The Shadow in Your Relationship

dealing with doubt in a relationship

Janice wasn’t trying to snoop. She was just looking up movie times. Her phone was in the other room, so she grabbed Brad’s off the coffee table.

But before she could fire up his browser and do a quick internet search, he got a text message from someone named Cheryl.

“Last night was unexpected!” That was it.

He said he was working late last night. Some kind of sales meeting. Immediately, Janice felt worry settle in. She’d been cheated on before, and she didn’t like the idea of living through that nightmare again.

But things seemed to be going well with Brad. If she questioned him about the message, it could send him running.

What to do? Ask him about it even if it freaks him out? Or let it go and leave herself at risk?

Particularly in the beginning stages of a relationship, there are all kinds of opportunities to doubt the other person. After all, that’s when trust is still in its fledgling stages.

Vague little things, like a text message or something you spot in his apartment, or his erratic schedule, can leave you feeling suspicious. Before long, you slip into a mindset of apprehension, even when the evidence is paper thin.

There’s a better way to handle these kinds of situations.

According to a Swedish proverb, “Worry often gives a small thing a big shadow.” In my mind, I picture a mouse standing in a doorway. His shadow looms on the wall across the room, a huge, dark spot in spite of his small stature.

That’s what worry does to us. It distorts what we see. More often than not, the shadow of worry is bigger than the problem itself. That’s because worry changes you. And in a relationship, the effect is rarely positive.

dealing with doubt in a relationshipWhen you worry about his faithfulness (or anything else about the relationship), you end up preoccupied in every interaction you have with him. You’ll be distracted when you talk to him. You won’t be as chipper or positive as normal. You’ll seem far away and detached. Even if you’re good at hiding your feelings, it will almost certainly show.

The result is emotional distance. And a lot of guys won’t even ask about it. They’ll just assume you’re losing interest, which will feed your sense of worry, and the vicious cycle keeps on going until the relationship fails.

Don’t let worry do that to you.

When you’re concerned, even early on in a relationship, you have two choices. Either make a firm decision to give him the benefit of the doubt, or ask him directly about the situation. Trust him or talk to him.

It’s as simple as that. Men tend to favor direct communication. Most guys will appreciate a direct approach if you have questions. And if you can just let the worry go. Because that’s even better.

Whichever approach you take, don’t let the shadow of worry become a third wheel in your relationship. When that happens, you lose. You lose whether or not the worry was legit.

Instead of worrying, meet it head on. Make a firm decision to either believe the best or ask him to explain.

Nine times out of ten, that enormous shadow only represents a mouse-size problem.


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23 thoughts on “The Shadow in Your Relationship

  1. Hajara said:

    There is this new guy that I started dating 3 months back, he only cares to call me when he is in need of sex and when he is done satisfying himself he hardly calls or texts me. When I call he doesn’t pick up my calls, when I text he doesn’t reply and when I pinged him online on whatsApp or messenger he hardly replies.

    The last time I asked him why he was doing this he told me that he is a very busy man. I think there is no love in this, only sexual attraction. I don’t know what to do, should I ignore him?

    • Tracey said:

      Hi Hajara,

      It sounds like a very painful situation. I want to recommend a report that James has written on how to tell if you are his Backup Girl and also a blog post on Flaky Behavior. I hope these are helpful to you!

      Best wishes,

  2. Joanne said:

    I have a problem with my boyfriend’s grownup divorced daughter taking the wife roll with her dad.. Mary took care of her ailing mother as a young child until her mother was placed in a home because she had become a quadriplegic. She eventually died and 3 years ago I met Mat. We have become close, spending weeks traveling together on vacation. I sometimes stay in his home for 3-4 days at a time because i live quite a distance from him. Now Mary stops in at the house at least 3-4 times a week and stays late into the evening. I have no privacy with him in his house. My own children always call before they come over to my house. What can I say or do to end these constant visits without him thinking I don’t want her around?

    • James Bauer said:

      Some people find it helpful to express a negative as a positive request. Like, “I want more of you, and I trust your judgement so I’d like to see what thoughts you have about creating more alone time together without hurting Mary’s feelings.” Sometimes people like their own ideas better than the ones we propose to them.

  3. Magda said:

    Thank you for a great article…I will now see my worries, when they show up, as a mouse…and to give my man the benefit of a doubt. He does that for me!!

  4. Renee said:

    I wish I would have read this when it came out. I’ve been experiencing this for a couple of months now in my new relationship of 5 months and I wish I would have left things alone. We’ve known each other for years though and I thought he could be trusted.

    I too had a heartbreaking history of being cheated on in a couple of prior relationships so there were signs that I automatically key into. Nothing worried me about our relationship at first until 3 months in, he got a text one morning from a girl saying she misses him and still dreams about him. I saw it because it was face up on the table while he was in another room (his phone kept going off from several ppl including her). I told him I saw it and he told me their history (which he severely downplayed according to what I saw recently) and that I had nothing to worry about, how he only wanted to be with me & loved me etc.
    A month later he was sitting next to me and I saw where she was in text history. When things bother me it shows on my face and in my demeanor, and he picked up on it. I finally addressed it bc he said he was worried about me and wondering if I was ok. He admitted that he may need to me more direct with her about their contact with one another but he did tell her he was “seeing someone”. Just seeing someone doesn’t justify the depth of our relationship but I told him he needed to make it clear and establish boundaries if they were to keep contact (he even said he was uncomfortable talking to her….so tell her to buzz off right!?) He was still talking to her apparently but he did tell her that he was with someone. She got really upset and at one point they had discussed talking over the phone. She got upset and he asked if she wanted to talk to him or not. She said she didn’t see how him seeing someone else pertained to her and basically blew up at him, he retorted with saying they had been done for months and asked what she expected. She said on multiple occasions that she still loves him and misses him. He never responded back. Thank god…

    More recently, a coworker of his has been pretty chatty with him outside of work related things (when she texts him he says “she must be bored, she always texts me and is never talking about anything” blah blah. Well again on the couch next to him I saw her text to mid a work related convo–amongst her telling him how amazing he is etc— that she had a secret; he said he was curious and I was positive she told him she liked him. I had access to his phone yesterday and I confirmed it…she told him she liked him and had kept it secret for months. He never said lets keep it professional (she works under him) and he never mentioned having a girlfriend. She asked him out to drinks and dinner last week and instead of saying no thanks, I’m in a relationship he said he had to check his schedule bc he had something to do. He was supposed to be linking up with the guys to celebrate something but he wasn’t 100% when he told me about it.

    I also saw where he text some other girl he knew from college about being home for the holidays the week of thanksgiving and mentioned enjoying the single life and single fatherhood (he has a kid from his last relationship, not the 1st girl I mentioned from the texts). We’ve never taken breaks and never broken up, only had spats here and there (flags in my opinion, as to his true feelings about being in a relationship; never any substance, always irritations with me and never owning up to anything he did when I was the one who brought things up) We always talk through them and are fine afterward.

    All of my worries have been proven to actually be legitimate. I’ve also discovered that the spats he has with the mother of his child are bs too; none of her texts to him were hostile like he always claims. Where do I go from here now? He doesn’t know I saw the texts. And he keeps carrying on as if he’s happy. Why lie and why cheat? Why not just leave? How do I break things off? He’s been my main support system as I deal with my father being ill. My family is not helpful and not around like I need them to be. Is he sticking around bc he feels bad about my dad?

    Sorry for the novel. Please advise!

    • James Bauer said:

      Hi Renee. I appreciate your involvement in the comments section of my blog. But for detailed personal requests for advice we ask that you use our private relationship coaching service. You can access it here.


    • Lorna (LaLa) said:

      Hi Renee, I feel so, so sorry and sad for you in your situation. I think maybe part of the problem is that, actually, five months is not such a long time for getting to know each other and learning to trust each other. You are still in the very early stages. The other problem, these days, is all the contact everyone seems to have with each other and exes via texts and social media. And the constant changing of partners that didn’t happen years ago. I think it causes a lot of unnecessary anxiety and jealousy – we all carry such a lot of psychological baggage around that we put up barriers and keep one foot out of the door ready to bolt. Life is completely different to how it was 50 years ago when I was young. You knew where you were much more then, and everyone knew the rules. But it seems, for all that, that people’s feelings are just the same. That same old sick, jealous, insecure feeling in the gut when you think you are under attack and may lose the one you love. Of course, we are all going to be very flattered to think that we are attractive and in demand, when we receive messages from the opposite sex. I think James would probably say that we have to be open and honest with each other. Talk about what worries you, but try not to appear controlling, insecure, jealous. Sometimes it is easier for people to tell “little white lies” rather than face someone’s wrath if they tell the absolute truth. While this is cowardly, it is understandable, especially early on in a relationship. Your man will be, probably, just as insecure and worried about losing you if the truth comes out (however innocent the situation is). Try to see it from his perspective. I would say that the trouble is that he is “plagued” by these women – and women are much more predatory nowadays than they were – and he does not know how to fend them off. Explain how much it upsets you, without getting angry or aggresive and unfairly pinning blame on him, and see what his reaction is. (Use your feminine wiles here – a few little tears might help your cause!!). If he loves you, he should care deeply that he is hurting you, and try to put a stop to the texts from these women. And if he doesn’t want to do that – perhaps it is time to take a long look at your relationship, but bearing in mind that it is still early days to commit, and he is probably keepng his options open. As far as his ex with the child is concerned – well that is an entirely different situation. Bear in mind that she IS his ex for a reason, but that he will have to have contact, and if things can be kept friendly and open and honest and easy-going, it will be so much easier for everyone, especially the child, who is the most important one here. From your last comment, it seems as though you are already thinking of getting out of this situation. Things will become obvious if you just give them time, so don’t panic. Best of luck!! Lorna

  5. Delores said:

    My partner and I have lived together for over 3 years. Initially, he spoke of marriage but then his son came to live with us and the dynamic changed. I have helped care for him and rear h as if he were my own. Yet, whenever I would overhear him speaking to female friends on the phone, it was as if I did not exist. He would say how difficult it is to raise his child alone or make other intimate comments that would lead one to believe that he was not in a relationship. I know that men and women both require an ego boost from time to time, but I work full-time, and after completing all of my “duties” when I get home, I have nothing left for myself. If I MAKE time for myself then afterwards, I get the silent treatment, or hear remarks that something is lacking.

  6. Jaine said:

    If youre worried, make some excuse, like… your sister/ friend wanted you to stay with them and catch up… but you could spend time together with him as well.

    You had arranged to do that before he asked.

    • Julia said:

      Hi Jaine! Thank you for the reply and for your opinion. I would much rather be honest with him and not make excuses that are not true. I will definitely spend a lot of my time with my family and friends, and if I decide to stay with one of them, I will let my man know, it feels like the right thing to do… 🙂

  7. Julia said:

    Wow. Another excellent article, and timely, too! Thank you, James, it feels really good to be following your newsletters, they provide so much useful insight!

    I said “timely” because I feel worry too at this moment as well, though it’s not about infidelity, it’s about… living arrangements. I’m in a long-distance relationship with a wonderful man who I respect deeply, and I feel cherished and happy despite the distance (I work abroad, he lives in my home city, where I’m planning to go back to next year when my contract here finishes, so there IS a clear end to the distance in sight).

    At the end of this month, I’ll be going to our home city for 2 or 3 weeks, and he invited me to stay at his place. This would be the third major period we spend together (we met on a dating site in April, started out with five amazing and intense real-life dates in late May-early June, kept in touch, then spent a mini-holiday together in a city halfway, in early September, where we also compared life goals and timelines, decided it could work, and have been exclusive, and happy, ever since).

    The prospect of staying at his place troubles me: on the one hand, it feels amazing and exciting and it would definitely be more convenient; on the other hand, I feel anxious about being a guest on his “territory” for so long, and going from casual dating/vacationing to facing the reality of meeting the family and negotiating chores and personal space. I like him a lot and I can really see a future, and still, I don’t want to enter into a “wife” dynamics so soon.

    What do you think, James? Should I stay at his place this time? Am I overthinking this? If I decide not to stay with him, what would be a good way to communicate this, without disrespecting him or upsetting him? Thank you!

    • Julia said:

      PS: The reason this post resonated with me so much was… that my anxiety about staying with him or not had been hanging over me for weeks now, and it’s getting more intense as the time approaches, and I feel that it might indeed paralyze me and change my interactions to him, which so far have been fantastic… So yes, I need to face this shadow…

      • rodi said:

        OMG! I don’t know when this was written, but I do hope you decided not to camp at his place! Just visit and have fun, but say you also want to spend time with family/friends!
        Else, you may end up out of that relationship before you leave!

      • Julia said:

        Hi Rodi! Thank you for the reply and your opinion! I most certainly intend to spend a lot of my time with family and friends (going out with them without him and so on), and another big portion of my time actually working. I even told him that I’ll make spending time with him a priority, but not my *only* priority. And he understood, of course. 🙂

        Do you have any concrete reasons why staying with him might endanger the future of this relationship? What do you think I should look out for?

        Thank you again for your advice!

      • Lorna (LaLa) said:

        Oh dear. Yes this can be a tricky one to get over – but you HAVE to get over it and move on into another dimension of your relationship – otherwise you will be stuck forever in the same place. Things change and evolve all the time. You don’t say how old you are. I had (and still am having) a similar experience with a long distance relationship. I am 67 now and he is 63 – it’s been three and a half years now. We have lots of problems relating to his drink problem, which he tried to hide in the beginning. However, what I would say from my experience is, whatever you do, do NOT go into his place and start acting like a WIFE. Act as an honoured GUEST – as you would with anyone else. Just accept him as he is – for the moment!! They can be extremely proud and sensitive. My guy got his back up straight away – would not let me wash up and dry and put away – still doesn’t (I didn’t do it right – but he also has OCD, so that explains that !!). He was so excited about me coming. Very proud of looking up recipes and getting the place “ready” for me – all cleaned, hoovered and polished, bedding washed, nice pretty tissues on the side table, a mirror specially placed for me (I am 5ft-1). Let him pamper you and be the “housewife” in his own home – and don’t forget to tell him how wonderful his place is, and that he is for what he is doing for you. I think if you do not stay with him, he will be very hurt – he will see it as a rejection (they hate being rejected-or at least mine does!). Just go with the flow and enjoy it all. You have no way of knowing HOW it will be – so all your worry is foundless. It’s just all in your imagination. It will probably be completely different to how you imagine. Until you slowly get to know each other, anything is possible, and this is the best way to get to know each other. Just enjoy – and have a wonderful time – you lucky girl !!! Three weeks will fly by. Life is for living, with all its ups and downs. Just DO IT. (And let us know how you get on!). There is a great book called “Feel the Fear and do it Anyway” – worth reading. Love and best wishes to you. Lorna

      • Julia said:

        Hi Lorna, and thank you so much for replying to me! I deeply appreciate you sharing your story, and I feel grateful for the advice and encouragement! I really needed the reminder that I can’t know how it’s actually going to be like… Oh, and I’m 27, and the guy is 29.

        As for being a guest and not jumping into housework, that’s going to be tough, but I hope I’ll be able to handle it…

        Oh, and thanks for the book recommendation, I’ll be checking it out soon!

        Hugs, and good luck to you and your relationship!

      • Lorna (LaLa) said:

        It was so lovely to get your reply – thankyou, I really appreciate it. And your good wishes for my situation, which is not looking all that good at the moment, unfortunately – very sad. However, I just KNOW that you will have a lovely time when you stay with your man – just try to enjoy it for what it is, and don’t get too anxious.You’re bound to be feeling excited, and that is nice.
        DO TRY not to start doing the housework – I find that so difficult, too. Since I was a little girl, my fingers itched to do the washing up and polishing things for people – I laugh about it now when I look back. I even took a bottle of bleach when I visited my (now ex) husband’s house where he lived with two other guys, before we were married – I could not bear the thought of using the dishcloth, it was so disgusting!! How terrible was that? – but they didn’t seem to mind!! And he did still want to marry me. That was almost 45 years ago – and I still haven’t learnt my lesson! However, women are not expected (and certainly should NOT be) to be so housewifely these days – so just leave it to him, and tread carefully, unless it really is obvious that he won’t mind a LITTLE help. And, actually, come to think of it, that will leave you more time for doing more interesting things!! I’ll be rooting for you, and wish you all the best with this relationship. ENJOY! Don’t forget to tell us how it went – hopefully you will still have a relationship at the end of it. By the way, the book is by Susan Jeffers, you can get it on Amazon. Best wishes. Love, Lorna

      • Julia said:

        Thank you for all the wishes, advice and good thoughts, Lorna! I will keep you updated. 🙂 Again, I wish you good luck with whatever you’re facing with your man! Hugs!

    • James Bauer said:

      I understand why this makes you nervous, Julia. You have such a good thing going, and you don’t want to expose your new relationship to the stress of sharing space, at least not yet.

      I think you should tell him the idea makes you nervous. And tell him the reason it makes you nervous is not because you’re nervous about him. Tell him you’re nervous because you feel protective of the new relationship and don’t want to subject it to the strains of sharing space all at once in a sudden move like this. It would be better to spend a weekend together first. Then, maybe later, a longer period of time.

      • Julia said:

        Thank you so much for the reply, James! I really, really appreciate it! We did spend 4 days together (early September, the mini-holiday I mentioned), where we shared a hotel room and were together continuously. That went flawlessly, but then again, we were vacationing and away from any major source of stress and from “real life”…

        I did talk to him about this in the meantime (the “shadow” was too dense and I couldn’t stand pretending it’s not there). Unfortunately, I didn’t have these words (I resonate with the “protective about the relationship” part so much! I’ll remember this if the topic comes up again), and I hope I was able to convey the same sentiment somehow, even with worse words. He shared something very interesting: that he sees this period as an opportunity to test HIMSELF (after years of living alone, can he share his life with someone else? what habits does he need to change to manage that?). I’m not sure, but it feels like he needs this test more than I need casualness… I still haven’t decided what I’ll be doing (probably what feels best moment-by-moment), but it feels good to have talked to him about it (i.e., faced “the shadow”), and my respect for him increased after he reassured me he doesn’t want to push me towards anything and he wants us to always be honest with each other, even about “negative” things. He held space for me to express my insecurities (even though he doesn’t see a cause for them), and I feel grateful to him for that.

        So James, thank you again for this timely article, it helped me gather the courage to “face the shadow”.

  8. Lysa said:

    What if he lies on confronting him and then later tells you be was worried about your response if you knew the truth?

    • James Bauer said:

      Lysa, while it’s frustrating when someone lies, it takes a lot of courage when a person admits it. I would say that’s an indication of very strong motivation to make things right.


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