One woman whispering to another

Suspicion! When Paranoia Gets the Better of a Relationship

I once was in a relationship with a woman who was extremely suspicious.  I had not realized this, obviously, when I got into the relationship.  

But soon enough I discovered that she was always suspicious.  I would introduce her to a female colleague, and she would be convinced that I was having an intimate relationship with the colleague, even if it was a colleague I hardly knew. 

I would smile at a woman I knew whom I saw casually on the street, and she would begin to suspect that something was going on. 

I found myself spending more and more time, and emotional effort, trying to convince her that nothing was going on. 

As time went on, I found that my efforts to convince her that I was not involved with other women began to wear on me.  At first, I thought it would be a one-time thing or maybe even a two-time thing, but it became a regular feature of our relationship. 

I reached a point at which I actually began to think that it would not matter whether I was involved with someone else or not—she would be suspicious anyway. 

So why was I being loyal to someone who constantly questioned my loyalty?  I realized that this way of thinking was not where I should be or needed to be in my life and the relationship ended. 

But it had cost me a lot, and I found myself anxious in my next relationship that the same pattern would repeat itself.  Fortunately, it didn’t.


Paranoia is everywhere

Several psychologists have written about the paranoid style.  For example, Psychologist Roy Schafer has written about the paranoid style in life, as has another psychologist, David Shapiro.

Historian Richard Hofstadter wrote about the paranoid style in American life.  Are all these famous professionals on to something?  I believe they are.

We live in a time when the paranoid style is more evident than it has been at any time in recent years.

We see it most clearly in politics.  Many on the right are convinced that those on the left are out to get them, and many on the left are equally convinced that those on the right are after them.

In some cases, they may be right!  But in most cases, people simply have different ideologies and different beliefs about what is important in life.

Paranoid beliefs create self-fulfilling prophecies

The problem with paranoid beliefs is that they can generate self-fulfilling prophecies.

I know because I’ve seen it happen in my own life, as I illustrated in the story at the beginning of this blogpost.  Dealing with someone who has a paranoid style is a drain on one’s emotional stability and general wellbeing.

None of us are perfect.  We all do things, purposely or inadvertently, that we later regret and that may arouse suspicions in others, perhaps legitimate ones.

I want to make clear, therefore, that I am not talking about people’s normal and legitimate suspicions.  After all, sometimes, those suspicions are justified.

Rather, I am talking about people who see plots and conspiracies where there are none.  Often, their paranoid style extends beyond relationships to other aspects of life.  They manufacture trouble where there is no trouble.  We all look for cause and effect: People with a paranoid style not only look for causes: They look for nefarious, conspiratorial causes; and they see them almost wherever they look.

There is no perfect way of dealing with people who have a paranoid style because if you try to work with them on their paranoid style, they likely will suspect you are doing so because you have something to hide!

The very fact that you are calling them on their paranoia actually may strengthen their paranoid beliefs.

People with a paranoid style generally need psychotherapy, medication, or both.

Are you yourself sometimes paranoid?

But one thing you can ask yourself is whether you sometimes adopt a paranoid style and if you may or do, what you can do about it.  There are three things you can do.

1. Trust people with whom you are intimate unless they truly give you a reason to suspect their motives or intentions are dishonorable.

Of course, you can’t trust everyone. You shouldn’t.  But if you are in an intimate relationship with someone, at least, give them the benefit of the doubt.

Otherwise, you risk wrecking a perfectly good relationship, either because they cannot put up with your distrustfulness or because they start to act the way you expect them to, just because you expect it. 

2. Always look for compelling external evidence of your beliefs.

A lot of people believe a lot of things without evidence.  Who among us can prove everything we believe? No one.

But if you have suspicions about your partner, make sure you can back them up with solid empirical evidence.  Suspicions are not enough.

But be careful in your evidence-seeking.  Demanding to see someone’s cell phone or email account or texts can be extremely damaging to a relationship, so do not ruin the relationship by seeking evidence that may or may not exist.

If you are going to go to extremes in seeking evidence, make sure you know what you are doing! 

3. Ask yourself whether you have a coherent story. 

Is what you believe internally consistent?  Does it hang together?  Is there a coherent pattern of behavior that leads you to your conclusions?

Or do you have a bunch of will o’ the wisps, nothing that really fits with anything else but that seems, in isolation, to be a bit “off”?

There is nothing wrong with having intuitions.  They can be helpful.

But if all you have is intuitions that fit into no coherent pattern, you have to ask yourself whether you may be, unintentionally, going off a deep end.


Good luck in your relationship.  And as always, let us know any way we can help!

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