We’re supposed to be a priority in our romantic relationships, but it doesn’t always feel that way.
Some people think they’re the back-up to their partner’s memorable “first love,” and those dating a widow or widower may feel anxious and insecure when comparing themselves to their partner’s deceased spouse.
Relationship experts say it’s a common feeling, and it doesn’t necessarily mean your romance is doomed. However, it’s important to address these feelings before they become a bigger problem.
“If someone feels like they are the backup relationship, that definitely merits some reflection to figure out what’s going on,” says Gabrielle Applebury, a licensed marriage and family therapist. “Whether it’s triggered by your partner, something internal, or likely a combination of the two, feeling like you’re the second choice is not grounds for a healthy and fulfilling relationship.”
Searching for love?:Here’s what to look for in a partner.
Can taking a break save your romance?:Relationship experts weigh in.
Why do I feel like I’m not ‘the one’?
There are a variety of reasons why we may feel like the second choice. Sometimes, we get jealous when thinking about our partner’s past relationships. Other times, we feel competitive when hearing rosy recollections about a loved one’s past flames. Either way, these feelings can affect both your mental health and the relationship.
“In the case of first love, many of us have such fond memories of that person, and when we talk about them with a lot of emotion, it may make our partners feel insecure,” says Pepper Schwartz, a sociology professor specializing in relationships and sexuality at the University of Washington.
But sometimes, these feelings have less to do with our partner and more to do with deeper feelings of internalized insecurity and self-doubt.
“If being with your partner is triggering feelings of being second best, think about where these feelings originated,” Applebury suggests. “In general, we tend to be drawn to partners that feel similar to what we experienced in childhood because doing so reinforces the underlying beliefs we established about ourselves during childhood.”
For instance, someone who felt second best while growing up “may unknowingly seek out these types of relationships, which would reinforce the underlying negative belief of not feeling good enough,” she adds.
Should you get back with your ex?:How to know if they deserve a second chance
More on relationships:‘Struggle love’ is toxic. Why are we romanticizing it?
It can be especially challenging if your partner lost a loved one. Applebury emphasizes the experiences your partner had with their late spouse helped shape the person you fell in love with now.
“In healthy relationships, there is room to respect and honor your partner’s former relationship, while still understanding that what you have together is unique and special in a different way,” she says. “So while your partner may have had an amazing relationship with their deceased partner, that doesn’t mean you can’t have an incredible relationship as well.”
Schwartz adds people often have multiple loving, memorable past relationships, and that doesn’t invalidate yours. It’s simply a “different experience.”
“All relationships have a different dynamic, but you have to accept and understand that yours has its own strengths, even if it differs from your partner’s previous relationships,” she says.
More on widowed dating:Here’s why we should praise — not shame — a widow or widower’s dating choices
When it becomes a problem
Still, there’s a difference between feeling like a backup and actually being treated like one, and it’s important to feel reassured and loved by your partner.
“Exes can be good friends, but it shouldn’t ever feel like your partner is sharing a kind of intimacy with them that they don’t share with you,” Schwartz clarifies.
How can you tell if you’re the backup or if it’s in your head? Schwartz and Applebury listed out some common red flags:
- Your partner openly compares you to their former partners to make you feel inferior.
- Your partner isn’t wholeheartedly invested in maintaining a healthy, loving relationship with you.
- Your partner says they’d rather be with someone else.
- Your partner doesn’t validate or respect your concerns.
“Keep in mind, in healthy relationships, communication is open and honest. So, if you’re feeling like you’re your partner’s second choice,” Applebury says, “ideally you should be able to process that together, and come up with a resolution that you both are comfortable with.”
Are you in a one-sided relationship?:Here’s how to tell.