3 Signs of People-Pleasing in Romantic Relationships

5 min read
Source: Justin Follis / Unsplash

Source: Justin Follis / Unsplash

People-pleasers share similar histories of doing for others and putting other people’s needs before their own. Many struggle with being able to label their own emotions and needs, and fear that if they start putting their own needs first others will disapprove or abandon them. One study found that patterns of people-pleasing behavior were associated with avoidance of social stressors.1

Researchers found that specific areas of the brain became activated when participants were given the option to say “no” (suggesting higher social stress), yet the same areas were deactivated when a participant said the word “yes.” This also suggests that the more likely a people-pleaser is to continue engaging in this pattern, the more at risk they are that the pattern will continue to strengthen through reinforcement.

Those who become people-pleasers may have experienced trauma in their childhood or an upbringing that placed value on perfectionism, achievements, accomplishments, or having placed importance on how a person looks over how they feel. Many who grew up experiencing trauma became conditioned to read between the lines to accurately read their parents’ emotions, moods, or environmental cues, which then guided their behavior to “please.”

When a person has been conditioned to prioritize others as a way of seeking validation or love, stopping this pattern can feel overwhelming or threatening, which ultimately reinforces the pattern.

Signs of a People-Pleaser

  • Wears certain “masks” around different people; fears of feeling like a burden
  • Constantly scanning the environment for signs of disapproval
  • Chronic unmet need for external validation or approval
  • Patterns of denying self-care
  • Limited or non-existent boundaries
  • Self-worth hinges on other people’s happiness
  • Prone to boundary violations of others (i.e., offering help if the person did not ask for it)
  • May have patterns of over-apologizing, over-sharing, or over-thinking

While the above list includes common behavior patterns seen in people-pleasers, there are three patterns more specific to romantic relationships.

Hyper-Vigilance Surrounding Abandonment or Rejection

When hyper-vigilance is present in romantic relationships, it may come across as intrusiveness towards their partner to ensure that their partner is happy with them and is not going to abandon them. An obsessive preoccupation with what their partner may be thinking or feeling often plays out in a compulsive pattern of trying to ensure things remain status quo within the relationship, which can be interpreted as “clingy,” “needy,” or demanding.

While both narcissists and codependents (often those with fawning responses or patterns of people-pleasing) are both prone to manipulation, there are distinct differences that separate them. Whereas a narcissist will manipulate for control, power, or status, someone who lives with codependent tendencies may engage in manipulative behaviors as a way of gaining emotional support, and compassion, or feeling safe and wanted. However, if they feel that their efforts to please their partner have gone unseen or unappreciated, a people-pleaser can become bitter, contemptuous, and resentful, leading to the relationship strife they were trying to avoid.

One-Sided Relationships

Because of a low sense of self-love and self-worth (especially when not in a romantic relationship), many who tilt on the people-pleasing side can find romantic relationships all-consuming. They may display patterns of trying to keep their home excessively neat and clean to please their partner or may go out of their way each night to cook their partner’s favorite foods for dinner, even if they are exhausted from working that day. Others may pay excessive attention to how they look in hopes that their partner will notice and approve.

Some may go overboard during the holidays or birthdays, buying gifts to try and please their partner and show their dedication and love, or may excessively decorate their home if they know their partner likes holiday decorations. Others may be so consumed in trying to prove to a narcissistic partner that they are worthy of love, protection, and emotional support that they fail to see that the person does not love them, or may be using them. In more extreme situations, this kind of all-consuming pattern may cause a people-pleaser to overstay in an unfulfilling or one-sided relationship where they continue ignoring or rationalizing the red flags.

Loss of Self-Identity

Because of how people-pleasers are conditioned, they may struggle to understand who they are outside of a romantic relationship. Many people-pleasers learn their “role” (how to act, what they feel others expect, etc.) through the relationship where enmeshment commonly develops. This pattern is synonymous with a lack of autonomy and a limited sense of self-identity.

People-Pleasing Essential Reads

In a romantic relationship, this can show up as always being available for your partner, or a constant need to always be together. Red flags include exclusively shared hobbies, shared friends, spending all your free time together, and a limited (or non-existent) schedule for your individual self-care needs.

Equally common is to see someone change who they are depending on who they are with. This is not the same thing as two individuals who grow together while retaining their own sense of identity. In essence, those who change who they “are” within the relationship will share the same opinions as their mate, the same likes/dislikes, the same hobbies, the same values, and even the same catchphrases, ways of dressing, or associated goals.

A good way to examine if you have fallen victim to this pattern is to examine your relationship history to see how you “changed” as a result of the relationship. If your core sense of identity fluctuates based on who you are with, that is a huge red flag.

Building Autonomy

To help recover from a pattern of people-pleasing behavior, it is important to speak with a psychologist trained to spot behavior patterns that resonate with codependency and who can help you build a more solid sense of autonomy and independence. Equally important is to set firm and consistent boundaries for yourself, and to spend ample time alone (often without a romantic relationship), in order to begin rediscovering yourself and re-prioritizing your needs.

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