Last week in our group session, we were discussing what sets us off. Laura shared that she’s been on edge recently – she hates her job, and just had a big falling out with her sister. She keeps getting frustrated because she feels like her partner is not being supportive when she needs him most.
Diego shared that it happens for him whenever his wife complains about money. He works hard, but right now the economy is bad and his wages have been cut. If she grumbles about bills, he feels unappreciated for all that he does for the family.
Diego and Laura’s problem is not necessarily that their partner is not being supportive. They don’t know it, but they are giving away their power.
When we feel our partner is not being supportive
When something is bothering us, we often make it someone else’s responsibility – especially our partner’s – to help us feel better. They need to say certain things, say them in a certain way, or do certain things to calm and soothe us.
When something is bothering us, we often make it someone else’s responsibility – especially our partner’s – to help us feel better.
If they don’t respond like we hoped, we feel even worse. Now, on top of whatever is bothering us, we think “my partner is being unsupportive and doesn’t care!”
Things can quickly go downhill if our response to this disappointment is to pressure our mate into behaving differently. We may criticize, belittle, or retaliate for them being inconsiderate. Not surprisingly, this either creates a conflict or damages the closeness we really wanted.
The problem with this dynamic is that we are actually giving away power. Instead of soothing ourselves, we are depending on someone else to make us happy. That’s a lot of responsibility for our partner!
I don’t know about you, but I’m often not thinking about what my better half wants or needs. Even when I am, I often suck at guessing right. Putting our spouse or lover into this role isn’t fair to them, and is almost always disappointing for us.
“You complete me”
“Wait!” you might be thinking. “Isn’t my spouse supposed to be supportive and make me feel better when I’m down? That’s the mark of a good relationship?” Like Tom Cruise’s character in Jerry Maguire, aren’t we meant to find a partner who completes us?
The answer is – yes. And no.
Yes, our loved ones are meant to give us companionship and a shoulder to lean on – as we are meant to give it to them. If one partner is always unsupportive, then there’s a problem and we should look into it. It is realistic and healthy to expect our loved one to be there for us, in general.
It is not realistic to expect our partner to be supportive every time.
But it is not realistic to expect our partner to be supportive every time. Sometimes they might be busy, distracted, tired, stressed, or unable to see what we need – just like we miss it for them. They also might not show that they care in the way we want them to or would show it ourselves.
In our group session, Laura admitted her partner is “a good guy” and she knows he loves her. Compassionate words have never been his strength, however. Diego’s wife is really worried about money, so it makes sense that she sometimes expresses anxiety instead of always being grateful.
That quote from Jerry Maguire reminds us how pop culture can set us up to fail when it comes to our expectations of relationships. The truth is, we shouldn’t be looking for a lover to “complete” us. Sometimes our partners disappoint us, and that is a normal part of being in a relationship.
That doesn’t mean it’s not worth being together – there are lots of wonderful things that come with a good relationship. We do ourselves a big favor if we focus on these and let go of the unrealistic expectations. Our partners are human too, and they have their own worries and hurdles to overcome.
How to cope when our partner is not being supportive
When we have thoughts like “My partner should ________” or “If my spouse really loved me, they would ________”, we risk giving away power. We’re putting too much responsibility on our partner’s shoulders, while giving up our own ability to soothe ourselves. “Should”, “must”, and “have to” are sure signs of distorted thinking.
If we adjust our expectations, we can overcome the disappointment when our partner occasionally drops the ball. Reframing those thoughts as “I would like it if my spouse ________” is more realistic and less likely to upset us. Even better, we might think: “It’s nice when my partner does ________, but I’m ok if they don’t.”
Self-soothing means being able to steady our own emotions and return to a positive state of mind.
We can also learn to rely on ourselves when things are tough. This is called “self-soothing” – it simply means being able to steady our own emotions and return to a positive state of mind. Some practical examples of what this can look like include:
- Positive self-talk – reminding ourselves that we’re ok, that we have the tools to cope
- Prayer – connecting to the strength of a higher power, reminding ourselves of our unique place and purpose in the universe (see below)
- Conscious breathing – taking slow, deep, deliberate breaths to de-stress
- Engaging the senses – tapping into our senses of touch, smell, taste, sound, and sight
For various reasons, I did not develop good self-soothing skills early in life. When I feel overwhelmed, my tendency is to hope or expect my wife will take care of me. Over the years, I have worked hard to recognize when this bad habit is happening, and form healthier habits in its place. In doing so, I’ve gotten better at not giving away power.
My counselor once told me there is a difference between wanting a relationship and needing a relationship. At the time, this idea frustrated me – what’s the difference? Aren’t we supposed to need our partner?
Now I know that needing a relationship means giving away power. It means we can’t be ok without a particular person in our life. It’s impossible for us to feel happy or good about ourselves if our partner is being unsupportive or unkind.
Wanting a relationship means we enjoy all the good parts of being with someone, while being able to accept when it’s not everything we hoped. We can take care of ourselves when we’re stressed or anxious – we don’t need our loved one to be there for us 24/7.
What’s more, we still get to experience the deep joy that comes from sharing our life with someone. In fact, removing the expectation (and pressure) for that person to always be supportive will give us a happier, more peaceful relationship.
One of the most empowering things about having a relationship with God is that He provides things that our spouse or lover cannot always give. Our partner won’t always be able to make us feel loveable, valuable, or important. But God tells us we are all of those things to Him—that we are His beloved children.
Knowing this, and living like it is true (because it is), frees us to love and serve others without the expectation of getting anything back. Ironically, loving and serving like this is exactly how we are most likely to be loved, respected, and supported in return. That’s how the upside-down kingdom of God works.