When we love someone, there’s usually a strong desire to take care of that person – to be a steady presence for him/her, or to offer support, encouragement, or words of reassurance when needed. You’ve probably felt the pull to give of yourself in this way to your spouse/partner.
We don’t just want our partner to be there for us, we want the opportunity to be there for him/her as well.
One issue I see in my couples counseling practice is when one partner is struggling with something but s/he doesn’t let the other know about it (or s/he lets the other know about it in such a way that doesn’t allow for support).
There can be different reasons for not inviting support from your partner:
⇒You are sparing your partner something unpleasant (you believe you are protecting him/her from the contagion of what you’re feeling);
⇒You anticipate some type of negative reaction if you do share what was troubling you (that is, you’ll be judged, blamed or ridiculed in some way; or you anticipate that the support offered will not help);
⇒You believe it’s a sign of weakness to ask for help/support (this sentence may resonate with some men).
It’s a form of emotional disconnection
Janet was clearly upset with her husband Samuel. She could see he was struggling with something; the stress at work was getting to him since his company started downsizing and several of his colleagues were already let go. Sam is typically outgoing and likes to joke around. In fact, Sam’s sense of humor was what first drew Janet to him when they met.
So when Sam gets unusually quiet or withdraws, it’s obvious that something is troubling him. He’s been the one who’s always been there when Janet is in need (last year her mother passed away and according to Janet, Sam was “so loving and supportive through it all”).
So now it was her turn to be there for Sam. But whenever she reached out and asked what she could do for him, all she got back was, “I’m just tired, everything is fine,” or some version of this statement, which she defined as a “brush-off.”
Janet’s Perspective: To be Janet in this dynamic is to feel left out. She wanted to comfort her husband, or at least stand emotionally by his side through these emotionally unsettling times. While every fiber in her being was moving her toward Sam, she continuously hit a wall whenever she reached for him. She felt isolated, helpless and frustrated. During this financially uncertain period, it was important to her to give her husband the gift of emotional connection. She needed to do this for him.
Sam’s Perspective: Sam was clearly burdened. The weight of uncertainty was making him feel sick. In his mind this was a practical problem that required a practical solution. To share what he was feeling would only infect Janet with his own anxiety. He convinced himself that if he talked about it, Janet would become more anxious than he was and that would just make things worse (he’d then feel that he had doubly failed her, he reasoned). So he decided it was best to carry this alone, even if that was upsetting to her.
You can see how there was a major communication breakdown between Janet and Sam. She wanted to be an emotional life preserver for her husband, even though the issue at hand was practical (and no one knew for certain if Sam was going to be fired); while Sam feared that his anxiety would only pull Janet under emotionally and this would only multiply the stress of what he was dealing with. She wanted to carry this with him; he decided going solo was best for everyone.
Two Types of Emotional Disconnection
We all can probably think of times we needed our spouse/partner and reached out in some way, only to not get back what we hoped for. In these instances, we made ourselves vulnerable by reaching out and sending the message “I need you in this moment, please be there for me.” In these moments, the vulnerable partner may have felt misunderstood, hurt and/or angry about these misalignments. When this occurs, emotional disconnection may result until some connection repair occurs.
Janet’s story highlights the other type of emotional disconnection that occurs in marriages and relationships. We want the security of knowing our partner is there for us, but just as important, we want to also know that our partner will accept what we have to offer when they are in need. Love is a two-way street, and when one road is closed off, the natural flow of loving energy is blocked.
This doesn’t mean that you each have to offer and receive equal amounts of emotional support at all times. One of you may need more from the other at different points in time.
What is most important is knowing that mutual compassion and support is available whenever needed and that it will be received when offered.
Strengthen your relationship reflective moment
In what ways do you let your spouse/partner know that you need him/her?
Are you open to receiving support, or does something stand in the way? What are the blocks that prevent you from receiving loving support?
Until next time,
Dr. Rich Nicastro
(Featured image courtesy of Nenetus at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)