Thrive Global asked me to answer this question for our Gottman column “Asking For A Friend.”  I hope my words for this hurting person can help you or someone you know. 

Q: I feel like I’m being “cookie-jarred” in my relationship. Will things ever change? My partner and I are in an on and off relationship, and I feel constant disappointment and anxiety in where we’re at. Whenever we’re “on,” I’m happy, but whenever we’re “off,” he ends up dating someone else briefly, and then comes back to me after. I feel like I’m being “cookie jarred” –– disrespected, disregarded, and left as his last choice. I know this is a toxic cycle, but I can’t help but feeling that it would be a mistake to let him go too soon without giving him a chance to grow. Am I waiting for a change that will never happen? Will I always be left in the cookie jar, or will he finally ever choose me for good?

A: “Disappointment.” “Anxiety.” “Disrespected.” “Disregarded.” “Left as his last choice.” Ouch! It sounds to me like you’re really suffering. In fact, I’m thinking you’re miserable.

What part of you wants this relationship to work? I’m going to guess there’s a wounded child inside who’s still hoping a negligent parent or care-giver will finally bond deeply with her and make her a priority. Many of us have younger unhealed parts within – still holding energy and playing a role in our adult emotions and decisions. There is no shame in this. And you aren’t alone.

I’ve helped many clients with this pattern, and in fact, this is also my own story. I had a parent who never seemed to fully “show up” as an available adult. When I found someone who seemed to connect with all of my yearnings – and then turn away from me – I was hooked, just like you seem to be.

These episodes of paying attention and then abandoning can set you up for an addictive cycle – just like a slot machine. And your brain’s dopamine is driving this pattern. Your own neurobiology makes that elusive partner especially desirable – creating a “craving” for him. (Just like the child craves the love and attention she genuinely needs; but also like a junkie craves a fix.) Sorry to make that comparison – but I’m doing it on purpose.

You see, I think you need a caring little “shock” to wake you up to the truth expressed by your wiser self.

Since you understand this is a toxic pattern, let’s take that word “toxic,” very literally. Stress is a neurotoxin – damaging the brain and nervous system. The type of anxiety that you describe is a sure set up for neurological distress – and consequently an over-production of stress hormones – especially cortisol, which can injure your brain and nervous system, causing inflammation and harming other bodily systems, as well.

Being devalued in a primary relationship weakens your immune system. Research studies have linked the sort of emotional wounding you describe with chronic illness, and even death.

So you know I’m going to encourage you to go to therapy, right? A good therapist can not only help you explore why you want this destructive relationship to work, but can also help you heal your wounded inner child. The reason I’m a therapist today is because I did this very thing around my own “cookie jar” relationship.

And what about him? I don’t need to say it, but the best predictor of the future is the past. Sadly there are lots of people who can’t keep their hands out of the cookie jar. When you look at the patterns you describe, I can’t give you any hope that he will ever be different.

While I would never want to say a person can’t change (after all, as a therapist my foundational premise is that they can) most people don’t seek change when life is comfortably and conveniently going their way.

There are some people who are naturally bent toward personal growth – seeking wisdom or inner healing – while others will change when the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of changing.

What about you? While it would entail a certain level of pain for you to end this relationship and get out of the cookie jar, taking that risk, and tolerating the possibility of spending time alone while you work on yourself would give you “growing pains.” Would you prefer this to the sort of suffering you’re enduring now?

I want to encourage you to pursue that pain of personal growth, and equip yourself for a healthier relationship in the future.

You are worth more than crumbs in the cookie jar, my friend. You deserve the kind of relationship that you are offering. Healthy relationships are like a mutual feast. Each partner can be a full participant in every course of a deeply satisfying meal.

The kind of love that most of us are craving and would like to offer others, is what I call “sustaining love.” This sort of relationship can nurture your life. A sustaining love relationship isn’t the primary drain on our energy, nor a frequent source of emotional distress or negativity. A sustaining love relationship provides energy. It’s a home base from which you can take on the world. In the Gottman research, we call these dynamics The Sound Relationship House.

The two stabilizing factors in the Sound Relationship House are trust and commitment. These are two structural walls which make a secure and sustainable relationship possible. Without walls, do we really have a house? Without trust and commitment do you really have a relationship?

I would assert it’s not the kind of relationship that makes a home for your heart.

Just as water seeks its own level, you’ll attract a partner who is at about the same level of emotional health as you are. So my best advice to you is to value yourself. Get healthier – and set yourself up for mutual attraction with a truly available and caring person. I’m so glad you wrote, and I have a feeling you’re on your way!

The changes you’re looking for can START RIGHT NOW.


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