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‘I love taking care of anxious partners, but my needs always get trampled’

Ask Roe: How can I enjoy a deep, meaningful, loving relationship without becoming a doormat?

Dear Roe,

I have always been attracted to women who needed to be looked after. I got great happiness from being able to calm and console women who tended to, in hindsight, be profoundly anxious and insecure. But part of this was tied up with a sexual attraction to being submissive in a relationship, and such people were reassured by that certainty. Over time, however, I became a doormat in my marriage, giving everything but receiving no emotional or other fulfilment. Essentially, the “anxiety” was really “control” and bullying once we had children. With a lot of help, I finally left her.

I would like to experience love someday, but again and again the things which still attract me are the things which attracted me to my ex, and ultimately turned me into an affection-deprived doormat. After years of loneliness in a marriage, I crave an intensity of closeness and connection that I fear will lead to a repeat of the same cycle of trying to please. How can I address my seemingly idiosyncratic attraction to relationships like this, and enjoy a deep, meaningful loving relationship without becoming that doormat again?

I’m sorry that your marriage and divorce were such difficult times for you. It’s going to be very important for you to work on your healing and move slowly as you seek out new relationships, so you can make choices that are good for you and craft the type of relationships you want.


It’s natural after a break-up where you were treated badly and had your self-esteem impacted to have complex feelings and fears about repeating these cycles. One thing I would urge you to be mindful of, however, is not assuming that all relationships will be like your last, or assuming that your interest in sexual submission will automatically lead to relationships where you are treated badly.

I note this because in your letter you use general, plural terms including “women” and “such people” – but then only refer to your ex-wife as an example of a relationship that turned unhealthy. Perhaps there were earlier relationships that also felt controlling, but if not, I’d urge you to be mindful of where you are conflating one bad relationship with all potential partners. You can be aware of what you want and what boundaries you need to set moving forward, without entering new dynamics with bitterness or a fatalistic attitude that could prove to be self-sabotaging.

There’s nothing idiosyncratic about wanting a relationship where you feel needed, where you get to enjoy some sexual submission, and where you still feel respected and cared for. Believing that this is an unattainable ask – which it is not – could lead you to settle for relationships that are unhealthy.

What would it mean to look at what you bring to a relationship beyond your previous role as caretaker, and to look at what potential partners have to offer you beyond vulnerability and need?

First, find yourself a good therapist who will help you work through the hurt you experienced in your previous relationship, and change the narrative in your mind about your needs being too much. Your ex was one person and one relationship, and though it might take significant time to heal from this, it does not mean that relationship is destined to define all your future ones.

One thing that may be interesting to explore is your desire to feel needed, and where that comes from. Of course, many people in serious relationships enjoy feeling that their partner values them, relies on them to some degree, and looks to them for support. But if you’re entering a brand new relationship immediately wanting to feel “needed”, this may indicate a lack of self-worth and, ironically, a desire for control. Wanting someone to need you and depend on you may be a sign that you’re not confident in your ability to be worthy just as you are, instead of being valued for what you offer someone else.

Wanting to be needed could also imply that you want someone to be reliant on you, which is a type of power that could veer into unhealthy dynamics if unchecked. Choosing people who are “profoundly anxious and insecure” could be a way of ensuring that their needs, desires and emotional states remain tied to, if not utterly dependent on, you. It also, as you have experienced, could lead to unhealthy dynamics where their anxiety and your desire to acquiesce to their demands could lead to you feeling unsupported, unfulfilled and limited.

What would it mean to start thinking of yourself as someone who is willing to offer your partner support – but within sustainable levels that are appropriate to the nature of your relationship, and who expects support in return? What would it mean to look at what you bring to a relationship beyond your previous role as caretaker, and what potential partners have to offer you beyond vulnerability and need? I fear your current narrative – that you are only attracted to needy women and that what you primarily bring to relationships is care and reassurance – puts you at risk for limiting both yourself and potential partners to one-dimensional facsimiles of yourselves, and may also shut down your ability to see other people clearly.

There are respectful, independent, secure people who also want and need support at times. People who are insecure or anxious might need more from a partner than endless self-sacrifice and consolation – indeed, they might need some boundaries, space and equality to learn how to feel more safe, secure and self-sufficient. What would it mean to balance your desire to give support to partners by focusing on what else you find attractive and what you value in relationships? How could you look for those things, trusting that the chance to support and validate a partner will naturally occur? How could this approach let you and a partner flourish beside each other as equals, instead of crumpling in on each other and hindering growth for both of you? When you start focusing on what else you want from a relationship, it will be easier to think of how you can maintain boundaries and respect around your own needs, and will make it more likely that you’ll choose people who are willing and able to respect them, too.

Your romantic and sexual experiences seem to have been affected by the misapprehension that you and your partners need to lose some of yourself to the other. This isn’t true

It will be within this type of mutually caring, mutually respectful relationship that your interest in submission will actually be able to flourish. When you find someone who cares about your needs and is able to set, maintain and respect boundaries, it will be easier to indulge in controlled submission without losing yourself thoroughly. Submission play in sexual or romantic terms should never be about an actual loss of agency, control or autonomy, but a way of exploring and enacting desires in ways that feel safe, caring and exciting, and put you in touch with your desires – and can be withdrawn from or stopped at any time.

Your romantic and sexual experiences seem to have been affected by the misapprehension that you and your partners need to lose some of yourself to the other. This isn’t true. Focus on the other aspects of you that make you a good and worthy partner, look for potential partners who have a lot to offer, and look for relationships where you want and choose each other, rather than need each other. The possibilities for fulfilment, affection, care and exploration will feel more expansive.