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My boyfriend was cheated on in the past and is terrified I’ll cheat, too

Ask Roe: I have male friends, but he gets so anxious when I mention them that it feels like going out isn’t worth it

Dear Roe,

I’ve been with my boyfriend for two years and we’re talking about getting married. He’s kind, caring, funny and understands me more than anyone I’ve ever met. We’ve both had serious relationships before and this one feels different for both of us. He was cheated on twice before, the last time by his girlfriend of four years and it really broke him. Over the past year, his anxiety about this has got worse. He gets very anxious that I’m going to leave him, and he seems obsessed with the idea that we’ll get married and I’ll cheat on him and he’ll never be able to love or date again. He makes “jokes” about it a lot, and I thought this was just a way of looking for reassurance, but then he started constantly checking in on what I was doing, getting anxious if I didn’t reply to texts quick enough, and he has strong reactions whenever I socialise with men. He gets moody and pouty and a few days later he’ll start a fight that ends with him telling me how much he loves me and that he’s terrified of losing me. I have male friends from work and old friends from college and I’m in some outdoor clubs, and it’s exhausting trying to deal with his questions and reactions to any mention of them. He’s never said I couldn’t see them, but then he wears me down so much that sometimes it feels like going out isn’t worth it. I love him, he’s perfect in every other way and I know how much he was hurt before, but I don’t know how to reassure him.

You need to put those marriage conversations on ice. And possibly push that ice out to sea. Or at least in a freezer on a long-haul cruise ship, so that it can return, but not for a very long time.

You obviously care deeply for your boyfriend and have deep empathy for his past experiences of betrayal. But you have fallen into the common trap of thinking that because you emotionally understand the cause of someone’s behaviour, you need to excuse and accept it, and that simply is not true. Part of you – the part of you that is exhausted and wary and wrote this letter – knows deep down that despite all of your boyfriend’s great qualities, something is wrong here. That feeling is your gut, and you need to listen to it.

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In many romantic relationships, couples go through phases of closeness and independence. Often, the very beginning of a relationship, or the “honeymoon” phase, is marked by a lot of closeness and togetherness, often sacrificing some outside interests, friendships and individual time as they bond and create intimacy. Then, in healthy relationships, the next phase is marked by a return to some more individuality, feeling comfortable and stable enough in the relationship that you can both return to some of your individual interests and carve out more time for yourselves separately. This stage is important for the sustainability of the relationship, as individuals still need to have their own identity and have room to grow and evolve and pursue their interests – and respect the same needs of their partner.

He will never be satisfied, which means his demands and desire for control are never going to stop, which means this will continue to be a possessive and controlling relationship, which means you cannot marry him

This usual timeline feels important, because it sounds like what’s happening in your relationship is the opposite. Your boyfriend was fine in the early stages of your relationship when you were spending all your time together – but over the past year, as you’ve been returning to hobbies and other commitments, he has responded to your very normal, healthy desire for more freedom not with respect, but with increasing control, manipulation, and pressure to shrink your life down. He wants to feel safe, and is placing his desire for safety above all of your feelings, needs and wants. This obviously isn’t an equal relationship – and that’s the point. He doesn’t feel safe in an equal relationship. He doesn’t feel safe with a person he can’t constantly monitor and control, which is why he has started reacted more extremely as you’ve started pursuing your interests. He demands reassurance, immediate text responses, and guilts you about socialising in an attempt to feel safe – but you cannot offer him the safety he’s asking of you, because his idea of safety has nothing to do with you, or anyone else.

He has no internal sense of trust or safety, and instead of tackling his own issues and trying to change his mindset, he instead demands constant reassurances that only ease his anxiety momentarily until the next time you leave the house or mention a man, at which point he’ll need more reassurance. He will never be satisfied, which means his demands and desire for control are never going to stop, which means this will continue to be a possessive and controlling relationship, which means you cannot marry him.

He may not explicitly be banning you from seeing your male friends or pursuing your hobbies, but he is punishing you every time you do, and that is manipulation and coercion, and it cannot continue.

If you really want to try make this relationship work, you need to have a serious conversation telling him that you are not responsible for his previous experience

Being cheated on can be a really awful, destabilising, core-shaking experience. It can cause self-esteem and self-blame issues, and make it difficult to trust. In people who don’t address their trust issues, this can lead to controlling behaviour. But I do want to flag that it’s also possible that your boyfriend’s previous experiences of betrayal may have actually been caused by his possessive behaviour, instead of resulting in it. It’s possible that previous partners cheated to reclaim some freedom from or even force the ending of a controlling relationship. Either way, what he’s doing now is sabotaging his relationship with you by refusing to take responsibility for his own emotions.

No more wedding plans. If you really want to try make this relationship work, you need to have a serious conversation telling him that you are not responsible for his previous experience; that his demands are pushing you away; that a healthy relationship requires freedom, trust, respect and that he will never have that – with anyone, and definitely not with you – if he doesn’t address his issues by going to therapy and doing the work of creating some inner safety. Tell him that your interests, friendships, and individuality is important to you, and that you cannot sacrifice them for him – and no partner should.

If he genuinely does the work, the relationship may survive. But know that this current state of play is not sustainable, healthy or normal. You cannot protect him from his own fears. But you can protect yourself from manipulation, control, and a relationship that demands that you shrink yourself down for someone else.