Feel unsure of your mate’s love for you? Should you tell them that you are not feeling safe or secure in the relationship? When you tell them (accuse them of not caring?) and they profess their love for you, what will tell you that you can believe their promises? What will tell you to doubt their words?
Two Yale University psychologists (E. Lemay, Jr and M. Clark) explore this problem in 2008 in their “Walking on Eggshells: How Expressing Relationship Insecurities Perpetuates Them” (Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, v95, 420-441).
Their study is fairly long (5 studies in fact). But here are some key points.
When people feel insecure about a partner’s regard and acceptance, they often judge their own prior behavior as having communicated insecurity and emotional vulnerability to the partner. Consequently, they come to believe that they are viewed as especially insecure and vulnerable. Then, due to shared beliefs that people walk on eggshells around insecure, vulnerable others, such reflected appraisals of vulnerability elicit doubts about the authenticity of the partner’s expressions of regard and acceptance. Once authenticity is doubted, positive expressions are discounted, negative expressions are augmented, and hidden negative regard is inferred even when partners are accepting and actually hold positive regard. (p. 436)
What they are saying is that our own anxiety fuels are belief that they know we are vulnerable and are tiptoeing around us and that we doubt they love us and then we read their actions through a lens that denies the evidence of love and declares their love to be inauthentic. Which of course, we then share with them. Repeat this action and sooner or later they don’t want to be declared a liar anymore and distance from us thereby proving our deepest fears of abandonment.
In short, anticipated rejection leads to presumption that it has happened and that any activity countering that presumption is rejected and re-read through the lens of rejection. Because that is what we believe happens to weak people–they are abandoned.
So, should we keep our fears to ourself? No say the researchers. Then what should be done? The researchers say only a little on this (since it is not the focus of their research here). But, challenging cognitive distortions are at the top their list? What distortions in particular? Believing that others see you as weak as you feel; challenging the interpretations of another’s motivation. Also in their suggestions is practicing reading the commitment of the mate to the relationship by re-appraising and collecting the evidence of authentic responses from that mate.
The next time you feel the need to express your fears that your mate doesn’t really love you check to see whether your insecurity isn’t already telling you the answer you fear and rejecting evidence to the contrary. Dig a little and you may be able to find evidence that shows they love you. Then, be specific and tell them one concrete thing you would like to see changed, something that bothers you. Do it in love so as to not trigger their fears that you do not love them. Be wary of listening too much to your fears!