Can We Survive My Girlfriend’s Control and Abandonment Issues?

My girlfriend has abandonment and control issues. I need expert advice. I had a very sweet and loving girlfriend with a great sense of humor. However, when she is stressed she becomes extremely controlling and fears abandonment, which results in mental breakdowns. The last case was the worst yet. In a seemingly normal discussion about my future career possibilities, she suggested we marry (we have not even been together for six months). I thought she was kidding and said it is too early to marry. This resulted in her screaming like in a horror film, destroying her bathroom, and hitting herself. After she calmed down, I left. She threatened suicide if I left. However, I held my ground and went. She followed me home, and her breakdown continued there until I finally got her to go home alone. It is now three days later. Me leaving her seems to have woken her up. She was in therapy before we met. She now is seeking therapy again, and has begun to take responsibility for what she did. I have made it clear that our relationship is over. However, she would like to set it as a goal to get back together if she can overcome her controlling ways. Is it realistic for me to consider that a person with this condition would be able to overcome these control issues and be part of a balanced relationship? Or is this something that will likely not get better? —Doubtful
Dear Doubtful,

Thank you for your question. Boy, have you been on a roller coaster! In fact, this was my first response: Gee, does he really want to get back on? But then I reflected on it, and I began to see the question in a more positive light, thinking: Perhaps he really cares about her, loves her, and is willing to wait. Maybe he sees something worth waiting for. And what is nobler than that?

At the same time, it’s possible you are feeling some survivor guilt after all this intensity (i.e., a “horror film.”) Your girlfriend, while lovely in many ways, I’m sure, clearly has some posttraumatic stress-type abandonment terrors and, probably, some trauma or historical abuse to work through. This can take a while. It is hard to predict the course of therapy; my sense is that the more you give her space to really work on healing herself, the better. It is easy to find distraction when the hard road of recovery lies before you, especially in the early stages. Keep holding your ground, because many people in early treatment look for distractions or exits. In fact, I think the less talk of “we’ll give it another try,” the better. “Let’s see how it goes first” might be the more prudent approach.

Even if you do decide to give love another try, she needs time to establish some emotional balance in her life, to withstand life’s inevitable volatility—which has proven so dangerously destabilizing to her. (She must have really been treated horribly at some point in her life; how lucky she has someone who cares for her so much now!) Treatment is very hard to predict. Based simply on what you describe, it sounds like she has some knotty psychological issues to untangle. Also, there are always relapses in the best of treatments, and the inevitable ups and downs. Be prepared for a long haul with—I hope—subtle but lasting changes along the way.

But let’s talk about you for a moment. You are in an existential dilemma in the sense that no one except you really knows what it is like in your own skin, to say nothing of what lies within your heart. Because of the complexity of what you are facing, and if I may be so bold, might I suggest some therapy for yourself? Your questions are actually about your girlfriend, but what lies within you? What do you need to be happy from this or any partner—what can and can’t you live with to feel safe? I suggest a cooling-off period where you spend time with friends or doing things you enjoy, getting on with life, seeing how it feels to live without the “horror film” and threats. Sad to say, but I wonder if your girlfriend is really available for a relationship, given the inevitable challenges of intimacy. (What does her therapist say about this?) Love is often given as “the answer” to life’s woes, but love, like life, is always subject to unpredictability.

You say you need “expert advice,” a wise observation given that you have been through trauma; though your tone is admirably stalwart, I can’t help but think it disturbing to have witnessed your beloved behaving so destructively, perhaps like someone you hardly even recognized. (Trauma states are often jarringly alien to friends and loved ones, even the person him/herself.)

No one can say, when all is said and done, whether your questions are reflective of love and devotion or so-called “codependence.” But counseling, even short-term, would probably help gain some perspective as the dust clears. You’re very smart, by the way, to hesitate before leaping back in. The fact you are hesitating to seek “expert advice” might indicate a need to explore the pain of your own recent experience as much as the possible return of the relationship. And yes, I do mean your pain, which counts just as much as hers—or should, if we’re talking about a romance between equals. Without something resembling equality-based thinking, where both partners’ needs “count”—a relationship between two committed, equally available and accountable partners—intimacy cannot thrive.

Best wishes,

Darren Haber, PsyD, MFT is a psychotherapist specializing in treating alcoholism and drug addiction as well as co-occurring issues such as anxiety, depression, relationship concerns, secondary addictions (especially sex addiction), and trauma (both single-incident and repetitive). He works in a variety of modalities, primarily cognitive behavioral, spiritual/recovery-based, and psychodynamic. He is certified in eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, and continues to receive psychodynamic training in treating relational trauma, including emotional abuse/neglect and physical and sexual abuse.
  • Leave a Comment
  • Jen

    April 4th, 2014 at 3:53 PM

    Whoa I can definitely see the hesitation and you would be a braver soul than I would be to get involved again so soon! But I know that saying that as an outsider is a whole lot easier than it is as someone who is actually involved in the relationship. So I guess what you really have to think about is whether you love this person enough to try to salvage the relationship and if this is someone you could see as marriage material down the road. It is clear to all of us that she has issues, I don’t think that we need rocket science to tell us that. But it is also clear that she sees that too, and I think that this is also a good sign, better than her just thinking that you are the one with issues. I think that if I were going to go back in I would do it slowly and with caution, and with words to her that this may or may not work but that you are willing to at least give it another “cautionary” try.

  • Jim C

    April 5th, 2014 at 5:41 AM

    This could get better for her, but not overnight and not after one or two therapy sessions.

    This sounds like something that has been going on for a very long time with her, and just like anything esle, old habits die hard.

  • Channing

    April 7th, 2014 at 4:10 PM

    Not sure that I could nor would want to handle this kind of emotional roller coaster. She might say that she can heal but does she really want to or is this her way of controlling you when she already knows that it could work? The squeaky wheel always gets the oil and so I would just choose to err on the side of caution my friend.

  • jerome R

    April 8th, 2014 at 2:58 PM

    Oh I think that it can get better for her but I too think that this is something that is going to take a lot of work for both of you. She is going to have to work on years and years of feeling lost and abandoned and you will have to work on feeling some level of faith and trust in here again while she tries to earn that. That combined is a pretty steep challenge for the two of you. I know that it is possible because there are couples who can accomplish amazing things together all the time but I don’t want either of you to do it just because. I would want you to do it because this is the person you have actually decided that you want to be with.

  • Brianne

    April 10th, 2014 at 12:39 PM

    just a quick thought here that I’ve been ruminating on… do you think that the abandonment could be all about the control? Like, she knows this is the trigger point that she could bring up that would most make you incclined to stay and bam! she’s got you right where she wants you? Again, just a thought but one worth considering I would think.

  • Darren Haber MFT

    April 16th, 2014 at 8:35 AM

    Thanks all for your excellent comments!

  • Paula

    June 23rd, 2017 at 1:36 AM

    Every time someone sais that he is in a relationship with someone with abandonment issues, I often see people commenting: “oh, poor you, run as fast as you can”. Nobody really tried to find a solution that really works. “Oh, go to a therapist, 10000 sessions, and MAYBE you can learn how to handle this” but NOT healing themselves. They all want you in therapy, it is a business that is trying to keep you there, to provide profit. I don’t think running from this kind of people is a solution, I think really helping this people with this problem is the solution. Fight for happiness, not for sustaining the abandonment for abandoned people! Let us be human, Lets get united and help the man in need! Fight for happiness!!!!

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