Your partner isn't an emotional super-human

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Let’s talk about dreams and romance. Ah, romance! Before we were partnered (and sometimes even now when things are rough in our relationships), many of us dreamed of finding the perfect person, The One, our other half, the person who completes us. This person anticipates our needs, knows what we want without us having to say anything, is a great lover, and our best friend. We can tell them anything. And they always know just what to say to make us feel better. They are never too busy for us. They never make us mad or disappoint us. They’re perfect.

Dreams dashed

That dream, my friends, is a fantasy. It’s not real. It doesn’t leave room for our partners to be real people. With our couples therapy clients, we often see people experience disappointments because they are holding on to versions of this fantasy. And there’s no way their partners, who are real humans, can ever measure up. You might be left constantly disappointed and wondering if you’re with the right person. And your partner is left frustrated and blamed, feeling they will never be good enough.

A new dream

I’m giving you a new dream, one where you have increased intimacy and closeness by sharing and expecting less of your partner. What?!? Sharing and expecting less is going to bring you closer? Yup!

This new dream, the new view of romance is one that allows space for you to both be full, complicated humans, who choose to love, support, and commit to each other. This relationship is infused with thoughtfulness, kindness, and love. And yes, there is romance too.

Limited Resources

We all have the same 24 hours in each day. Each one of us has multiple relationships and responsibilities we manage and balance, including responsibilities to care for ourselves. Unavoidably, we each live life through our own perspective. We are the protagonists of our own stories. Sometimes we forget that our partners are people too, living their own lives, and not just supporting characters in our story.

We come to them expecting their attention and energy whenever we want it, often without thought for whether this is a good time for them or whether they want to give us that attention and energy. Males in male-female relationship pairings often struggle with this. You may feel stressed, angry, or overwhelmed and turn to your wife or girlfriend expecting that she help you deal with your stress, anger, grief, sadness, or overwhelm. That’s what she’s there for, right?

I often see men get hurt or resentful when their female partners aren’t willing or able to help them in this way. It feels like rejection. The emotional support your female partner gives to you is work; it takes her energy and drains her resources. If coming to your partner at the end of the day or calling her when you’re overwhelmed helps you feel better, it’s because she’s taken some of your emotional load and done the emotional processing work for you.

I’m not saying that you should never turn to your partner for support. I’m suggesting that you are thoughtful about when you turn to her for support. I’m suggesting that you recognize that you are taking her energy when you ask for her help with your emotions, knowing that her resources aren’t unlimited and can run out. I’m suggesting that you express appreciation when she helps you, that you look for ways to similarly help her, and that you are understanding when she is drained or overwhelmed herself and doesn’t have anything to give you. She’s human too, remember? If your female partner isn’t there for you when you need her, it may not be that she’s intentionally withholding to punish you, it may be that she just doesn’t have anything left to give. (Or maybe what you’re asking isn’t something she wants to give right now, and that’s okay too.) You aren’t entitled to her emotional resources, after all; they’re hers, not yours.

Not everything needs to be said

I can easily imagine many female partners reading the above section and cheering inside. “Yes! Yes! This is what I experience!” Maybe you even thought about forwarding this page to your partner or reading sections out loud to him. Temper your excitement just a bit. Men in male-female pairings aren’t the only ones guilty of expecting their partners to have super-human emotional skills.

In wanting to lean on our partners for emotional support, to have a relationship where we can say anything, many women say too much. You might go into intense detail about how your partner disappointed you, what they said that was insensitive, or how their social skills are lacking. Then, to make sure they really get it, you detail precisely the negative effects of these actions on you, how your dreams are dashed, how you thought more of them, how this reminds you of other similar hurts.

Let’s sit and think about that for a second. How do you hope your partner would respond when you do that? He’s not an emotional super-human. It’s too much to expect that he hears all the ways you’re hurt and how he caused that and to have no emotional reaction to it at all. Of course he’s going to feel shame, blame, guilt, or embarrassment, and maybe react with anger or defensiveness. Or maybe he just pulls away because he doesn’t know what to say or how to fix it.

Think about how you say what you have to say. Take a moment to put yourself in your partner’s shoes: what would it be like to hear those same things about yourself? Is there a kind and gentle way you can let your partner know he hurt or disappointed you? If you can achieve the same result—that he understands you and apologizes or makes a change or doesn’t do it again—without hurting him too, isn’t that worth it? It’s better for your relationship. If you need to process through your hurt and anger with a trusted friend or through journal writing before you can come to your partner with kindness, it’s worth the extra effort. He’s worth the effort. Your relationship will benefit.

The closeness comes

We talked about expecting less—your partner has limited emotional resources—and sharing less—your partner doesn’t need to hear every bad thing you have to say about them. Now we get to talk about feeling closer, more intimate, more connected!

Imagine yourself feeling stressed and lonely. You know your partner has a lot going on. You do some emotional work on your own and then ask your partner if you can get some support. This person you love, with their own totally busy life, shifts around their day to make time for you. You talk together, you feel better, and then you leave the interaction full of gratitude for how your partner made time for you and showed you that you matter. You know your partner didn’t have to give you their emotional support, they chose to. And that’s romantic!

Imagine you had one of those common but frustrating misunderstandings with your partner. You feel angry, disrespected, and hurt. You do some emotional work on your own. You ask for a minute of your partner’s time; you tell them what you need next time instead of the detailed description of the way you were wronged. Your partner, whom you love and who loves you, says “Sure, I can do that for you. I didn’t know this mattered so much to you” or “No problem. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you.” You leave the interaction feeling loved, supported, close. You know your needs and your comfort matter to your partner. And that’s romantic! Your relationship is a dream come true!

What’s next?

Does any of this sound inspiring? Do something about it!