DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: My partner (m) and I (f) are both nerds, and both have a degree of baggage from previous relationships.
He is sweet and kind and considerate and great in bed attentive and helpful. There is just one problem. If I am ever upset, about anything, he assumes he must have done something wrong and goes into a panic. I could be upset about a driver cutting me up, or burning the dinner, or a work colleague annoying me, anything. It’s never anything he’s actually done. But he can tell I’m upset about something, so he instantly assumes it’s his fault and I then have to spend lots and lots of psychic energy reassuring him, and this is a lot of emotional labour when I am already upset.
I’ve tried to tell him that if he ever does (or fails to do) something that upsets me, I will tell him, and if I’m upset that he really doesn’t need to panic, but because he never really does anything wrong (other than leaping to the conclusion that everything is his fault) I can’t demonstrate that.
It just makes it difficult to seek support when, if I ever need support, I end up supporting him.
I really love him, and do not want this to be a wedge between us, but it’s become one. Please help.
DEAR EMOTIONAL ABYSS: This sounds incredibly frustrating, EA. His constant demand for emotional support and reassurance is draining on you and it’s unfair of him to demand it constantly. But I suspect there’re reasons for it that go beyond just him being incredibly needy.
I suspect that part of the reason why you’re frustrated is that, ultimately, saying “I will let you know if you upset me” isn’t actually helpful to him or to you… because it’s almost certainly not about his actually upsetting you.
There’s a logic behind every behavior; the logic may not make sense, or it may be predicated on cloud-cucoolander logic that bears no resemblance to the real world, but there is a reasoning that you can follow. The key to dealing with his behavior is going to be unearthing the logic behind it.
And sometimes the logic ain’t pretty.
On the most basic level, sometimes it’s a matter of expression and what they’re used to. I’ve known some people who, emotionally, have the startle response of a panicky horse. They’re just folks who, for whatever reason, freak out at certain displays of emotion, especially loud displays of emotion.
There’s also the way that attachment theory plays into things. If, for example, your partner is anxious-ambivalent, then the combination of low self-esteem and a fear of being unwanted could play into this. To expand on this, if his parents were neglectful or inconsistent or gave him a front row, center stage view of fights between them, he could have developed an understandable fear that love and affection are conditional and temporary and could be rescinded at any time.
Other factors, such as rejection-sensitive dysphoria could be at play, too. RSD isn’t just “UWU I am so smol and delicate that rejection hurts me more than most”, it’s taking not just the intensity of feeling from rejection but the fear and anticipation of it, dialing it up to 11 and then snapping the knob off. So no matter how stupid or seemingly illogical the connection may be, someone with RSD could take any form of upset as a sign that they’re about to be rejected by someone they love and care for and trigger a panic attack. RSD often comes bundled along with conditions like ADHD, autism or borderline-personality disorder, so if your partner is neuroatypical, this could be a cause.
But honestly, the “both have a degree of baggage from previous relationships” throws up a flare for me. You don’t say what his baggage is, but the seeming terror he has at your being upset at him leaves me wondering if he has a history of abuse in his past. The way he responds to your being upset about anything, regardless of where its directed reminds me of nothing so much as an abused animal; it doesn’t know what it’s done “wrong”, but it knows that certain sounds and behaviors mean it’s going to be hurt again.
One thing that often happens in folks who survived toxic or abusive relationships is that they often develop a certain amount of hyper-vigilance; they’re always on the look out for any signs of impending danger, even if that danger isn’t immediately obvious to others. If, for example, they had a partner (or a parent or other authority figure, for that matter) who would take their frustration or anger out on them, then any expression of upset becomes a warning sign. Through experience, they’ve learned that Mom/Dad/ex-lover being mad, period, means that they’re about to be hurt again.
I should know; I dealt with that myself after a particularly toxic early relationship blended with the rejection-sensitive dysphoria. Anything that even vaguely hinted at anger or being upset – even just the use of specific punctuation in texting could be interpreted as a warning. It took a while for for my initial urge to flinch away to fade… and even then it didn’t fully diminish until I started getting medicated for ADHD.
So what I’d suggest is that you and your partner schedule a time to have a modified version of an Awkward Conversation, where you dig a little into his previous relationships. Unlike the usual Awkward Conversation formula, you’re going to be asking questions, not just sharing your side of things while he waits until you’re done to say anything. Let him know that you’re worried about how quickly he assumes you’re mad at him and that you want to understand what he’s afraid of and why. Make it clear that you’re not judging, you’re not upset and you’re not blaming him; you want to understand him so you and he can figure out what to do about it.
Now, it’s important that you don’t ask leading questions. You don’t want to imply a particular cause. You just want to understand what he’s thinking and what motivates it. So saying “why would you think I was upset at you” and “what would make you think that this was about you?” are good places to start. Asking if his mom or dad hit him or if his previous partners were abusive, on the other hand, are less helpful and could lead to roadblocks. If they were and he isn’t ready to accept it, he’ll retreat further. If they weren’t, then he could get defensive.
And – and I feel like I have to include this for completeness’ sake, if nothing else – if he’s just incredibly manipulative and is demanding undue support from you, suggesting it first will make it that much easier for him to use it as an excuse.
As the conversation goes on and you start to get more of an idea of what the underlying logic of his behavior is, you’ll have a better idea of how best for the two of you to proceed. For starters, you’ll both have a better idea of what his triggers are and how to avoid them, along with more of an idea of what might help reassure or soothe him (or help him soothe himself) when something hits those triggers.
Just as importantly, you may both realize that you’re going to need some outside help to resolve this. There’s only so much that you can do, never mind should. The odds are good that, if his panic is genuine, then he’s going to need to talk to a mental health professional. He may need to unpack things with a therapist, he may have an anxiety disorder that necessitates medical treatment or he may have CPTSD that requires a delicate touch to undo.
But none of that can happen until you both suss out the underlying causes. Get a handle on those, and the way forward will be clearer… and you’ll both be much happier and feeling more secure.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, firstname.lastname@example.org