealt with, you can change on the fly. It's no big deal either way. If that's kind of your job in the relationship is the flexible person who does whatever needs to be done in the moment, “Oh, we have a flat tire. I'll take care of it.”
“Oh, the kids need to be picked up early. Oh, we're out of milk,” whatever it is, to have gratitude and appreciation for your ability to do that, and typically stay calm in the process. When that gift is recognized as the strength it is, is just so hugely important. I know, over the last couple of years, everything created—related, rather, I should say, to the whole COVID pandemic experience, it was awful. I mean, who's kidding for many of us.
But I tell you what, P people who had more of a P orientation and who are able to kind of “Welp, okay. I guess everything shut down, and we're gonna stay in our house for the next two months or whatever,” were typically able to stay much calmer and just kind of, like, ride the waves emotionally of who and what we needed to be in those moments.
Whereas people who had a real need to, like, know what was going to happen next and to have these things worked out had a ton of anxiety because so much of it was unknown. People who were in relationships, where they had a recognition and appreciation for their compatible strengths, their complementary strengths, and were able to kind of lean on each other, to bring that those strengths to the table in different ways, were the ones who really, really prospered and got through it.
Okay. You can do this, too. I hope that this discussion has helped you maybe think about some things in your relationship that you had been feeling annoyed about or even worried about. Like, “Are we really compatible?” to be able to think about these things in some different ways. I hope that you heard some things in here that maybe made you think about your partner's orientation a little bit differently, and maybe a little bit more compassionately.
I know that there are so many other points of potential conflict in a relationship besides the ones that I discussed today. Those points of conflict, if we kind of look at them, any of those things that people fight about are essentially a continuum. There is a polarization of one person is on this side, the other person is on that side—they want things to be their own way. That is why oftentimes, the conflict happens in the center is an effort to get somebody to change and be more like me.
But when you can really crack into these things under the surface, to understand who your partner is, what they're trying to do, the things that are important to them, more often than not, it really does make sense if you can stay calm and listen and appreciate the strengths and the values that your partner is sharing.
Conflict Resolution in Relationship Compatibility
I will say it can be difficult to do this if you have been in a gridlock situation where you're fighting about the right way to be for a while, and particularly if it's created a lot of negative emotions between you, there has been judgment or units turning into a negative story about who the other person is. It can be very easy to fall into an unproductive conflict that just disintegrates into who's right and who's wrong, right? We've all been there. I've done it too.
If you can't do that in your living room, that might be a really good opportunity to take this in front of a good couples counselor, marriage counselor, or I say this with a caveat, a relationship coach who has a legitimate background in couples and family therapy. Most don't, like most therapists.
But somebody who is able to essentially sit down with the both of you, and help hold the container, so that it is an emotionally safe conversation, you will not turn into fighting with each other about who's right and who's wrong.
A really skilled counselor, I have to say, their strength is being able to see the noble intentions of each person, and to be able to see the underlying needs and strengths of each person, and almost be able to decode or translate them for each other.
That when you're sitting with a really skilled couples counselor, they're essentially modeling for you how to understand your partner in a more compassionate, and honestly, more productive way. So it stops turning into a fight about introverts and extroverts, and, “I want to go out, and you never want to go out,” and whose way of being is better, into a much deeper and more helpful conversation that allows you to understand each other.
That gives you the opportunity to begin building bridges to the center, allowing yourselves each to take influence and grow and benefit because of that growth, but also making space for your partner to be more of what they are, as opposed to less of what they are—finding opportunities in your shared life together to unleash their superpowers on certain domains of your shared life for the benefit of both of you and for your family.
This may be a different conversation than the one that you were expecting when you first signed up to listen to a podcast about personality type compatibility in relationships. But I think it is the real one. I think that it's—to me, it's also a much more hopeful one, right?
Because if we move away from this idea that certain personality types are just compatible and some aren't, it gives you a lot more opportunity for movement and for relationship repair than just deciding that you're too far apart. For two people who are both willing to grow and evolve and move towards the center and appreciate different strengths, there's always opportunity for growth and healing. I hope that message resonated.
Thank you so much for spending this time with me today on the podcast. It's always a pleasure to visit with you and I will be back in touch with you next week with more love, happiness and success advice in your ear. In the meantime, please enjoy more Night Beats — nightbeats.bandcamp.com. I hope you check out their music, and spend the rest of your day listening to it. That is what I'm going to be doing. I'll see you guys next time.
Most of the couples who see me for marriage counseling or couples therapy are not in the middle of an acute relationship crisis. They are not lobbing vicious words around the dinner table. No one is sleeping with their boss, or gambling away the kids’ college fund at the casino.
More often, when couples land on my couch, it’s because nothing is happening between them. Over the years, their relationship’s life force has dripped away, so gradually that they didn’t notice it happening. They’re in each other’s presence day after day, but they feel alone, and they don’t know what to do about it.
Feeling lonely in a marriage or a long-term relationship is more common than you might expect. And it’s not an indication that you chose the wrong partner, or that some supernatural “spark” has gone out and can’t ever be reignited. It’s simply what happens to everything we create, without proactive intervention: dust settles on the shelf, weeds overtake the garden, and our strong connections to each other slowly wither away.
The good news is, you do have the power to intervene, and on this episode of the podcast, I’m going to tell you how. You’ll learn all about what makes a relationship feel lonely, and how you can close the gap between yourself and your partner and create a closer, more satisfying connection.
Feeling Lonely in a Relationship: Episode Highlights
Loneliness happens when we don’t have as much felt love and connection as we would like to have. It’s a pain signal that our brains emit, letting us know that we have emotional needs that are not being met. When we’re feeling lonely in a relationship, it doesn’t mean we’re with the wrong person, or that our relationship has died and can’t be revived. It simply means we need to find a way to connect more deeply with our partner.
Reasons for Being Lonely in a Relationship
Most often, feeling lonely in a relationship is a sign that you and your partner are not having a real emotional exchange. You might be having daily conversations about relatively superficial topics, but rarely sharing your deeper feelings with each other.
It’s the difference between informing your partner that you’re starting a new project at work, and sharing with them that you’re feeling worried about performing well on the project, and about what could happen if you don’t. When you’re open about your feelings, your partner has an opportunity to see you, validate you, and offer support, helping you feel more connected and less alone.
When you aren’t having a real emotional exchange with your partner, you feel unheard and unseen. And since your partner is the person you’re counting on more than anyone else to see you and hear you, going without that emotional intimacy will leave you feeling incredibly lonely.
Another possible culprit behind lonely relationships? Speaking a different love language than your partner.
If you feel close and connected when you’re having intimate conversations, and they feel close and connected when you’re doing fun activities together, a relationship that’s full of camping trips and motorcycle excursions, but devoid of deeper conversations, will probably leave you feeling lonely, while your partner feels great. When you broach the topic, they might respond by saying something like, “What do you mean you’re feeling lonely? We had so much fun together this weekend!” You’re simply speaking different love languages.
Finally, feeling lonely in a relationship can mean that there’s a conflict you’ve been unable to resolve, or sources of pain between you that have not been fully addressed. Once you get to the point of disconnection, you’re not constantly fighting with your partner — you probably long ago “agreed to disagree” — but by blocking out the conflict, you’ve also blocked out emotional intimacy and all the joy, love, and connection that comes with it.
Relationships with untreated wounds are more than hollow, they have something painful sitting in their center. Having productive, healing conversations can help you and your partner dislodge it once and for all.
How to Stop Feeling Sad and Lonely in a Relationship
Many couples think that the antidote to disconnection is spending more time together. When they plan elaborate date nights hoping it will bring them closer together, only to sit across from each other chewing in awkward silence and feeling worse than before, they believe they’ve tried everything. Too often, divorce is the next step.
This is a mistake. There is a path to changing a lonely relationship, and it’s restoring emotional intimacy between yourself and your partner, not simply “spending time” together. This requires being vulnerable and authentic about how you’re feeling, and that doesn’t necessarily happen just because you’re physically together.
Restoring Emotional Intimacy
When you’re falling in love, a flood of dopamine and oxytocin make bonding easy. But those feel-good chemicals don’t keep flooding your system forever. To maintain an emotional connection for years, you and your partner have to intentionally cultivate emotional intimacy.
This does not happen automatically; it’s something all couples have to work at. Every long-term couple has periods where they’re feeling less connected, and they need to find their way back together. If they haven’t developed the skills to keep their relationship healthy, things get increasingly disconnected until the relationship feels hollow and lonely.
Start here: What conversation are you avoiding? You might be avoiding an emotionally charged conflict because you’re afraid of damaging the relationship, but not having the conflict has created a block to connection. You might be afraid to express how you’re feeling, because you risk being rejected, dismissed, or invalidated.
At the very least, you and your partner have your feelings of loneliness to discuss. Start by telling them how you’re feeling. Tell them you miss them, that you’re feeling lonely, and that you are longing to feel closer. This can be scary, but if the conversation doesn’t go well the first time, keep trying. This is where working with a marriage counselor can be incredibly helpful.
Often, when we’re feeling hurt or sad, we express those feelings as anger or resentment, because it’s less scary than showing our soft underbelly and risking a painful rejection. You might be having weird little fights about petty stuff, while dancing around the true problems: feelings of emotional abandonment, and the uneasiness that comes with having an attachment bond that you’re not confident is secure.
If you can resist the urge to lead with anger or criticism, which will only provoke defensiveness and anger from your partner, you can have a productive conversation rather than another fight. Tell them how you’ve been feeling, and ask them how they’ve been feeling about your relationship. Then it will be your turn to practice listening non-defensively.
The Risks of a Lonely Relationship
A lonely relationship is not a weird or uncommon occurrence, but it is something you need to address sooner rather than later. Not only because you deserve to have the closeness and connection that every human needs, but because, if you allow this to drift, the disconnection will only get worse, and reconnecting with your partner will only be more difficult.
When people aren’t getting their emotional needs met in their relationships, they’re vulnerable to turning to emotional affairs to meet those needs. They may try to alleviate their loneliness by striking up a Facebook affair, or developing a crush on somebody else. These relationships can easily snowball into full-blown sexual affairs that make salvaging your relationship a thousand times more difficult.
Even couples in healthy relationships have fluctuations in their connections.
Especially in long-term relationships, couples drift apart and then have to find their way back to each other.
Feeling lonely in a can happen even when couples are physically together.
[8:52] Why You Feel Lonely in a Relationship
Loneliness in a relationship stems from a lack of deep, meaningful connection.
This lonely feeling can also be due to differences in love languages.
It's important to understand that what you're feeling is not necessarily the same as what your partner is feeling — people have different needs.
[11:51] What to Do When You're Lonely in a Relationship
Have conversations with your partner where you're both vulnerable and authentic to restore the emotional connection and intimacy.
Restoring this connection doesn't mean spending more time together. Rather, it is putting energy into connecting on a deeper level.
If your partner opens up to you, don't be defensive and dismissive of their side.
[21:06] When You Are Lonely in a Marriage
If discussions with your partner about loneliness turn into arguments, seek help from a couples counselor specializing in marriage and family therapy.
A qualified therapist can help create a safe space for you and your partner to discuss matters and guide you toward conflict resolution.
It's better to acknowledge problems in your marriage rather than to minimize or downplay them. Remember that issues are common in any relationship, but they need to be resolved.
[35:30] Lonely Marriages and Relationships: Conflict Resolution
Buried trauma should be resolved so that it does not resurface in your current relationship.
Avoiding conflict is only a short-term solution. In the end, the problems in your relationship are still there.
If you're fighting and going around in circles with your partner, get professional help. A marriage and family therapist will assist you through difficult times.
Music in this episode is by Idealism with their song “Lonely.”
You can support them and their work by visiting their Bandcamp page here: https://idealismus.bandcamp.com/. Under the circumstance of use of music, each portion of used music within this current episode fits under Section 107 of the Copyright Act, i.e., Fair Use. Please refer to copyright.gov if further questions are prompted.
Lisa Marie Bobby: This is Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby, and you're listening to the Love, Happiness, and Success podcast. Uh-oh. Yeah, we're talking today about loneliness in relationships, and how difficult it can feel if you are with someone that is absent, and you're both kind of floating around wanting more. It's a difficult place to be in, but we're going to tackle it together on today's podcast.
Our intro music today, I think, is a perfect mood setter for our topic. This is the song Lonely by Idealism. Thanks to Chillhop Music. You can check it out, Chillhop—find them on Bandcamp.
All right, so let's turn to our topic today about lonely marriages or lonely relationships, why they happen, and most importantly, what to do to restore the connection in your relationship if you're in one. If this is your first time listening to the show, I'm so glad you're here and that you've found us.
I am Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby. I'm the founder and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling & Coaching. I'm a licensed psychologist; I'm a licensed marriage and family therapist; I'm a board-certified coach. But truly, I love working with people around healthy relationships the most. Of all three of those qualifications, I most identify as being a marriage and family therapist, and I'll tell you why.
Our ability to have healthy, secure, positive relationships is just so vital to our lives. I know it is for me personally, for other people I know, certainly for my clients. I also get so many questions from you, my listeners, related to your relationships. Thank you so much, by the way, if you've gotten in touch with me lately on Instagram, @drlisamariebobby, or through our website growingself.com, with your relationship questions.
Lately, many of them have been centering around this topic of lonely marriages and just how painful it is. I just wanted to acknowledge this and how real it is. I mean, so many of the couples that I've worked with throughout the years for couples counseling, that is, at the core, one of the biggest things that drives people into marriage counseling or couples therapy in the first place. It's not screaming, drag-out fights, or some dramatic betrayals of trust—it is this sense of being alone and disconnected in a relationship with your partner.
Like they're there, you're sitting next to them on a couch. But there is not an emotional connection; that’s one you can feel and that is just so fundamentally painful. My hope with today's show is to just help you understand what might be going on, and to offer some ideas for how to potentially resolve this with or without professional support. But first of all, I did want to validate how common this is, and that if you're feeling this way, it is not just you.
Being Lonely in a Relationship
I will also say that even in fundamentally healthy, strong, enduring relationships, there can be an ebb and flow in feelings of connection, right? It's not a straight line. We drift apart. We find ways back towards each other again, over and over again, through a long-term relationship. Just because you're having this experience does not mean your relationship is doomed. Just know that, but it also does need to be resolved, right? I mean, we don't want to stay here.
I think it's also, too, important to address the concept of loneliness, because I think sometimes that word conveys, like, being alone, literally, in our minds. It's not the same thing as social isolation, you know? So, social isolation could be literally alone, like an elderly person who lives alone, and does not have anybody there, doesn't have visitors—could go for weeks or longer without talking to somebody. Single people can sometimes have this experience.
There's a Japanese term, apparently it's becoming an issue in Japan, called hikikomori, where young people completely withdraw from society and become reclusive. They don't talk to anybody, and that is being alone. Being alone is not the same thing as feeling lonely. Feeling lonely—loneliness—can happen even when we aren't literally isolated. It can happen when you're talking to people all day long; it can happen in your friendships; and it can also certainly happen within a relationship.
It can look like a lot of different things. That hypothetical couple, sitting in a restaurant, just sort of chewing your food and not talking about anything. But also not a comfortable silence, because that's different. We can also have comfortable silences. It could also look like just going about life, sitting in the same room night after night, not talking, just kind of watching a program or doing life stuff, taking care of kids, going through the motions, right? Sitting next to each other in bed and sort of flipping through your phones night after night.
But it can even just look like never scratching the surface. I think some people can routinely be talking to their partner about things: schedules for your week, “What are we doing this summer?” But it never kind of gets down to that deeper level where emotional connection happens. Even if you're living with people, you're talking with them, you are interacting, you can still feel very lonely on an attachment kind of core level.
When you're in a relationship that leaves you feeling lonely, and it's felt that way for a while, it can be really hard to know how to fix it, and how to try to get that closeness that you want. I also just want to validate for you the fact that feeling like you need it, like you need connection, you're not wrong, you do actually need it. We know from scientific research, if you want to get all official, that loneliness is bad for you. Like, there are consequences to physical health, mental health, if you experience chronic loneliness.
But also, it is a foundational need of humans to have positive connections to others. If it feels like your connection, particularly with your most important person, is, like, hollow in the center, your really wanting that to be different is not a statement about you. I think we have a myth in our culture that we need to be happy by ourselves. If we love ourselves, we won't need things from other people. This western ideal of independence is very much a myth.
As I've said many times in this podcast, people are born to bond. We need connections with others in order to be well. The fact that you are missing closeness, that you are aware of the deficit, that you're longing for more closeness and connection would tell me that you are a normally functioning healthy human who is experiencing, essentially, a pain signal.
Like your stomach rumbles when you're hungry or like it's too hot in here, so you take off your sweater. Those are physiological and, to a degree, emotional cues that you're supposed to listen to. You're supposed to listen to this one too. If you're feeling lonely in an uncomfortable way, that is a sign that it's time to try to fix it and find a way to move closer again.
Why You Feel Lonely in a Relationship
The experience of a lonely relationship is common. The core, the reason why it happens is when we don't have as much felt love and connection as we would like to have. While you can certainly feel this way while you're spending time with your spouse, it's often an indication that you don't feel seen or heard on a deep level—that you feel that there is a lack of exchange on an emotional level or on a meaningful level.
It can also be related to even, like love languages. If you are in a relationship with somebody who, for them, the pinnacle of connection is running around doing fun things together, doing activities, and you are going on vacations, and going to the vintage coin collectors show, and going to the farmers’ market, and have plans every weekend. They might feel vibrantly happy because you and they in their mind are doing the things and having a fantastic relationship that is exactly what they want it to be.
If you are someone, for him, your love language is related to deep, intense conversations about intimate and personal things. And in all of the farmers’ markets and social nights and happy hours and camping trips, you're not doing that with them. You're going to have a very different experience of connection in that relationship than your partner will. You are going to feel like, disconnected, alone—a lack of intimacy that is very real for you, and that should be understood and respected.
But it is important to understand that it can feel different—just because—what I'm trying to say is that just because you are feeling lonely in your relationship does not mean that your partner is also feeling lonely in a relationship. They could be just fine. When you try to talk about your feelings, they could legitimately and honestly say, “What are you talking about? What? We did all these fun things. We're doing this next week.”
It's just important to know that, and the reason why I want to bring this up, and we're going to be talking about more, related to this is that when people feel lonely, it is a subjective experience that is very much based on their expectations for what should be happening in a relationship—their love languages. People have different needs for closeness and connection. It shows up in many different ways.
What to Do When You're Lonely in a Relationship
While it can look very different, the path to changing this is to restore emotional intimacy, which means a scary thing. It means needing to be vulnerable and authentic in order to restore connection.
Sometimes when I go in this direction, it surprises people because, I think, sometimes people expect to hear that you should be spending more time together, you should be doing mutually enjoyable activities together, or maybe it means you are fundamentally incompatible, you're never going to get your needs met in this relationship, and maybe whatever. I don't think that either of those things are true.
What tends to happen in relationships, particularly when people are together for a long time, is that it's just really easy to go on autopilot. A lot of time can go by where we're not really thinking that much about it. We fall into habits, we fall into patterns, we fall into routines.
If we're not intentionally putting energy back into our relationships in order to maintain and cultivate emotional connection and emotional intimacy with our partner, those things will always atrophy over time.
Like, okay, let's see here. What is one of the laws of thermodynamics? Things fall apart—the entropy, whatever that is. Relationships are very much the same. It doesn't mean that there's something fundamentally wrong because it's happening. It happens to every relationship. If you don't put energy in, things fall apart.
What will also happen—and here's the hard part—when we are experiencing loneliness in a relationship, it means, kind of by definition, that we have gotten out of the habit of connecting on a deep level with our partner. We're not having the conversations that we should be having, and nothing is happening as a result, right? In order to change the situation, it requires you to notice what's happening in the absence of that connection.
Take a chance. Take a risk of being vulnerable, authentic, and courageous, and rocking that damn boat and saying to your partner, “I feel lonely, and I feel disconnected. Here's why,” in a non-accusatory way, by the way. But the reason why this is so hard is because in lonely relationships, nothing is happening, and so nothing is wrong a lot of times.
They're calm. They're quiet. Nothing bad is happening. It is not dramatic. It's just like you're sort of slowly starving to death emotionally. Many times, this is actually perpetuated by rationalizing away your feelings, “Oh, don't make a big deal out of it. It's just going to cause a fight.”
Truly, avoidance of what feels like an emotionally charged, potentially dangerous conversation where you open up about how you're feeling in a vulnerable way and risk saying, “I miss you. I want more of you. I miss what we used to have together. I feel lonely. I like talking to you, and I want to talk to you more. Like, are you still there? Do you still care about me?” in a vulnerable way.
It's very scary. It's very hard to do that. Because when you do, you risk getting into a conflict, but also you risk rejection, right? If you say, “I miss you. I'm lonely. I need you,” and he’s like, “What are you talking about? It's fine.” That is wounding, isn't it? You’re like, “Okay, I'm just going to go back into my box, and we're not going to talk about this again.”
There is the risk, especially going back to that first idea. Like, if you're having a different experience in your relationship with your partner, and you broach the loneliness conversation, and they see things differently, it's very easy to take that as feeling minimized, invalidated, shut down—confirmation of the fact that they don't care and you are emotionally abandoned in this relationship.
It's easy in that moment to give up and to say to yourself, “I tried. I tried talking about it, and they shut me down. They told me I was wrong. I am truly alone.” Like, kind of spin out into this narrative. Nobody would fault you for doing that because that was your experience in that conversation. So that's risk number one. We feel like we're trying to connect, and then we have the experience of being rejected, and then we give up.
When you do that, and it turns into, “I will always be lonely in this relationship. There is nothing here for me. You can't get blood from a stone.” That's where—next stop is the divorce lawyers' office if we keep going down that trajectory. Be very careful of what you're telling yourself and notice what is happening in your mind.
The other risk for broaching these topics and creating more emotional connection in your relationship is that it is very scary to be vulnerable in a relationship. Like, that door number one scenario that we were just talking about. It's much safer and more common, honestly, to be angry in a relationship. Like, if you have been feeling unloved, and uncared for and emotionally lonely in your relationship for a long time, it is likely that you are feeling resentful of your partner.
When we are feeling resentful of our partners, it's also very easy to get annoyed by them and all the things that they're doing or not doing. When we do broach the topic of feeling lonely in a relationship, it can often happen in the context of having lots of little skirmishes or weird fights about bacon, or what day the laundry should be washed on. “You said this,” “No, I didn't.”
I mean, like, when couples start to have weird little fights about weird little things. It is because there is an emotional disconnection at the core of it. I don't know if you caught a recent podcast episode about attachment styles in relationships—is when there is kind of sniping and aggression or withdrawal in relationships, it is often a function of feeling that the attachment is unstable.
If you have been feeling lonely in your relationship, your attachment is no longer stable, and so that's likely been coming out in a variety of ways, right? When we have the conversation about feeling lonely, usually the person who initiates that conversation is feeling upset about it. It's very, very easy and common for that conversation to be very sincere and heartfelt and well-intentioned but to sound like criticism and accusations to the ear of the listener.
Somebody who has been feeling lonely say, “We never do anything. You never talk to me. You don't ask me questions about my day. Let me tell you about all the things you're doing wrong, and why that is making me feel lonely in this relationship,” which will very predictably elicit feelings of defensiveness, “No, I'm not. That didn't happen.” All of a sudden, you're having a fight about what is or is not happening.
So it's not a vulnerable moment where you're making a courageous bid for connection. It is now an actual argument that is also reinforcing this fundamental idea that you are lonely in this relationship, and that it is impossible to talk to your partner, and even when you try, they don't understand anyway. It's really hard to have a productive conversation about feeling lonely in a relationship, I'm not going to lie.
When You Are Lonely in a Marriage
That, I think, is one of the reasons why couples, so often and wisely so, by the way, come to marriage counseling for help with this, is because there are so many weird little, like, emotional and psychological things that can happen in the space in between two people. When there has been emotional disconnection and one person is trying to reconnect, it is vulnerable, there are a lot of emotions there, and it can very easily go sideways.
One of the biggest benefits of working with a couples counselor is that they can prevent you from having a fight in the room and instead help you have a productive conversation where you can say how you're really feeling and what it's really about. So in that vulnerable way, and where the other person is assisted in receiving that information in the way it was intended, and not react in a way that creates a fight.
There are, of course, many other things that good couples counselors do besides supervising couples to play nicely together. But that is one of the most important parts of having a third person in the room: is to facilitate the conversation in such a way that you're talking about the important things without having weird emotional reactions to each other. That when you're out in the wild together, it disintegrates. It just turns into an argument that perpetuates loneliness.
I am not saying this as an infomercial for couples counseling. You can absolutely have a conversation about this on your own, but be very careful that you are addressing this in a courageously vulnerable way. Try to create a lot of emotional safety for your partner when you bring this up, so that reduces the chance that they'll get really defensive and reactive. Also, make space for the fact that your partner may legitimately be experiencing this differently than you are.
So that if they are, like, “What do you mean?” You don't interpret that as invalidation because that might not be what's happening. They might be sincerely surprised that you are experiencing the relationship this way. With those tips, try to talk about it with your partner. If it is consistently not going well, that would be a sign to call a good couples counselor for support. This is because if we just let it go—the easiest thing to do is always to not do something, right?
It takes so much courage to make it a big deal. Like, “No. We need to do something here.” It's much easier to just sort of, like, let it drift, “It's fine. It's not a big deal. I kind of like the show, too. It doesn't matter,” right? When we rationalize that to ourselves for too long, and it goes, couples can drift very, very, very far apart. When that happens, first of all, it's harder to reconnect the longer it goes, right, and weird things can also happen when people are too disconnected for too long.
Again, some of it is just normal long-term relationship stuff. There is ebbs and flows in every relationship, and you will always go through periods with your partner where you feel more connected to them than others. Sometimes, if you are in one of those spaces where you're feeling alone, you want emotional connection, it feels like you've been trying to connect with your partner and they're just not getting it, or maybe you have a good conversation, but nothing is changing. It just sort of goes back to the way it was.
It can create vulnerability to becoming attached or emotionally involved with somebody besides your partner. We haven't talked about emotional affairs in a while on the show, but it is related to the topic of lonely marriages, right? To think about being in this space and feels like you can't talk to your partner. You have stuff going on in your life that you want to share, and you want to connect around and for whatever reason, it's not happening in your relationship.
It can, understandably, feel like a breath of fresh air if you connect with somebody who is interested in what you have to say, who is excited about the same things that you are, it feels like there's a joining energetically—maybe you're into the same stuff or same activities that your partner doesn't seem to understand. It can be very easy to get seduced in some way—not in a sexual seduction sense.
Although if you have listened to my podcast episode of married with a crush, you will understand that having that emotional connection is not infrequently the on-ramp to a more serious, like, a sexual affair. It always starts with a friendship, right? Or an infatuation. That's just one thing to be aware of.
if you begin sort of comparing your partner to somebody else in your mind, or thinking about how you really enjoy your interactions with “Joe in Accounting” so much more than you do your partner—it's not anything bad about you. Nothing to be ashamed of, but it is important to recognize that that is happening. It can also be a sign that there is a significant disconnection in your relationship that really does need to be addressed.
It would be a mistake to downplay it or not take these things seriously. It's easier to do in the moment, but that is also how real problems happen in a relationship when people have been minimizing or downplaying things for a while or not being fully conscious of the things that they're doing in their relationship.
To be lonely in a marriage is very common and normal and needs to be resolved. The path to connection is by extending yourself to connect. I once had an interesting conversation with somebody, and you may be aware, there's a lot of really trite advice that comes from, typically, a couple's—or I should say—therapists who are providing couples counseling but do not have specialized training and education in marriage and family therapy.
One of the things they'll often do is tell couples to go on a date night. So a couple will come in and say, so predictably, “We're feeling disconnected and lonely. We want to find our way back to each other.” So a therapist who does not specialize in couples and family therapy will say, “Great. Go on a date night. That's your homework assignment.”
The couple will dutifully go on the date night and not realize that just because you are spending time with somebody does not mean that you're going to connect on an emotionally meaningful level. In fact, many a date night has been spent in awkward silence with each person wishing something different would be happening than what it is, but neither feeling brave enough to either broach that vulnerably. If anything, it often comes out sideways in snippy comments, right?
That turns into a fight, and they go, “That date sucked. I'm never doing that again,” right? Again, very important not to look for Band-Aid solutions if you're feeling lonely in a relationship. A much more reliably effective way to handle this is to see if you can have an open authentic relationship with your partner and talk about not just how you're feeling but ask them how they are feeling.
Could go one of two ways. They could be like, “What? We're doing this tennis tournament, and we went shopping for whatever. It was great. I love you so much.” That could happen, or you may also have the experience where they tell you, “I've been feeling kind of bored and lonely, too. Let me tell you why.” If your partner is brave enough to go there, then it will be your turn to figure out how to listen to that non-defensively without saying, “No, I didn't,” right?
Just to be open to hearing their thoughts and feelings. Ideally, it can turn into a really nice conversation about things like love languages. I did another podcast on the topic of love languages, if that's helpful for you guys to listen to together, because we feel connected in different ways, and those are important to understand. It could also turn into conversations about practical aspects of your relationship and routines and habits.
Now, this is going to sound like trite advice, I will assure you it's not. It is trite to tell people to go on date nights, whatever. But when it comes to, like, lifestyles and routines, particularly couples who have crossed the threshold into parenthood and have demands of family and jobs and stuff, and are managing a lot of different things, it can become so easy to prioritize other stuff besides a relationship.
It's really important every once in a while to just reassess our routines. What are we doing together as a couple and as a family that prioritizes our needs for authentic connection with each other, as well as with our kids, as well as with our friends? For some couples, it could be establishing a weekly date night or weekly lunch. It could be a new family routine of going for a walk after dinner or having opportunities to connect. It is often—it looks different for every family.
It is a mistake to think that the routine itself, so the habit of spending more time doing something together, is not going to resolve this unless it is coupled with emotionally meaningful activities for one or both partners at the same time. That's where it ties into love languages. If your way of connecting is through deep, emotionally, intimate conversations, whatever routine you build into your life has to include that.
It doesn't have to be a date night at a fancy restaurant. It could be going on a walk and just having a conversation. For other people, it's sexuality—the emotional intimacy is really strongly correlated with physical intimacy. Even if you're talking all day about feelings, it is not really going to change things for you without that physical component. Being aware of specifically what that connection experience is for you and your partner is vital.
If you find out that one of the ways of emotional connection that is super meaningful for one or both of you, but not both of you—I should say that. Wait, back up—the emotional connection through conversation is important. Well, no, actually, that's true for one or both of you, but that is not always easy to do.
There are actually some training wheels to help this be more successful and easier. There are conversation topics. There are card decks. There are 100 questions for couples is an awesome article that I will link to in this podcast post. The Gottmans of the Gottman Research Institute put out an app that actually has open-ended questions for couples, so that you can, like, take turns asking each other questions that elicit authentic conversations about things that you wouldn't ordinarily think to talk about.
That is, for many couples, the on-ramp to connection, so it's not just the time, it's the conversation. Now, it will also be remiss of me not to talk about another important thing that can and does create lonely relationships and also perpetuates lonely relationships. That is more than the drift that always happens, and it is also more than the miscommunication and rupture that happens when people try to address loneliness. Loneliness in relationships can also be a function of having unresolved perpetual problems that are painful and that feel impossible to resolve, but that are real.
Lonely Marriages and Relationships: Conflict Resolution
Conflict in relationships can be difficult to resolve effectively. It's also true that in every couple, there are what we call unresolvable problems. They're just differences in personality, of values, of ways of doing things, or core beliefs that are not resolvable and are also completely okay. We do not have to resolve them in order to have a positive relationship with somebody.
But when there are sources of pain or hurt in a relationship that did not get addressed, or resolved well enough, even if it was finding a way to appreciate and tolerate each other anyway, and really, genuinely move on from it emotionally.
Having unresolved conflict in a relationship can kind of be like that grain of sand in an oyster, right? The original conflict was a grain of sand, and if it wasn't resolved, it starts to become calcified, like it builds up over time. We don't talk about it. We're not doing anything about it. It's still there, and now we're kind of avoiding it.
By proxy, avoiding each other in order to maintain the stability of our relationship because if we did have a serious conversation and try to attain emotional intimacy, whatever that was would come up. It is painful. It feels dangerous. Like on the map, there'd be dragons, we're not going to talk about that. We're not going to talk about anything as a kind of protective mechanism for the relationship.
It sounds weird to think about protecting a relationship by avoiding emotional intimacy. But, people can do a lot and go a long time just going through the motions. We can take care of the kids, we can go to work, we can make nutritious meals, we can have a house, we can have a social life, and we can do all the things. But in the core between us, it is not just hollow, there is a black pearl sitting in the center that is keeping us apart.
Because if we did go there and try to tackle that thing, it might turn into a really dangerous-feeling fight for us. It may feel painful. We do not know how to resolve this conflict. We've tried. We've had 27 fights about it, and none of them have ended well, so let's just agree to disagree. Keep on our own respective sides of the bed and the couch and the dining room table.
Pros and cons, right? You're not having the fight, but you're also having a lot of disconnection. If anything that I am saying right now feels true for you, that would also be an indication that it is really time to get professional help—to get an experienced marriage and family therapist who can help you come together.
All three of you will look at that pearl together, whatever it is, and be able to have emotionally safe and productive conversations that will help you unearth those old, old layers of whatever happened, and be able to have productive healing conversations with each other that do really heal it for once and for all.
Not only will that old conflict or old trauma or old wound be resolved—when it is resolved, it will also make it safe again to reconnect emotionally in the present moment and be emotionally vulnerable with each other, be authentic with each other, tell each other how you're feeling and what's going on. You will have had the opportunity to practice having emotionally safe conversations, so you'll be better able to do it.
But also, there isn't like that old abscess, that old infected thing that if we get down to two or three layers out, there it is again, right? It'll just be emotionally safer to stay connected. I think it was Brené Brown—all fonts of wisdom and good things go back to Brené Brown sooner or later, don't they?
But she has some kind of saying where when we numb ourselves to pain, we also numb ourselves to joy at the same time, unintentionally. The same thing happens in relationships. When we are avoiding things to prevent conflict or unpleasantness in a relationship, we're also blocking ourselves to emotional connection with our partner, and authentic joy, and love. We have to keep it all away. You can't choose one.
Anyway, I hope that those ideas are helpful. Main takeaways. Emotional disconnection and loneliness in marriage is common. It goes in ebbs and flows. If it happens, just say, “Oh, time to reconnect.” That reconnection can happen through authentic and vulnerable conversation with your partner where you tell them how you feel, ask how they're feeling, and stay in the ring emotionally with each other to have a productive conversation that ideally will lead to changes.
Sometimes those changes are based on love languages and doing more of what each of you feels like they need to feel loved and connected. If you cannot do this, and if it turns into a fight that leads to just increased disconnection or sort of reinforces disconnection, that would be one sign to get help.
Another thing to know is that in a space of disconnection, you can be vulnerable to connecting with other people outside of your relationship. If that happens, just notice it and stop that. Cut it right off and come back to center. Focus on reconnecting with your partner. Get help if you need to.
Then, thirdly, emotional disconnection can be a function of unresolved conflict. In order to stop feeling lonely in the here and now, we’re going to have to go back into the past and heal whatever hurt happened however long ago in order to reconnect emotionally with your partner in the present.
I really hope that those ideas are helpful and useful to you. I'll be interested to hear how things go. If you want to try this at home with your partner, resources we talked about were the attachment podcast, attachment styles in relationships. We also talked about the love language quiz. We also talked about married with a crush—that podcast if you think that might be happening.
Then also, I did a few podcasts, just communication techniques. Let's see what would be the best ones for you. Emotional safety in relationships is a really good one, because you're going to have to have a lot of emotional safety in this conversation in order for it to be productive. We also talked about feeling, oh, invalidated. You might want to check out that podcast as well if that is what is happening.
Then, outside resources, check out the Gottman Card Deck for conversation starters and 100 conversation starters, no, 100 questions for couples—the article that I referenced. All will be available for you as links on the post for this podcast on growingself.com/lonelymarriages. It is all there for you. I hope you take advantage of it, and thank you so much for spending this time with me today. This was a good talk, and I will be back in touch with you next time with more love, happiness and success.
We all like to feel in control. When we believe we have the power to shape our own future, we feel motivated to work toward our goals. When we believe that doing everything “right” will prevent bad things from happening to us, or to the people we love, we feel safe.
But, as I’ve told countless therapy and coaching clients, there are many things in life we cannot control, and one of those things is other people. Other people are absolute wild cards, and accepting that is a prerequisite to having a healthy relationship.
Every time we relate to another person, we begin a negotiation, making tradeoffs between their needs, rights, and preferences, and our own. Many of us can dance this dance beautifully, with only the occasional misstep. But some of us cannot. Some people haven’t come around to the idea that they aren’t in control of what others will do. When you’re trying to dance with them, things can get uncomfortable. Fast.
That’s why I created this episode of the podcast for you. It will help you understand where controlling behavior comes from, why it feels so irritating, and how you can deal with a controlling person in a compassionate, assertive way.
When you’re having a relationship with a controlling person, every interaction can feel loaded with meaning — and not in a good way.
Here’s an example: Imagine you have a friend who insists on choosing the restaurant every time you get dinner. It doesn’t matter if you suggest Thai or tacos or pizza — there’s always some reason your choice won’t work.
At first you’re fine with it, but as time goes on, you notice this dynamic creeping into other areas of your friendship, too. When you criticize a movie, they try to change your mind. When you tell them you’re too tired to meet up after work, they bargain with you until you give in.
With each new incident, your internal emotional reaction grows a little stronger. You might feel embarrassed about not standing up for yourself. You might feel angry about being in a position where you feel like you have to stand up for yourself. You might wonder if you’re being too sensitive, considering how little is at stake each time you don’t “get your way.”
If you’ve had an experience like this, with a romantic partner, a friend, a difficult parent, or a coworker, first some validation: There’s nothing abnormal or overblown about how you’re feeling. You’re picking up on the reality that these power struggles are about more than whether you’re eating at the sushi place or the burrito place. They’re about the tension between one person who needs to be in control, and another person who needs to feel like their needs, rights, and preferences matter in the relationship.
Controlling behavior creates conflict, whether it’s addressed openly or left to simmer under the surface. But understanding what’s driving the need for control can help you turn conflict into connection, and respond to the control freak in your life in a way that’s compassionate, productive, and fair to you.
Signs of Control Issues
Controlling behavior exists on a spectrum, from the mildly irksome to the downright abusive.
Here are some signs that control issues might be at play in a relationship:
Having rigid ideas about the “right way” to do things.
Keeping score, or alluding to you “owing them” after they do you a favor.
Before we go any further, let’s note that extremely controlling behavior is a core feature of abusive relationships. This could look like excessive jealousy, threats, accusations, attempts to isolate the other person from their family or friends, harming them physically or emotionally, threatening them, ruining their belongings, controlling their finances, or interfering with their attempts to leave. If you’re experiencing a relationship like this, it’s important that you protect yourself. Visit thehotline.org for a list of free resources that can help.
With that out of the way, let’s build some understanding for the annoying-but-harmless control freaks among us…(or within).
Why Do People Try to Control Others?
Control is almost always about anxiety, and that person’s efforts to manage their anxiety through control — over themselves, over their environment, and over others. When someone is being controlling toward you, chances are they’re feeling anxious, and they have a story playing in their mind about all the terrible things that might happen if they don’t take charge of the situation.
For example, one person in a relationship might be afraid of being abandoned by their partner, either because of past trauma, an anxious attachment style, or, often, both. They may be hypervigilant about where their partner is going and who they’re with, or they might demand a lot of reassurance from their partner, thinking it will make them feel more secure (it won’t). All of this can feel pretty controlling, and it can ultimately lead to the “abandonment” the anxious person fears, if they can’t learn to trust their significant other and soothe their own anxieties.
Other people have codependent tendencies and spend a lot of time trying to fix, manage, or “help” their partner, out of a fear that, if they don’t, their partner (and the relationship) will fall apart. This can get pretty controlling, and can lead to a lot of conflict and frustration for both partners.
Other people simply have generalized anxiety disorder, and their constant worrying about all the things that could go wrong keeps them fixated on the future, making plans and contingencies to those plans so they can assure themselves that everything will be ok. To the people in their lives, it can feel like there’s no space for their plans or preferences in the relationship.
Certain personality types can be a little more controlling than others. People with a strong “J” orientation on the Meyers-Briggs inventory, for example, can have a strong need for order and structure that other people experience as a need for control.
Culture and family of origin can also influence how flexible and tolerant of difference we are. If someone grew up in a strict family where there was one right way to do everything, they might have a hard time accepting that other people don’t do things exactly the way they would.
Finally, there are some “malignant controllers” who draw their sense of self from dominating others. Narcissistic people fall into this category. If you suspect you’re on the other end of this kind of controlling behavior, keep in mind, this isn’t the kind of problem that can be solved with a heart-to-heart conversation. Narcissistic wounds run deep, and even with extensive therapy, narcissists rarely make significant changes.
How to Deal With Controlling People
The first step in dealing with controlling people is getting curious about their inner experience. It might look like they’re just being irritating for the sake of being irritating, but there’s always a “why,” and once you understand it, you can change your story about what’s happening and respond in a compassionate, assertive manner.
Here’s how to approach a controlling person in your life:
Begin with empathy. Remember, the person is probably being controlling because they feel worried and scared.
Try to have an emotionally honest conversation with the person about what you’re noticing and feeling. You might say, “I wonder if you’re feeling stressed out or worried about something. Could we talk about it?” Hopefully, they’ll gain some awareness about how they’re coming across to you, and — maybe — what’s driving their behavior.
As you approach this conversation, remember that controllingpeople are almost never conscious of “being controlling.” They think they’re being proactive, responsible, and helpful by making sure things happen the way they need to happen. They’ll likely be 100% oblivious about how you’re feeling until you tell them.
If they aren’t able to have the conversation with you without shutting you down or growing defensive, your remaining options are to withdraw from the relationship, or to set and maintain boundaries. Having healthy boundaries means setting limits around what you’ll tolerate in your relationships, but it doesn’t mean dictating how other people will treat you — only how you’ll respond. Learn more about healthy boundaries here.
These are courageous conversations that are difficult to have. Many of us would prefer to avoid conflict and “overlook” selfish or unfair treatment from others, especially if we tend to be people pleasers. But ignoring the problem only makes it worse. Your resentment will grow, and the controlling person may escalate their behavior if they get the message you’re ok with it. Eventually, the feelings you’ve been stuffing will likely spill over into a nastier version of the conflict you’re avoiding now.
If the conversation goes well, you’ll gain understanding for the controlling person, and you’ll get the chance to create a relationship together that feels a little more balanced.
Dealing With Control Freaks: Episode Show Notes
[02:11] All About Control Freaks
Understanding the psychology of a control freak can help you deal with them.
[09:23] Controlling People and Their Behavior
Control can be imposing one's will on others by asking them to do certain things. It can also mean preventing other people from doing what they would like to do.
[15:58] The Anxiety Behind Controlling Behavior
Anxiety leads to controlling behavior.
Past trauma often leads to hypervigilance, which feels controlling to others.
Somebody who has a very anxious attachment style will have a lot of fear of abandonment, and will need people to do things to help them feel safe. This can get controlling.
[22:06] Control, Anxiety, and Personality Types
Anxiety and controlling tendencies can be related to personality types.
Personality styles, anxiety, trauma, culture, and family of origin can make people less tolerant of differences, which can feel controlling.
People who have ADHD can lack a filter and can appear controlling others, when in fact they’re impulsive.
[27:20] Controlling and Codependence
A codependent relationship dynamic is where one partner can’t be okay unless their partner is okay or functioning how they think they should be. This often looks controlling.
Try to think beyond what’s happening in the moment. Be curious about the inner experience of the person engaging in controlling behavior — there’s always a “why”.
[33:23] Narcissism in Controlling Behavior
People who are true malignant narcissists have controlling tendencies. They will not change through vulnerable conversations.
Controlling behaviors that can easily turn into abusive relationship dynamics.
Not all narcissists are abusive in the sense of harming you physically. But they will punish you in very real and sometimes dramatic ways for failure to comply.
[37:06] How to Deal With Controlling People
If you are being yourself, different from how the controller wants you to be, it’s creating a “problem” in the relationship.
If you have a history of a parent who had controlling tendencies or was intrusive, you may perceive people in your life as being controlling.
Take an emotional risk and try to have an emotionally honest conversation with the controlling person, if it’s a relationship you value.
[45:40] Not Having the Conversation
It takes a lot of courage to have the conversation.
If you’re not talking about how you feel and what’s going on, they won’t have the opportunity to address it or improve it.
You can have empathy for their feelings and understand them, while maintaining limits over the extent to which they can control you.
[49:02] Setting Healthy Boundaries
Setting healthy boundaries means deciding in advance how you are going to respond in different situations and then communicating that to somebody else.
Boundaries could mean removing yourself from the situation.
Your boundaries prevent people from controlling you.
To have healthy boundaries means having a lot of confidence in yourself and knowing that it is okay for you to have those boundaries.
Music in this episode is by Ski Patrol with their song “Agent Orange.”
You can support them and their work by visiting their Bandcamp page here: [https://skipatrol.bandcamp.com/.] Under the circumstance of use of music, each portion of used music within this current episode fits under Section 107 of the Copyright Act, i.e., Fair Use. Please refer to copyright.gov if further questions are prompted.
Lisa Marie Bobby: This is Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby, and you're listening to The Love, Happiness and Success Podcast.
If you are a regular listener of this show, you will know that I often try to find a musical introduction for each podcast that ties in with the theme of our topic for that day. Today is not one of those days, we are currently listening to Ski Patrol with their song Agent Orange, which has absolutely nothing to do with anything we're going to be talking about today. But welcome to my world and welcome to The Love, Happiness and Success Podcast. I am your host, Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby. And I guess when you think about it, this song, which I am playing because I just happen to enjoy it, is sort of on topic with our theme today. Because today we're talking about how to deal with control freaks.
People who want to have things their way, who are empowered to make sweeping decisions that impact the lives of others. Making you listen to the music they like, just because they can. Okay, I'll stop. And if this is your first time listening to the show, and you're trying to figure out what you have just stumbled into, allow me to orient you as to what's going on. I'm Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby, I'm the founder and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling and Coaching. I'm a psychologist, I'm a marriage and family therapist. I'm a board-certified coach, and I am here every week with love, happiness, and success advice for you.
I love doing this. I use it as an opportunity to dig deep and talk about things that are hopefully helpful and important to you. And thank you so much for your questions that have been coming in. We get questions on Instagram at @drlisamariebobby, you can get in touch with me at growingself.com. If you would like to chime in on the conversation or ask your own question, leave comments at the bottom of blog or podcast articles that interest you and you can also just email us firstname.lastname@example.org, they come to me.
All About Control Freaks
Alright, so let's talk about this topic today. Dealing with control freaks is something that we can all relate to for sure we all have them in our lives. We may be one ourselves not mentioning names, but you know it's a thing. And it can really impact relationships. The good news is that understanding the psychology of a control freak can help you disarm them and manage them. If you have controlling tendencies yourself, I hope that just listening to this conversation will help you gain self-awareness, and the ability to understand what's happening, how things may be impacting other people, and how to dial it in, with a goal of having healthy happy relationships which are so fundamentally important and a frequent topic of this podcast.
To begin this conversation, I'd like for you to scroll back through your mind's eye, and I'm going to say this phrase, control freak. Okay, who just popped into your head? Who was it? I know, it’s somebody, right? Maybe your control freak is a friend. The friend who has to be in charge of planning every detail of the trip. And no, we cannot visit the Colosseum on that day. Because that is the day we're going to be at the piazza and I've already decided where we're getting lunch, et cetera, right? Maybe it's your mom, who would really like it if you could date this nice young man who attends her church instead of your boyfriend of two years. “And look, he just happens to be coming over today to do some yard work, because he's such a nice young man. So won't you just meet him? I mean, he's going to be here. Anyway, I made lunch. Let's all just sit down. You’re hungry, right?”
I'm being a little silly, but this is actually tough stuff. When you are trying to have a relationship with somebody who you are experiencing as being intrusive, maybe disrespectful, it might even make you feel a little bit violated when you're with them. Like you're not that important, not compared to whatever they're feeling or wanting — that is more important. You know even if that's not their intention, that's how it can feel and worse, when control is happening. And you try to assert yourself and say “Actually, no I don't want to XYZ.” “I don't want to listen to this song, Dr. Lisa.”
Whatever. If you assert yourself, it can start a fight. It can lead to a conflict, and the conflict is probably going to feel a lot bigger than the particular issue at hand. Because it is bigger, it's not about where we're going for lunch, it's not about whether or not you're hungry, it's not about the song on the radio, it's about the control — that power dynamic underneath — and your desire to feel respected and understood, versus their desire to have their way. It gets big quickly.
Now, I would like to confess that I am a recovering control freak, maybe, but maybe I'm not in recovery, I don't know. But I'm at a point in my career where I need to work with other people. I need to play nicely with others, I am a part of a team. Now I am managing a group private practice, we have all kinds of people running around, we have 50 something counselors on our team and wonderful, wonderful people behind the scenes, like keeping the wheels on the bus, right.
This requires teamwork and it is still a new experience for me because for the longest time, I was doing this all on my own. I was a solo private practitioner. Chief therapist, did insurance submissions with pen and ink, bottle washer, light bulb changer, all the things. I ordered the tissues, when we ran out of tissues. It was a growth curve for me. I think being on my own for a long time and operating independently was a good thing. I can do it, I'm an independent person, but I started bumping into stuff when now I am collaborating as a teammate of others. And having to accept that other things won't always be done exactly the way that I would have done them myself. And I think that that is actually a common thing for people in leadership positions.
Parents, certainly, of children who are getting older and were once you did actually have to do everything yourself. When you just start a business, it is all you. When you're a parent of a brand new little baby, you do have to do all of the things, they cannot put a spoon in their own mouth without your assistance. As things grow and evolve, there is a journey of trust that needs to happen with other people. With your employees, with your kids, with your partner, in order to make space for them, and their feelings, and their needs and rights, and even preferences so that we are collaborating and having positive interactions with other people. As opposed to a unilateral kind of dictatorship situation that maybe, in your perspective, is the most efficient way of doing things not saying you're wrong.
It damages relationships if you can't make space for other people too. Control dynamics, I am aware of them in my own life, but also there's something that comes up a lot in relationships. I have achieved a lot of understanding about where control issues come from. My hope is that is through this episode, you too will understand what is going on when power and control dynamics are at play. That understanding is key because once you understand controlling behavior, either in yourself or others, it becomes much less frustrating, first of all, and also a lot easier to respond to in a way that is both compassionate and productive, but also appropriately assertive too, right? So let's just jump in here.
Controlling People and Their Behavior
When we're talking about controlling behavior, what do I mean, what does controlling behavior look like? So, as I mentioned, some relationships include a level of appropriate control like a parent-child relationship — with a young child, obviously — boss-employee, organizational hierarchies, like there is a time and a place for one person to be sort of generally making decisions on behalf of another. But that is not what we are talking about. Because in relationships where that dynamic is part of it, if you're in the military, for example, your drill sergeant is not being controlling because they're telling you what to do, they're doing their job and the expectation is that you will do yours.
Controlling behaviors, by definition, are something that exist outside the norm of that authority hierarchy. So just move everything that is kind of there needs to be some level of control to a different column in your mind. And so then what's left over is what is related to inappropriate control. When there is not a mutually-agreed upon hierarchy or a basis for one person having say over what the other does, that is starting to be inappropriate, no matter what the circumstance. And inappropriate control can look like a lot of different things, it can look like not tolerating minor differences of opinion or micromanaging. It can also be a need to defy reasonable requests from others for no reason.
Control can be imposing one's will on others by asking them to do certain things. But it can also show up by preventing other people from doing what they would like to do, that is also a form of control. Controlling behaviors can also have a very fun sidekick in the sidecar controlling behaviors are driving the motorcycle, and in the sidecar are punishing behaviors. And so if somebody has controlling tendencies, and you displease them, then they can be kind of punishing in response to that. Silent treatment, passive-aggressive behaviors, I will refer you back to the podcast episode on passive-aggressive behaviors that I did a little while ago.
You can also see keeping score happening and power control dynamics or trying to instill a sense of obligation or indebtedness. “I helped you. Now you owe me and I will remember forever.” There can be some emotional manipulation, perhaps using guilt as a tool or playing the victim. Lots of things that people can do to maintain that control over others — psyops are involved.
Then, when it gets really serious like if there is a problem that like very problematic levels of control happening in a relationship, that can be violating physical boundaries. In abusive relationships, like actually abusive relationships, domestic violence kind of situations, which is beyond the scope of our podcast today, by the way, we are not talking about that. But in abusive relationships, there are always power and control dynamics where there can be physical aggression, blocking people from leaving, going through boundaries, limiting contact with other people, limiting access to resources or money, really like a lot of control. That is actually a core feature of a patently abusive relationship is not just that somebody's getting physically harmed, although that might happen.
It's not just that somebody's getting punched in the face. It is that face punching is also happening in the context of many, many other efforts to maintain power and control over the individual who is being controlled and physical punishment can be part of that. But it is not the whole thing. This is a great opportunity if any of what I just shared makes you think of yourself or someone you love, please go to thehotline.org, it's a website. thehotline.org has tons of free resources, advice, and also access to domestic violence counselors to support you or a loved one through that incredibly difficult situation. So controlling behaviors can definitely come up there.
There's also a wide, wide range of controlling behaviors that can show up in relationships that are not even close to actual like relationship abuse, but they're still very annoying and they're also very common. We need to know how to deal with these when they're coming up in our lives. As I mentioned, to handle this well, it's really important to understand what makes someone controlling in the first place. It's not enough to just look at the behaviors and point your finger and say “You're being controlling.” It requires some insight into what is going on that is making that person behave that way. And so whenever it comes to controlling behaviors, any kind of control, is almost always about anxiety and someone's efforts to manage their anxiety through control — control of themselves or control of the environment or control of others.
The Anxiety Behind Controlling Behavior
A lot of people are walking around with a high degree of anxiety. People can have anxiety in relationships, they can have anxiety about safety, right, that turns into hyper-vigilance about what somebody else is doing or not doing. And the core feature of anxiety is really not feeling safe. Feeling like something bad may happen unless they take action to prevent it, a.k.a. control the situation. So, there are many things, as we all know, that can lead to anxiety. There are such things as genetically inherited predispositions towards mood disorders. Somebody cannot have had any life experiences that were adverse, and yet still be walking around a lot of the time in a state of heightened anxiety where they really do not feel good.
They have a lot of tension. They startle easily, they have trouble falling asleep, they can have heart palpitations, be trembly, but also a ton of future-oriented thinking where they are going far into the future to imagine possible dangerous things, possible problems that could happen. And because we are so good at envisioning things with our powerful and creative brains, especially very smart, intelligent, creative people can visualize all kinds of stuff somewhere out there in the future and scare the heck out of themselves. And it turns into this feedback loop because, unfortunately, the part of your brain that feels feelings cannot tell the difference between things you are thinking about and things that are actually happening.
If you are thinking about potential problems and scary things somewhere in the future, your emotional brain will react to that in exactly the same way if it were really happening. And so you will experience all those anxious feelings and it's hard. And I've done other podcast episodes on the subject of anxiety in its own right and have some advice about how to get out of that, that feedback loop because when you're experiencing anxiety, emotionally, and physiologically, it makes your brain cognitively be more hyper-vigilant for danger. So it can be really difficult to get out of that loop.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy can be very effective and sometimes medications need to be involved and that is okay, too. Check out past podcasts about anxiety management, if you'd like to learn more about that. But irregardless of whether or not a mood disorder is at the root of anxiety in terms of the cause, there can be a lot of other reasons why people feel sort of fundamentally anxious in the world and why it can translate into controlling behaviors.
Past trauma can often lead to hypervigilance. Trauma could be relational trauma, or when somebody's lived through a really scary thing. There's big T traumas, there's little T traumas, but it all leaves a mark, you know, and one of the key features of trauma is hyper vigilance, and a need to control things and to seek safety. So people who have been traumatized don't feel safe. So they're always like trying to make sure that they're safe, and much of it can can turn into controlling their environment controlling themselves or controlling other people. For example, if somebody has a lot of attachment trauma, like real deal attachment trauma — would refer you back to my recent podcast episode about attachment styles and relationships to learn more about that.
Somebody who has like a very, very anxious attachment style, will have a lot of fear of abandonment in relationships will have a high degree for people to do things in order to help them feel safe in relationships, and they won't feel safe anyway, but they try — God bless them. What that often looks like is a lot of controlling behaviors, trying to control their romantic partner. And in sometimes doing testing, pushing people away, “Are you going to leave me? How about now? What if I do this?” That can be problematic, obviously. But in these kinds of relational control situations, people may have a story, even a subconscious story, about if their partner really loved them, then they would do XYZ, and if they did XYZ, then I would feel safe, and I would feel loved, and I would feel better.
“I really need them to do this thing.” And that's where a lot of the controlling behaviors can come from with that. Again, some of this is fairly garden variety and somebody who has an anxious attachment style, this will always come up at the very far extremes. Somebody with a very problematically anxious attachment style. This is what creates abusive relationships. So when domestic violence is actually happening, it's because of these attachments, insecurities, and then it turns into trying to control or punish a partner in order to maintain your, quote, safety, ironically, in the relationship. Again, beyond the scope of this episode, but just wanted to throw that little fun fact out there.
Control, Anxiety, and Personality Types
Anyway, it is also true that sometimes this anxiety and controlling tendencies can be related to personality types, believe it or not. In my psychologist training, did a lot of have education and experience around formal psychological testing, which is often related to, you know, identifying psychopathology and sort of broad personality traits. And I'm actually, though, over the years I have, I have become a big fan of some of the more like pop psychology commercially available personality assessment tools that are out there.
Not so much the Myer-Briggs, I think it can be so general, it's not as useful. But the Enneagram I don’t know if you've heard of the Enneagram, but that is a really fun one because I think it does actually pick up on broad personality traits. So introversion, extraversion, conscientiousness, neuroticism, those kinds of traits and pulls it into, I think it's probably nine different main personality types. Each one having sort of a spectrum of here's what this personality type looks like when it's really healthy and functioning well. And here's what this personality type looks like, on the other end of the spectrum for somebody who isn't actually doing that well, which can be really useful. But psychometrics aside, I think there are fundamentally some personality types that in absence of psychopathology, do just sort of have a higher need for things like order, security, and tend to have more controlling tendencies.
A type one personality of Enneagrams, that sort of has very well-defined ways that things should be, and a function of personality, this can also be a function of family culture. If you grew up in a family that had very strong opinions about the correct way to do certain things, then you are now walking through the world, whether you know it or not, with this little mental yardstick that you're holding and holding up that yardstick to what other people are doing and that is incorrect. And that can feel to them, like criticism or efforts to control them. “That's not how you load a dishwasher” can feel very controlling to other people. But when you have just grown up in a culture where that was instilled in you, you can be doing that to other people and not even realizing that you're doing it because in your mind, you're just trying to be helpful.
That is one other reason why controlling behaviors can sort of happen in the absence of anxiety, although even then still, like, something bad could happen if the dishwasher gets loaded that way, so I need to intercede, right? And really, it's non-conscious, right? But it's this, something's wrong.
Enneagram type sixes are very sort of security-minded, can also get kind of controlling about the way things are done but it's sort of has a different reason why. But that can be interesting to explore if you're interested in checking out the Enneagram. I think it's like 12 bucks to take the full test if you're curious. Again, personality styles, anxiety, trauma, culture, family of origin can make people less tolerant of differences sometimes. And it's also very subtle, I mean, it comes up commonly in relationships, where we all have non-conscious expectations, and then kind of internal programming around the right way to do things or how things should behave.
Sometimes when other people are not behaving correctly, according to our definition, it can be upsetting, and we can seek to rectify the situation by helping other people do things the right way, can't we? Alright. Also, interestingly, people who have ADHD can lack a filter. As you may know, if you or someone you love has ADHD. But what this can look like, is this impulsiveness that can extend to other people. If somebody with ADHD, who is not actively managing it will often have a thought in their head that immediately translates into we should do this and will often say that out loud or want somebody to do whatever they're thinking about right in that moment that is they're not trying to be controlling at all. They're not intentionally doing anything at all. They had a thought now it's coming out of their mouth, but again, it can be experienced as controlling to other people because it can come across as being very intrusive.
Controlling and Codependence
If not somebody really wants us to all do this one thing that wasn't the plan previously. Okay. And then very lastly, and this is actually oftentimes related to trauma is the idea of codependent relationships. I have also discussed codependent relationships on past podcasts but briefly a codependent relationship dynamic is where one partner can't really be okay, unless their partner is okay or functioning in the way that they think their partner should be functioning. And so this can often manifest in very controlling behaviors. Classic codependence comes up in relationships where maybe somebody is struggling with a substance abuse problem. You have the partner with the problem and then you have the codependent partner who is trying to manage the partner with a problem, which generally involves getting the partner with a problem to show up places on time or go to meetings, or did you go to the appointment, or did you call your sponsor have you drunk today — trying to maintain safety. A lot of anxiety happening there.
You can also see codependent relationship dynamics happening when either one person comes into that relationship with very strong opinions about what should be happening and if their partner isn't doing it, they're like, “Oh, I need to make them do it.” Or sometimes if the codependent aka controlling partner has had a parent or family member where they maybe the parent had a substance problem, or where the person was in a parentalfide kind of role in their family of origin. They feel like they need to help and fix and take care of people and manage people's emotions. And so you'll often see them kind of interceding and trying to control if not the behaviors and sometimes even the emotions of their partner is a function of that codependent relationship dynamic.
Anyway, lots of really interesting stuff under the surface. Whenever controlling behaviors are present, I would invite you to think beyond what's happening in the moment and get curious about the inner experience of the person who is engaging in said controlling behavior because there's always a “why”. There's always a why and when you can understand what that is, even if the controlling behavior itself isn't all that different, because of your understanding, and the empathy I think that often comes with understanding the compassion that you can feel for someone by understanding where that anxiety is coming from, or where that drive to help or fix or protect comes from, or even just the fact that they were trained this way by their family. I think it can just add so much compassion to these moments where it changes.
It changes your story. I think about what is happening, you know, it changes a story from “I am being persecuted and victimized by this person who is trying to control me” to a sort of softer “Oh, they feel anxious right now,” or “Yeah, you know, it makes sense why they would behave that way, based on what happened to them?” Or “Yeah, I guess they were raised that way.” Or even like my story that I shared at the very beginning, I was very much alone, like all alone, for — I don't know, the first 10 years of my experience in private practice. And so I think having that be my reality, it sort of trained my brain to figure out, “Oh, what am I going to do? How am I going to solve this problem? What needs to happen next? What —” And it was very functional in that space of being an independent operator, because I really — I needed to be I didn't have anybody else, right?
Then, you know, to be in a different life circumstance, I had to reprogram myself and be like, “Okay, I don't have to do that anymore. I can trust other people to do things. I don't have to do everything.” If I don't know everything that is going on all the time, chances are, it's going to be okay. Because I'm surrounded by smart people who I can trust to do things well and to make good decisions. But like, I have to talk myself through that. But if you didn't know that about me, in the beginning, you might be like, “Why is she asking me if I've done this thing? Of course, I've done this thing, it's like, “How dare she suggest that I would forget to do that thing.”
I think when you understand where it comes from, there can be more empathy. I try not to ask anymore, I can't always restrain myself, but I try. Now, those are kind of garden variety controlling situations. And I think that those are, believe it or not fairly easy to manage, in relationships. These are not just solvable problems, they are often growth moments for relationships. There's a lot that can be done to improve this and to really not just have the behaviors be different, but really turn the relationship into a vehicle for insight, and mutual understanding and growth for all involved. And we're going to talk about that in a second.
Narcissism in Controlling Behavior
Though, before we do, I do just want to mention that there is such a thing as those malignant controllers. People who it would be inadvisable to try to do growth work with and those would be an attachment issue that is showing up in the abusive relational dynamics that we were talking about earlier in this conversation. You need help, if you're in that situation, check out thehotline.org. Educate yourself about it being able to understand what's happening is often the first step and being able to protect yourself or your kids. Do not try to change them, do not try to heal them, get to safety and then figure out the other stuff. So there's that.
It is also true, that people who are true malignant narcissists can often have very controlling tendencies and are also not going to change through relational components. The wounds run very deep here. There is a difference between true malignant narcissists and what I think of as baby narcissists and you can check out a past podcast episode around I think I called it “So You're in Love with a Narcissist?” or something like that. Anyway, to learn more about how to tell the difference between a real narcissist and a baby narcissist.
When somebody has real deal narcissistic tendencies, there's often a lot of controlling behaviors, that can easily turn into abusive relationship dynamics because they need you to behave a certain way in order to maintain their own stable sense of self. And if you do not do that reflect back the self-image that they need you to reflect back to them. If you are not appropriately compliant or pleasing, there can be hell to pay and sometimes you know it. And I think there are also commonly narcissistic features and really abusive relationships where truly bad stuff is happening. Not all narcissists are abusive in the sense of hiding the keys to the car and locking you in the bathroom, and harming you physically. But they will punish you in very real and sometimes dramatic ways for failure to comply.
Again, if that is happening in your relationship, don't tangle with it. Get professional help, to figure out what's going on and to create a plan for safety. Because having heart-to-heart talks is not going to change this dynamic. And I think one of the reasons why people often stay in abusive relationships longer than they should, is because of that myth that “They can change. I can heal them with my love. We can have these super serious heart-to-heart talks, and they'll understand.” Don't tell yourself that story, please, please get help. And please keep yourself safe. Assuming there is nothing like that happening in your life.
How to Deal with Controlling People
Now we can turn our attention to how to deal with controlling people in your life who are annoying, but harmless, generally speaking, annoying but harmless controlling people. First of all, it's really normal and natural to have an angry reaction to somebody who's trying to assert inappropriate control over you. You might feel insulted or condescended to, like they're implying that you're incompetent and that doesn't feel good. Sometimes you can second guess yourself if you feel like somebody's being controlling but “Are they? Am I overreacting?” And it can show up especially in like inconsequential situations, like somebody's trying to get you to agree about who serves the best pizza in town and this is what we should have for dinner because blah, blah, blah. But when it feels like bigger to you, it's not about the topic. It's not about the pizza. It's not about the facts. It's about these subtle power and control dynamics, that if you are being yourself, meaning different than how the controller wants you to be, it's creating a problem in the relationship.
Just pay attention to those kinds of subtle undercurrents in your interactions and understand that this is primal stuff. These things go deep, it's related to those attachment kind of drives that we've talked about in previous conversations. Humans have a fundamental need to be collaborative to be part of a stable group and if every interaction feels like a new fight, it feels unstable, it feels unsafe and it feels like you have to comply in order to maintain a peaceful relationship and that is not good for you. I have talked more about this in people pleasing episodes and your power and not — no, that was people-pleasing and passive aggressive people can definitely come up here. And it is also true and something to be aware of that if you have a life history of perhaps a parent who had really controlling tendencies or intrusive, was sort of more focused on their goals than yours. It is also true that you can experience people in your life as being controlling, when they're not trying to be controlling, that is not their intention there, they would actually be just fine.
If you had a difference of opinion, or what did you do something the other way, everything is not a huge giant power struggle. But because you had so many of those early life experiences consistently, you might feel like you're being controlled, when you're just being in a relationship with another person, who also has opinions that are sometimes different than yours. If you notice that pattern, like if you — well, I mean, it can go both ways. If you can think back in your relationship history and have a long string of relationships with friends, or romantic partners, who were all controlling in some way or another bosses who were inappropriately controlling, that is a sign that you may be primed and have a tendency to perceive threat in that situation and that will be something to work on. Totally okay.
It is important to work on it because if you experience people as having like lots of power and control stuff going on, it can lead to like people pleasing behaviors in you, where you feel unsafe to assert yourself in, in like, healthy relational ways. You're not talking about how you're feeling, you're not checking things out. You're not asserting yourself, or pushing back until you have a lot of feelings about it and then it is actually a big thing. So just just be aware of that. I've seen that happen frequently, so just stick a flag there. And if you sort it out that it is not your stuff it is actually specific to this person who is being inappropriately controlling or intrusive with you, there are a number of different of different ways of handling it. But the best way is to begin with empathy.
Core assumption here is that whoever is being weird and controlling is doing so from a place of usually anxiety puts you in the mental and emotional mindset to have a productive, helpful conversation with them. And then once you're in that space, it's time to take an emotional risk, and try to have an emotionally honest conversation with a person who's feeling inappropriate. It's important to remember that people who are behaving in controlling ways are almost never conscious that they are being controlling their experience is that they are being proactive, they are being thoughtful, they are being responsible, they're being helpful, they are doing the right thing, they are helping you understand something that you don't know, and that you would benefit from knowing right. The intentions are almost always good. They're keeping you safe. They're keeping themselves safe. And so that's their narrative.
Just to understand that they themselves aren't aware that you're feeling the way that you're feeling unless you tell them and they will probably be surprised when you do say “I'm not feeling good right now.” Because that like “Well, I'm trying to help, right.” So understand that you don't probably have the full picture of where they're coming from and they probably don't have a full picture of their own motivations. I mean, it takes a lot of intentional personal growth work to dredge all this stuff up and figure out like, “Yes, I do feel anxious in these situations, because of XYZ. This makes perfect sense.” Like, it takes a long time to get to that place and understand, “Oh, when I'm feeling this way, I need to not do that thing and do this thing instead.” That is that is a hard won victory. People have to earn that snd it takes time and it takes work to do that.
Working with a good therapist can help you get there. But by beginning to have that conversation and not accusing people of doing certain things that say “I wonder if this situation is stressing you out or if you're worrying about something right now. Tell me more about how you're feeling.” That can be one way to crack into it and to have a really good conversation with somebody that you love. I mean, assuming that this is a relationship where it's important enough to invest that kind of effort in. You're not going to do that with everybody but for people that you care about, it's worth asking. Hopefully, the person that you care about will be able to have an honest conversation with you, that will help them gain awareness of how they're coming across, and maybe even gain awareness of how they're feeling. And it can be a really positive growth moment that can be beneficial for both of you.
Not Having The Conversation
Just remember that even though having these kinds of conversations can feel hard, it takes a lot of courage to do that. The alternative is to not have that conversation. And when we don't have those conversations, we then must assume that this person is going to keep being controlling and inappropriate. Sometimes it can feel like we're protecting a relationship, when we avoid having those hard conversations. It is actually harming your relationship to not have those conversations. Because if you're not talking about how you feel, and what's going on, the person that you're having the problem with will not know and will not have the opportunity to address it or improve it.
If you're not talking about it, your only option is then to withdraw from the relationship, because it's not going to change. More on people pleasing and passive aggressive people in previous episodes. If any of this sounded interesting to you, I hope you check out those past topics. Now, assuming that you were brave and courageous, and emotionally safe, and communicated your feelings honestly, and with empathy, and well, and someone shuts you down, and is like, “Nope, I am not having this conversation with you, you are wrong, incorrect.” No, then you tried and what you're left with. Again, you want to maintain the relationship and you don't have to. I mean, if somebody is unwilling to acknowledge your perspective and have real conversations with you about the relationship, you can withdraw, it's fine.
Door number two, if it is a relationship that you want to maintain, while also releasing the hope that the person will behave differently, your other choice is to set and hold boundaries. You can still have empathy for their feelings and understand why a person is behaving the way they are, but has limits over the extent to which they can actually control you. Appeasing people and just going on with things can be tempting, particularly if you're on the passive side. But again, it doesn't work. It damages the relationship because it damages your emotional safety in the relationship. And so short-term, you avoid a fight. Long-term, it is not good for the relationship. And it also I hate to use the word — oh, what is the word — enabling it can enable controlling behavior, if you're kind of going along with things and not saying anything about it.
Setting Healthy Boundaries
It's like an absent type of enabling, you're not providing a controlling person with enough feedback to know if it's a problem or not. But it is your responsibility to set healthy boundaries for yourself whether or not somebody else is willing to go along with that. Remember, you are setting and maintaining boundaries, not expecting that the other person is going to change just because you have decided on a boundary. Otherwise, you'd be controlling them wouldn't you be? Healthy boundaries means deciding in advance how you are going to respond in different situations and then communicating that to somebody else. So to say, “I don't like it when you XYZ. I've tried to tell you how I feel about this, but it seems like we can't have that conversation. So the next time I come over to your house, and you have a blind date, a guy that you like there waiting to meet me, when I find out that that's happened, I'm going to leave. And so I'm just going to tell you about this ahead of time, so you can be prepared, and just know how I'm going to handle the situation.”
There we go. You're communicating what those boundaries are and it could be removing yourself from the situation, it could be, you know, “I am not having this conversation with you. And so we can either talk about something different, or we can end this get-together, and I'm just going to go home.” Your boundaries, prevent people's being able to aggress against you, essentially, or control you. And so, to have healthy boundaries means having a lot of confidence in yourself, and knowing that it is okay for you to have those boundaries and to hold them whether or not somebody else complies and also whether or not somebody else likes it. Part of having healthy boundaries is getting comfy with other people being upset because of your boundaries. And this isn't a bad thing, it's a good thing.
You can check out past podcast episodes on this topic, if you're interested in learning more about that. And very lastly, so I think that with a lot of this, we have been talking about controlling behavior, I think as it extends to sort of friends, family members, parents, siblings, probably to a degree, a partner. But I would also say that if it is difficult to have meaningful and productive conversations, about controlling behaviors with your partner, and if there is like codependent stuff going on, or like a lot of relationship, anxiety and demands going on. Or a inability to make space for a co-created reality, like getting married and moving in and having a home together, it is now your shared home. And one person does not get to decide how we do all the things and the correct way to slice a tomato or whatever like that. We have to make space for each other.
If that is really difficult to do in your primary relationship, that is a very good indication that you might need mediation. To get in front of a good marriage counselor, couples therapist, who specializes in couples and family therapy, remembering that 95 plus percent of therapists who provide couples counseling, do not have specialized training and experience in couples counseling. Scary but true. You want to look for a licensed marriage and family therapist who has specialized education, training, licensure. A lot of knowledge in these dynamics in particular, and be talking about it there. Because in a primary relationship, this stuff has to be resolved. If it isn't, it turns into emotional disconnect. It turns into resentment, it turns into grudges, it turns into avoidance, and all kinds of weird and unpleasant emotional things can happen in that space when controlling behaviors are occurring.
You can't resolve them productively together. So get do get help. Okay, well, I hope this conversation about how to deal with control freaks was helpful and informative and gave you insight into the mind and heart of the control freak that you love or potentially into your own kind of way of being and how it may be experienced by others. You know, and no judgment we all have work to do and it's all good stuff. And I'm so glad that we can do it together here on The Love, Happiness and Success Podcast. Thank you so much for joining me today. Here is more Ski Patrol and Agent Orange to show us out and I'll see you next time another episode.
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