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M. writes: Recently, I’ve been very fortunate to get in a relationship with someone I fancy, respect, and empathize with, a lot. I love her, very much. So much so, every day after work, I sit down and read books about how to love better, as I try to understand this strange, yet touching feeling. I want to learn to love her, not just the feeling. The problem is, I’m extremely scared of her leaving me. In all of my past relationships, I’ve been cheated on (my ex, for example, is currently engaged with my “best friend”). So, after that, I find it incredibly hard to trust anyone. More than simply romantic relationships, my parents too, when I was young, kept threatening each other to leave/kill themselves when shit went wrong. So, as a result, I’ve developed an anxious attachment style.
This involves me constantly asking her for reassurances, sometimes, begging her to remind me that she loves me, that, she will not leave me for someone else. Now, although she’s wonderful, and understands this, it’s bothering me because I feel like I’m not spending enough time to really BE with her. I’m in my own thoughts, still stuck in the past. Yes, I know she’s not them, but it’s just so hard to trust people. I’m scared that once she goes for grad school, she will find someone else (worried about the future), someone who’s better than me. At times, this anxiety becomes so bad that it results in panic attacks. Last week at work, for instance, she was on a call with someone else, and my senses kept telling me that this was danger, that she was cheating on me, that I made the wrong call. I literally had to go home early because I couldn’t focus. After an hour, she called me back saying her dad and her were planning a trip, so she got busy.
The point, I guess, is that I need to understand that nothing is permanent. Everything is changing. I need to have the courage and confidence to withstand whatever comes my way, and most importantly be grateful and enjoy the times I DO have with her, however long they last. I want it forever, and right now, typing this sentence makes me shiver, but, I know that forever is a long time.
Before I get to somewhat blunt advice (hey, my role model is Epictetus!), let me tell you that I can empathize. My parents got divorced, and I’ve been cheated on by my first wife. So I know, to some extent, what you are going through and what it means to be insecure and needy in your next relationship.
That said, you already know of the proper way to look at the situation, it seems: she is not your ex; and yes, everything changes, it is a rule of the cosmos; but no, “forever” isn’t just a long time, it’s simply not the right time frame for human beings to consider. You and she will be dead soon, in cosmic terms, so talk of “forever” is meaningless and best avoided.
If you are suffering from panic attacks (that’s a specific medical term, distinct from a bad bout of temporary anxiety), I suggest you seek professional help, preferably from a cognitive behavioral therapist, though there are also chemical approaches that might work.
But once you get the panic / anxiety under control you will still be left with your insecurity which, ironically, is precisely what may eventually undermine your relationship. I don’t know your girlfriend, obviously, and I believe you when you say that she is the understanding type. But there is a limit even for the most patient people. The attitude you are describing is simply not healthy, and she may get tired of it and leave you not for another man, but because of your own self-sabotaging behavior.
What you need to do is to internalize a number of Stoic lessons that I’m sure you are familiar with, beginning with the dichotomy of control:
“Some things are within our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing.” (Epictetus, Enchiridion 1.1)
Where do you think “keeping my girlfriend” falls? Is it up to you, or not up to you? That was a rhetorical question, obviously. You do not control her feelings, her reactions, and her decisions. Nor do you control random events, such as the chances that she will meet someone “better” going to graduate school.
What you do control is your own attitude and actions toward her. And it is on those you need to work. Of course, understanding the concept is relatively easy, putting it into practice is anything but. That’s why my friend Greg Lopez and I begin our Handbook for New Stoics with two consecutive exercises focusing on the dichotomy of control. Think of it as going to the gym: if you are inexperienced, you can ask a trainer to show you the various machines and explain to you how to best use them. But that’s not going to grow you muscles or increase your aerobic capacity. Only constant, hard exercise will do that. The same goes for a philosophy of life, be it Stoicism or anything else (it’s not easy to be a Christian either).
There is yet another angle you may want to consider. Although relationships are crucial for human flourishing, and love is a fundamentally positive emotion, being in a relationship is what the Stoics call a preferred indifferent. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t care whether you are or are not with your girlfriend. It means that being with her, per se, doesn’t make you a better or worse person, which is the primary thing we should be concerned with. Therefore, should she in fact leave you, this would be no reflection on your worth as a human being, and your life will not be over.
That said, the Stoics also had interesting things to say about healthy relationships. In the article linked here I discuss three possible models to consider. It may be a good exercise for you to read through and reflect on which model, if any, your current relationship fits. And, more importantly, which model you would like to adopt. Then ask yourself how you can get there from where you are. My suggestion is to engage in a constant dialogue with yourself by way of daily journaling. Use the third person when you write, talking to yourself as if you were your own friend. It is a well known technique in modern psychotherapy, which helps you gain some emotional distance from your own issues, and which is found also in Marcus Aurelius:
“A limit of time is fixed for you, which if you do not use for clearing away the clouds from your mind, it will go and you will go, and it will never return.” (Meditations II.4)