I often get asked: “How do I prevent myself from taking on my partner’s feelings? And how do I make sure they’re not taking on mine?”
This is a really important question. It gets to the heart of what relationships are all about…and what we should avoid in order to make sure we achieve balance with the other person.
The goal in a healthy, thriving relationship is interdependence – not codependence, or even independence. I’ll explain.
Interdependence is when we depend on one another, forming a cohesive unit. In a great interdependent relationship, you have a beautiful balance of togetherness and separate interests, ultimately working towards collective goals (Test yourself on all the markers of a thriving relationship by reading my Guide to The 15 Elements of a Thriving Relationship). Together, you use your respective strengths to help the other and build one another up, while also relying on the other to bring their assets to the table.
Often people think that the goal in life is independence. Sure, you should be a strong and capable adult – but total independence is not the goal! Independence is okay for a while, but by going solo forever, we miss out on a lot of the richness of life. Relationships enrich us and bring out parts of us that we never knew existed.
Codependency is defined by Merriam-webster as “excessive emotional or psychological reliance on a partner,” and that does not sound great, does it?! But at some point, most of us experience this feeling on either side. This is not a healthy state for a relationship and can be really damaging long-term.
There is a lot to be said about codependency, but this article explores just one facet of it: The act of taking on the feelings of another.
I’ll be discussing the issue with taking on your partner’s emotions, and why it is NOT your job to fix their problems (but it is your job to show up and be emotionally present for them).
So without further ado, let’s get into it!
How do I know if this is an issue in my relationship?
Time for a good old-fashioned assessment! If you want to know if you take on way too much emotional weight from your partner (or if they take on too much from you), here’s how you find out.
- You think that it’s your “job” to make or keep your partner happy
- You take it personally when your partner isn’t happy
- You attempt to “fix” every problem they come home with, and immediately offer solutions without truly listening and before being prompted
- You get frustrated when they act angry or sad, or make generalizations about them being “too negative”
Alternately, if this is an ongoing issue for you, consider the perspective of the other person. How must it feel for the other person who is constantly considering your feelings? It can be exhausting and disempowering. If you struggle with this, you might think you’re helping them, when, ultimately, you aren’t. Your partner might find themself:
- Omitting key facts of their day to keep you from getting caught up in their “negativity”, and they might end up venting to someone else about it instead
- Feeling like they can’t be too vulnerable around you because it affects you so much. They might pretend not to be sad, angry or upset because you will either try to “fix” their issue, fall apart, or pull away
The Stakes: Why is this a Problem?
- When your partner is afraid to fully express the depths of their feelings to you, distance is created. The loss is intimacy, closeness and connection.
- If they feel like you’ll just try to “fix” it, they will probably omit details or keep things from you entirely, adding to distance between you. This also creates susceptibility for them to deepen connections with other people who will “understand” them better, possibly resulting in emotional affairs
- This is a big one: This is a problem for YOU because you’re missing out on major personal growth! The truth of the matter is, some of your partner’s emotions will trigger you. Some of these triggers will present learning opportunities for you and by avoiding them, you’re losing out.
When my wife starts to describe how she feels like she is underperforming as a parent, I have historically met her with a reflexive, reassuring answer. I’m trying to minimize it, fix it, and make it go away. But this is damaging to both of us.
Her: “I feel like I’m not a good mom!”
Me: “You’re doing great.”
That’s not a very deep conversation, right?! She doesn’t feel seen, and I miss out on a chance to understand her and connect as a team. My reaction to her statement could make her feel invisible. It does the opposite of what I’m trying to do. It’s invalidating to be told “It’s fine”.
Although well intentioned, underneath it, I feel fearful that if she goes down into a place of feeling despair, we all go down with her. My reaction to this actually says way more about my own fears than about hers! A part of me believes our whole family is going to collapse in a catastrophic way, or some other awful thing will happen. She’s my rock – and I am holding her responsible for the health and happiness of our entire family.
This is not healthy, and it’s totally codependent. It’s a lot of weight to carry for my wife, who is actually an excellent mom with normal worries and fears like all of us have.
The Solution: Okay, so what do we do about this?
Grab your journal, because this is going to revolutionize your relationship.
I encourage you to bring these responses off the pages of your journal and into your conversations with your significant other – and even into therapy! These things are often learned early in life and when you work to become more balanced in how you receive others’ emotions, you’ll find that it affects all facets of your life.
By this I mean, this could be lifechanging!
- Are you trying to control your partner’s emotions? Ask yourself about the last time your partner was pissed off, sad, or frustrated about something. Maybe they got laid off, their friend canceled lunch with them, their coworker got the promotion they wanted or their mom said something they didn’t like. What feelings did this bring out in YOU? What was your response? Was it really a healthy one?
- If you are someone who tries to “fix” or minimize your partner’s concerns, ask yourself: What is it about their fear/sadness/despair/anger that feels so threatening? What goes through your mind, or what story do you concoct?
- On the opposite end, do you feel like your partner takes on too much of your feelings? In response, how do you feel? Do you find yourself omitting/hiding/minimizing your concerns and emotions?
- What could you do differently? How could you sit with their discomfort and hold space for them? How could you be encouraging without trying to fix their problems all the time?
I hope this is impactful.
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