We all long for a sense of love and acceptance. We want to know that our existence has meaning and value to another person. When we were young, we depended on our caregivers for this sense of being loved unconditionally, and we learned from our caregivers how to (or not to) process our feelings.
But, of course, many of us didn't get all of the things we needed to progress emotionally. When there are vital things missing from the parenting we received, we tend to – sometimes without even knowing it – look to our romantic partners to make up for these losses. Or, on the other side of this need, sometimes we attempt to make up for our own unmet needs by trying to be the “care taker” of our partner.
Relying on your romantic partner to make up for gaps in your parenting, or trying to emotionally provide for your partner’s deficient parenting is a mistake that marriage and family therapists agree is ultimately damaging and undermining to relationships.
Here are two of the traps I see most often.
Yesterday I met with a 35 year-old man who spoke about how disappointed he was with his wife. He told me that this past weekend, he and his wife both had the evening free but that when she came home, she really didn’t pay attention to him.
“It annoyed me,” he said. “So I got grouchy.”
"Did you tell her you wanted to spend time with her?" I asked.
“No,” he answered. “We both had the night off, so it should have been obvious. If she wanted to spend time with me then she would have. She obviously didn’t want to.”
This man had an expectation that wasn't necessarily realistic, namely that his wife would know what he wanted without him telling her.
In these cases, people want their partners to “mind read”, which can often take the form of, “I don’t want to have to tell her what I want. She should already know.” “Mind reading” or translating is something that parents do for their children. When we are young and don’t know how to understand or articulate our different affect states, we rely on our parents to help us process and modulate different feelings or desires.
When this did not consistently happen for us, there is a younger part of us that is still searching for the fantasy person (usually a romantic partner) who can come in and make everything better.
If you think this might be the case, one useful strategy is to ask, What are my expectations in this relationship? Try to differentiate the reality of your current situation from the younger fantasy of wanting to be taken care of beyond what is reasonable to expect from an adult partner.
Responsibility For Feelings
The other day, a patient said to me, “I don’t like it when my husband spends time with his friends. He and I barely have any time together, as it is. If he cared about me, he wouldn’t go."
Basically, this woman feels that her feelings should take priority over her husband’s feelings– if his interests cause her grief, than he should not pursue them.
Another related issue I hear frequently is something along the lines of, “My boyfriend feels very sensitive about his job. He lies to people about what he does for a living and gets mad at me if I tell the truth. When something good happens for me at work, I can’t really talk about it with him, because it makes him feel bad about his own career path."
In both cases, one partner is asked to take responsibility for the other partner's feelings. When this happens, it sets up a dynamic in which there is no longer a partnership between two adults but the relationship of a needy child to a providing parent.
In this case, ask yourself, If I'm upset, do I feel it's my partner’s role to make things better for me? Or on the other side, If my partner is upset, is it my job to fix things for him/her? If the answer to either question is yes, this understanding can help you start to change this pattern.
It's understandable to want others to make up for what was missing in our early lives. The problem is no one can ever do that for us. The failings of our parents are losses that need to be mourned. Only by letting go of these patterns of unrealistic expectation can you meet your partner as he or she really is, without superimposing on him or her the ghost of what your parents never were.