Editor’s Note: Strong relationships are at the core of a happy life, but sometimes, dealing with the people in our lives is tricky. That’s why Thrive Global partnered with The Gottman Institute on this advice column, Asking for a Friend. Every week, Gottman’s relationship experts will answer your most pressing questions about navigating relationships — with romantic partners, family members, co-workers, friends, and more. Have a question? Send it to [email protected]!

Q: My partner and I are in an on and off relationship, and I feel constant disappointment and anxiety with 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” — disregarded, and left as his last choice. I know this is a toxic cycle, but I can’t help but feel 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 choose me for good?

A: “Disappointment.” “Anxiety.” “Disregarded.” “Left as his last choice.” It sounds to me like you’re really suffering.

What part of you wants this relationship to work? I suspect some part of you is yearning for a partner to bond deeply with you, and make you a priority. Many of us have 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, and your brain’s dopamine is driving this pattern. Your own neurobiology makes that elusive partner especially desirable, creating a “craving” for him. 

Since you understand this is a toxic pattern, let’s take that word “toxic” very literally. Stress is a neurotoxin — it damages the brain and nervous system. The type of anxiety that you describe is a sure setup 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. 

Consider going to therapy — 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 self. The reason I’m a therapist today is because I did this very thing around my own “cookie jar” relationship.  

And what about your partner? 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 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. 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. 

Just as water seeks its own level, you’ll attract a partner who is at about the same level of emotional health as you. So my best advice to you is to value yourself. Set yourself up for mutual attraction with a truly available and caring person.

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  • Jenny TeGrotenhuis

    LMHC, Certified Gottman Therapist and Clinical Trauma Professional

    Jenny facilitates changed lives.  Her gifts blend wisdom with wit, and neuroscience with kind connection. As a Certified Gottman Therapist and Certified Clinical Trauma Professional, she sees clients in her private practice in Kennewick, Washington, and helps people from all over the world by distance therapy and through her blog. Go to Jenny’s website to order her book: Draw The Line With The One You Love: How To Set a Boundary That Will Strengthen Your Relationship.