Have you ever met someone who was so desperate for love that they would do anything to try and keep a relationship working?
A few years ago, I was that guy. Needy, desperate, and insecure.
My past relationships have not worked out. Even when my college sweetheart took me to couples therapy, she was sleeping with someone behind my back. My next partner was an avoidant, and could only love me at an arm’s length. It was just enough to keep the carrot out in front, but not enough to feed me the love I was starving for.
I felt broken. Flawed. Unlovable.
In my core I believed I was unworthy of love, so I sought reassurance that I was worthy of my romantic partners. My insecurity drove me to organize my life around my relationship and my partner. Since my self-worth was outside of myself, it made it nearly impossible to pursue my personal interest.
This was heightened by my fear of rejection, which blocked me from expressing my own opinions or bringing up conflicts that could improve the relationship for me. I became a relationship chameleon. I often clung to my partner’s passion and hobbies at the cost of myself.
I was empty. Missing the heart of who I was.
To fill this emptiness, I began working 100 hours a week. I was motivated by the belief that financial wealth would give me the approval I craved. 1
When I wasn’t working, I was using my partner to validate my worthiness by trying to win her approval. I would attempt to please her by picking up flowers or surprise gifts, even when I didn’t have the money. I would drop my friendships faster than a hot potato for time with her.
It was a terrible bind: if I showed my true colors, I would be left. And if I hid who I was, I would be loved.
Looking back, I can see how this mistaken belief blocked me from seeing the evidence that I could be accepted by my partner as I was, flaws and all. And even if my partner didn’t accept me as I was, someone else would. But the pressure to find love kept me pursuing it from the very people who wouldn’t give it to me. That’s because these romantic partners validated the toxic beliefs I had developed about myself.
The Anxious Childhood
When you are born, you are helplessly dependent on your caregivers. In the 1950’s a man named John Bowlby 2 began studying the nature of an infant’s bond to a mother. He theorized that the availability and responsiveness of our caregivers in times of stress would cultivate a ”felt security”3.
Throughout countless interactions with caregivers, an infant starts to create a mental script that makes predictions about how the world works.
- “If I cry, my mom will come hold me and feed me.”
- “If I reach for my dad, he will pick me up.”
As a child, we begin to predict whether our caregivers will be there to support us if we become overwhelmed or encounter an obstacle. When they adequately provide relief, we calm down and return to other activities. We feel safe.
This felt security builds a mental belief system that teaches us that we matter, that we can take risks and that we are worthy of love.
Unfortunately, not all of us have caregivers who were responsive. This impacts the way we view ourselves. A person who is considered needy likely grew up in a family with an anxious parent who was unpredictably available.
At times, this type of parent could have been loving, overly caring, and supportive. Other times they may have been occupied, overwhelmed, and hostile, which meant they appeared incapable of supporting your needs. Sometimes you were put in a position to take responsibility for this parent’s emotional state. You had to parent your parent.
At a young age, these mixed messages are confusing. So we often internalize these experiences. “If mommy yells at me for wanting to be held, then maybe I’m not worthy of her love.”
Dr. Dan Siegel describes the needy partner as having a “confused core self”4. These experiences form internal representations about what we deserve and what our romantic partners are willing to give us.
Confirmations of Unworthiness
We are attracted to relationships that confirm our self-views 5 and avoid those that don’t, even if they’re healthier. If you believe you’re unworthy of love like I do, then guess what… it’s likely that you’re going to love someone who confirms that.
Leslie Becker-Phelps, Ph.D., highlights that there are three ways that we do this:
- Selective attention: We tend to focus on the feedback that validates our unlovability, rather than the information that makes us feel worthy.
- Selective memory: Our memories only recall the times our partners were unavailable or when we felt too needy. And when we have events that counter our beliefs, we may not even remember them.
- Selective interpretation: we neglect to question information that verifies our unworthiness, and we tend to label events that highlight our worthiness as random events.
“Old patterns no matter how negative and painful they may be, have an incredible magnetic power – because they do feel like home.” – Gloria Steinem
Maybe like me, you pay close attention to any evidence that you’re a burden and needy. In doing so, you neglect the evidence of the amazing attributes you offer as a romantic partner and a human being.
This need to confirm our unworthiness is often so strong that we select partners who validate this, and we choose to behave in ways that put our partners in a position to act in accordance with what we believe.
Focused on Emotional Unavailability
When we see ourselves as unlovable, we often focus on the ways our partners confirm this. For example, when my partner was at work and wouldn’t return my text, I believed it was because she didn’t care enough. Or because she was texting another guy.
Instead of being comforted by the idea that she had an important work meeting, my mind created a movie of her intentionally sabotaging our relationship. The more anxious I was, the more often I created these thoughts.
I was blind to the chances of her being available. And I was unaware of how my thoughts verified, and instead focused on the moments that she was unavailable.
“When others treat you in a way that fits with your self-perceptions, you feel validated and the relationship feels comfortably familiar, even if it’s painful.” – Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD
We reinforce our unworthiness through our interactions with our partners.
“Allergic to Hope”
Needy lovers are paranoid of being rejected by their partners. This is a result of our early childhood experiences or difficult adult relationships. 6
For instance, when my partner did become emotionally available for me, she was met with criticism about the times she wasn’t available. This made her feel like she could never do anything right.
Stan Tatkin, PsyD proposes that when a needy person’s partner is available it triggers a “psychobiological anticipation of imminent rejection or withdrawal.” And so we try to counter this fear of disappointment through negativistic behavior. In a way, it’s a shield against the vulnerability of depending on our partners.
The more available they become, especially during distressing times, the more the emotional memories of abandonment come to mind.
It goes like this, “I’m so happy to see you! Wait a second. I also remember you not being here for me when I needed you most. I can’t trust you. You’re going to not be here again. I know it. I’m angry at you.”
According to Tatkin, needy lovers do this in a few ways:
- Intentionally deny physical affection, even if you secretly crave it.
- Complaints about your partner being unreliable, not caring enough, or being selfish.
- Believing you are fundamentally broken and a burden to your partner.
- Hold grudges and trying to “settle the score”.
- Creating drama by saying things like “This isn’t working for me.”
- Withdrawing sexually to punish your partner for “rejecting” you.
This negativistic behavior creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. When Kris returns from an exhausting business trip with the last day including 10 hours of meetings and six hours of driving and says, “It’s so nice to be home with you. I’m exhausted and am going to head to bed.” Tim starts a fight about how Kris doesn’t care enough to connect and talk about the day’s event right now. This sets Kris up for failure.
Tim is so focused on the unavailability that he doesn’t give his partner the benefit of the doubt. He doesn’t hear that Kris is excited to be home with him and exhausted. Instead, he hears “I’m exhausted” and believes that his partner being exhausted means his partner is unwilling to talk to him. Underneath this belief is the fear that his partner doesn’t love him and that he is unlovable.
Another way we do this is by pushing away a significant other with threats of ending the relationship, anger, or harsh sarcasm despite deeply craving our partner to move closer.
It’s like you’re constantly testing your partner’s commitment. “If I threaten to leave, do I matter enough for you to come after?” Unfortunately, this is the last thing your partner wants to do because they’ve just been berated by you. Again, this validates your self-view that you are unworthy of love even more.
As you can see a needy person often makes their partner feel what they fear most: rejected.
The final way a needy partner does this is by indirectly asking for what you need or hoping your partner will read your mind because “you want them to prove that you’re important to them.” The notion of asking for what you need is counterintuitive because it violates the belief that you are not deserving of having those needs met.
Needy lovers are people pleasers. Due to childhood experiences, they learned that the best way to receive love and care is to focus on other’s needs first.
Since needy lovers focus is on caring for their partners, they pay a price in emotional security because they are never sure if they will receive the care they want. They never really ask for what they want. They’re too afraid it will cause problems in the relationship, or cause their partner to reject them entirely.
So they wear a smiling mask. Underneath the happy face is a resentful and angry one. Part of the problem is not wearing your heart on your sleeve or being honest about your needs. Due to the unpredictable availability of the people you depend on, you often neglect your needs to maintain the relationship because that’s what’s worked in the past.
If your goal is to maintain good feelings in the relationship, then you’ll focus on making the relationship work at the cost of yourself, instead of making the relationship work for you.
You Have So Much To Offer
As a needy lover, you have so much to offer a relationship: affection, emotional intimacy, and care. Unfortunately, the past can sabotage that. Creating a secure-functioning relationship that makes you happy will require you to face the issues that have burdened you since your childhood.
The path is intentionally collecting the positive evidence that you’re loveable, understanding your triggers so you can stop reacting and start responding, and learn how to communicate your needs in such a way that your partner has a roadmap to your heart.
A needy lover may be classified as anxiously attached. If you’re curious if this includes you, you can take my assessment here. If you’d like to do a deep reflection on the ways you confirm your unlovability, then subscribe to the newsletter and as a welcome gift, I’ll send you a copy of Breaking Unworthiness in Love Relationships.
- This is very common for anxious partners. Motivations such as insane financial wealth may be driven by deeper insecurities of not being lovable. ↩
- Bowlby is considered the founding father of attachment. His books A Secure Base and the Attachment and Loss Series offer insight into his early discoveries. ↩
- This comes from Sroufe, L. A., & Waters, E. (1977). Attachment as an organizational construct. Child Development, 48, 1184-1199 ↩
- Dr. Siegel talks about this in his workshop Parenting from the inside out. ↩
- This is called self-verification theory. Here is some of the research I used: Swann, W. B., & Buhrmester, M. D. (2003)
verification: The search for coherence. In M. Leary & J. Tangrney (Eds.) Handbook of Self and Identity (405-424). New York: Guilford Press; Swann, W.B., Stein-Seroussi A., and Giesler, R.B. (1992) Why people self-verify. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 62: 392-401 ↩
- Stan Tatkin first labeled Allergic to Hope in his paper here. ↩