If you want to maintain a healthy relationship, learn to stop managing your partner’s emotions.
I’ve done it. You’ve done it. We’ve all done it. Because doing it feels right, and we’re taught to trust our feelings. We do it when our partner is sad, angry, frustrated, distraught. We do it when she’s got the blues, or he’s got the mean reds. We do it because we think we’re supposed to do it and doing it makes us feel good and we feel useless if we don’t. After all, if we’re not stepping in and doing something when our partner is unhappy, what’s the point of being in a relationship?
The point of being in a relationship is not being your partner’s happy juice. When your partner is unhappy, unless it relates directly to something you did and can correct, the very best advice I can offer you is … do nothing. That’s right. Do nothing. Because fixing it is not your job. “Hold on!” you say. “I’m not supposed to fix it?” Nope. You’re not. Now, I’m not suggesting you ignore your partner, callously walk away while he’s venting about a hard day or turn a cold shoulder when she’s crying out for comfort. It’s crucial to be present, to be a compassionate listener, to offer sympathetic words, to open your arms for a hug. But it is equally crucial to get out of the business of assuming responsibility for your partner’s moods and thinking it’s up to you to change or worse, try to prevent them. That business—a type of enabling—is bound to fail and leave you emotionally bankrupt in the long term. The point of being in a relationship is to grow through life together. And when you take over your partner’s emotional regulation, you stunt that growth.
As a positive term, enabling references patterns of interaction which allow individuals to develop and grow …. In a negative sense, enabling is also used to describe dysfunctional behavior approaches that are intended to help resolve a specific problem but in fact may perpetuate or exacerbate the problem. —Wikipedia
Here’s why managing your partner’s moods doesn’t do either of you any favors. In the short term, it’s more convenient if you can orchestrate a mood boost and not have to deal with an unhappy person. A quick fix can work wonders. But if you do this consistently, you create an expectation that you’re going to provide that lift every time your partner is down. This creates a dangerous dependency and trains your partner to depend on your intervention, while short-circuiting his or her healthy efforts to self-soothe. After a while, a pattern develops. Your partner’s moods and your behavior become inextricably linked. You become the emotional narcotic. You pour the drink, buy the flowers, assuage the insecurities, shoo the sadness away. That is, when you have the time, the patience, the emotional reserves, and the benefit of your own stable mood to do so. But if there’s ever a time when your own mood or needs make it hard for you to be Mr. or Ms. Cheerful, watch out. If you’ve indulged the pattern long enough, you’ll be blamed for not being there and not being supportive and accused of abandonment, and the next step will be holding you responsible for the unhappiness itself. “If only you were more present, more supportive. If only you cared, I wouldn’t be like this.” Sound familiar? A healthy, emotionally independent partner won’t say these things or take you down this road, but if you’ve conditioned your partner to depend on you for emotional recalibration and stability, you’re likely to hear these very words, over and over. Carrying another person’s emotions is an enormous burden—an unbearable load—and unbearable loads lead to resentment, which leads to contempt, which spells the death of the relationship.
If you always come to the rescue when your partner is unhappy, you will weaken your partner’s capacity for high frustration tolerance, an essential attribute of emotional maturity and determinant of success.
To practice high frustration tolerance, you put reason between an impulse to escape discomfort, and discomfort dodging actions. That step can make a big difference. Once you delay reacting, you are in a position to start choosing.
Part of this imposing reasoning process involves accepting—not liking—that it is important to live through the discomfort if you expect to overcome barriers. This acceptance is like building emotional muscle. The more you work at it, the stronger you get.
By working at building high frustration tolerance, you are likely to solve more of your immediate problems and reach more of your longer-term goals. —Dr. Bill Knaus, Ed. D, Psychology Today
The truth is, we don’t like it when our partners are unhappy. We want it to go away. It’s not fun. We prefer to be with happy, shiny people. So when someone we love is down, it’s our natural instinct to cheer them up. But there’s a huge difference between cheering someone up and taking responsibility for their emotional well-being. Here are some critical behaviors to learn if you desire a strong partner and a strong, healthy relationship.
Learn to accept your partner’s feelings—both happy and sad.
Learn that you can’t change those feelings, and that trying to change them is not your responsibility.
Learn to allow your partner to experience discomfort and work through it with his or her own tools.
Learn to trust your partner’s emotional capabilities, resources, and resilience.
Learn to allow your partner to do the necessary work of self-soothing and restoring emotional equilibrium.
Learn not to immediately apologize when your partner’s mood may have nothing to do with you.
Learn to distinguish between kindness and empathy, which strengthen a relationship, and catering and coddling, which weaken it.
And learn not to substitute managing your partner’s emotions for the all-important work of managing your own.
My therapist once helped me understand that actions in my self-interest might not be in my best interest. He also told me never to do anything for my children that they are capable of doing themselves. Managing your partner’s emotions is a perfect example of the value of both lessons. It may be in your self-interest in the moment, but it is not in your best interest or the best interest of your relationship.