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The Confusing Communications of Parents and Partners

Why it can be hard for your partner or parent to share your excitement

Image: Flickr/Orofacial
As a child, what would you have done if you were alone with a tub of your favorite ice cream and a spoon? This isn’t the famous marshmallow experiment – there’s no reward for waiting. And there’s no one telling you what to do. Admit it: you would’ve eaten the whole thing. Right then. Right there. And then you would’ve been sick. Depriving yourself of ice cream, you might’ve felt despair but with too much you were a runaway truck careening into the abyss of pleasure.

Emotionally as well as physically, there can be too much of a good thing. That’s where parents or other concerned caregivers come in. A whole field of research including this from the Journal of Family Psychology shows that an emotionally available parent creates an emotionally competent infant. Or more specifically (as shown here in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology), attachment with a caregiver creates the ability to self-regulate. Parents or other adults take a child’s emotion, filter it, and return it without the sharp edges.

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Your mother is a Valium.

Joking aside, if the adults in your life added anxiety on top of your anxiety or recklessness on top of your recklessness, that extreme would have gotten you in trouble. Instead, the role of a parent is to bring you back to the middle – obviously, to pick you up when you’re down but also to temper your frenetic excitement if you’re tipping over the edge into the abyss of joy. With parents, as a child’s anxiety decreases, a parent’s anxiety can increase. And when a child is wringing her hands with worry, the adult tries to smooth over that anxiety, to encourage and calm you. It’s likely the early adults in your life didn’t allow you to be “too much” of anything, whatever that too much was.

The same may be true of your partner, now.

How often does this happen: you have the world’s greatest idea – you’re going to paint the living room this amazing shade of deep orange you saw on Pinterest! It’s going to be so great! But when you tell your partner about this earth-shaking plan, you get a big...meh. Maybe instead of painting the living room, it’s a business idea. Or plans to embrace a new diet. Or the immediate and sharp desire to homeschool your kids. But whatever it is, your excitement is met with caution, indifference or even skepticism.

Think about it: when you’re worried, your partner doesn’t want you to worry. When you’re not worried, your partner may want you to worry.

This quandary can be extremely challenging. Why can’t your partner support your dreams! There are two major reasons: first, your partner may in fact be the voice of reason as your parents once were – does your partner’s skepticism make you rethink that shade of orange or that business idea that was going to require a second mortgage? Just as your parents’ emotional availability kept you from being “too much” as a child, as an adult it may be the fact of your partner’s love (and not necessarily indifference, distrust or disbelief!) that has the same effect on you now.

The second explanation for a person’s hesitancy or even unwillingness to support their partner’s excitement can come from the fact that a partner’s heightened joy can feel threatening to the other partner who doesn’t share it. It’s as if this astounding business idea or shade of orange is a competing suitor for the excited partner’s attention and fulfillment. Your partner is supposed to feel joy and excitement because of you, and now he or she is getting this fulfillment from...persimmon? In this case, it can feel as if your partner is invalidating your experience – as if he or she undermines your reality. Again, it may not be your partner’s fault! He or she may not know why they can’t share your excitement, but only that some unconscious part of them feels its unright.

So what do you do? Maybe instead of screaming to the rooftops about your spectacular shade of orange, you say, “Honey, I think it’s probably time for a new coat of paint in the living room.” By understating your excitement, you may allow your partner to meet you in your enthusiasm rather than temper it. This makes it seem like painting the walls persimmon is a considered choice and also lets your partner evaluate the idea without being threatened by it.

Fire met with fire can lead to an uncontrolled burn – instead, a little sprinkle of water on your flames can help you look at all the angles to make sure your excitement is realistic. But you may also have to help your partner see that the object of your excitement is not necessarily a competing object of your affection. Or you may need to recognize this behavior in yourself!

In the first case, work to recognize that what may feel like holding you back can be your partner’s attempt to keep you from eating too much ice cream. In the second case, you may need to calmly teach your partner when they’re tempering your excitement because of their own fear.

Suzanne Lachmann, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist in NYC specializing in psychotherapy.

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