Barbara Markway Ph.D.

Is your partner needy and insecure, or is it you?

A common issue in couples’ therapy is one person assuming their partner needs too much while the other person feels insecure in the relationship. Let me introduce you to Breanna and Raymond, just such a couple.

Breanna and Raymond came in for therapy because Breanna was depressed. She saw no hope for the future of the marriage because Raymond was always either working or playing golf. During the first session, she described what precipitated her calling for an appointment. She had accidentally locked herself out of the house and called Raymond at work, hoping he would come home and let her in. Raymond told her that he had an important meeting to attend. In a rather irritable voice, he advised her to call a locksmith. Breanna felt betrayed by Raymond’s refusal to help her and stunned to learn how low she ranked on his list of priorities.

In discussing this incident in the therapy session, Breanna focused on how Raymond had expressed no understanding or empathy for how she felt that day. She could understand it was impractical for him to rush to her rescue, but couldn’t he at least have offered some moral support? Raymond, on the other hand, saw this situation as an example of how she relied too much on him. As the session progressed, he listed other evidence of Breanna’s “overdependence”: every Saturday morning as he prepared to play golf, she would ask if they could do something together later in the day—perhaps go out to dinner. Raymond then described how controlled he felt by his wife’s “dependency.” It seemed to him that she was trying to force him to give up his one day of relaxation. If only she had more friends or activities to keep her busy, he reasoned, he wouldn’t have to feel guilty about wanting some time on his own.

Raymond’s interpretation surprised Breanna. She said, “He’d drive me crazy if he was home all day on Saturday. There’s no way I’d ask him to give up golf.” I learned that Breanna had plenty of friends and activities to fill her time. She was involved in leading a charitable organization and was considering starting her own business. Breanna’s schedule was not the issue.

Although the situation presented by this couple was more complicated than I can condense in a blog post, this is the main point: Breanna’s desire to spend some time with Raymond was not a sign of neediness or dependency, even though Raymond had come to interpret it in this light; Breanna simply enjoyed her husband’s company. Rather than taking this as a compliment, Raymond told himself that if he didn’t keep up his guard, he’d be engulfed by his wife’s needs. In effect, he filtered and perhaps distorted many of Breanna’s requests through his belief that she was dependent and needy.

In the sessions that followed, I helped Raymond recognize the ways in which he contributed to the problem: The more he avoided making a commitment to spend time together, the more she pursued and pressured him. When he eventually made spending time with Breanna a priority, Raymond enjoyed his time alone more. He felt less guilty, and his life was more in balance. Similarly, he also enjoyed his time with Breanna more, because it felt like a choice, rather than an obligation.

So what can you learn from this?

  1. Don’t make assumptions about your partner’s motivations or behaviors. You could be way off the mark.
  2. Make time to talk about any issues as they arise, and don’t let them fester into a bigger problem.
  3. Healthy couples enjoy time together, as well as individual activities and alone time.
  4. Remember that a little communication and affection can go a long way. In the example above, Breanna wasn’t really asking for that much. She just wanted to know that Raymond cared about her.
  5. If you find yourself in a pattern of miscommunication over many months, consider seeking couples’ therapy.


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