On Conflicting Emotional Needs in Relationships

[Content note: personal discussion of emotional imbalances in relationships. If you’re struggling with feeling like a burden to your partner(s), you might want to skip my perspective on this. Or maybe not.]

On the one hand: you deserve to be able to express your feelings in a relationship, and if your partner refuses to hear and affirm your feelings, that’s probably not a healthy situation.

On the other hand: you deserve to be able to set your boundaries. If someone you’re close with is having a lot of strong feelings that they want to express repeatedly–especially if the feelings are about you or the relationship–that can be very difficult to reconcile with your own mental health needs.

I don’t really know what to do in these situations except end the relationship or transition it to a more casual one. (That’s my own approach, not my advice to others.)

I used to believe, back when I was more often in the first situation, that the right thing to do when you care about someone is to just make yourself listen to them even if you don’t really feel like it. Relationships Are About Compromise, after all.

I didn’t realize at the time how easily this attitude can lead to becoming your partner’s untrained, unpaid therapist, or having your own issues exacerbated or triggered. It’s nobody’s fault; it’s just an occupational hazard of being a human in relationship with other humans.

But the other thing I learned is that it also isn’t healthy for me to frequently feel like I’m reluctantly doing my partner a favor just because it’s The Right Thing To Do.

Of course not all favors that we do are reluctant. If a friend needs help moving, I usually help out if I can, even though I would never choose to move furniture just for fun. But I didn’t do it because it’s The Right Thing To Do; I do it because it’s ultimately rewarding and because I get to spend time with friends in the process.

Likewise, I’m (usually) happy to listen to my friends’ and partners’ feelings, even when they’re strong and negative and expressed “uncharitably.” I’m used to hearing lots of sad things; it’s sad to hear them but it usually doesn’t harm me in any noticeable way. Although I can’t solve my friends’ problems for them–and wouldn’t want to–these conversations can be very rewarding for both of us.

But by the point in a relationship where we’re having the tenth conversation about “I just feel like you don’t really love me that much,” there’s generally nothing rewarding in it. (Truthfully, I’m not sure it’s rewarding for the person sharing it, either.) At that point, I’m listening because I feel like that’s what I should do, not because I want to.

For a while this seemed like an okay thing to do. It even seemed like the ethically correct thing to do, until I thought about how it would feel if I know that someone was only doing things for me out of a sense of obligation or commitment, and not because it’s actually pleasurable, meaningful, or rewarding for them.

(Note that difficult conversations can be meaningful and rewarding, if not pleasurable. Difficult conversations can bring a conflict towards resolution, build emotional intimacy, and develop more understanding of each other, to give just three examples. But I’m not talking about those.)

In fact, when I realized that this was going on and that people in my life were listening to me basically just to avoid feeling like Bad People, it totally messed up my ability to open up about my feelings. I stopped trusting people to set boundaries with me, because I’d seen proof that they don’t–ostensibly to avoid the possibility of hurting me, but also to avoid their own guilt.

In fact, it probably would’ve been hurtful to hear, “Sorry, babe, we’ve already talked through this a lot and I don’t have the bandwidth to talk through it again. Is there another way I can support you?” But hurtful doesn’t always mean wrong. What’s ultimately more hurtful, the sting of having a boundary set with me, or the steady, years-long erosion of trust in everyone that happens when enough people I care about act dishonestly with me?

And maybe, in a perfect world in which everyone is honest and direct, some of my partners would have said that they weren’t able to listen to me talk about certain things. Maybe that would’ve been a dealbreaker and I would’ve found partners who do not have those particular boundaries, and I would’ve trusted them to let me know if that changed.

But there are no easy answers for people who can’t find anyone willing to support them at the level that they need (and who cannot access therapy, presumably). Quite a few of us with a mental illness history can probably even say that someone’s failure to set their boundaries ended up saving our lives.

I don’t know.

But thankfully, most situations are not life-threatening. It should be ok if your partner has already processed your fears of rejection with you and isn’t able to do it anymore. It doesn’t mean they don’t love you or aren’t committed to you, it just means their needs are conflicting with yours. And it shouldn’t be the case that the needs of the partner who needs more support automatically override the needs of their partner.

I think part of the problem is our cultural conception of romantic partners as The One and My Other Hand and such. Many people believe that you should be able to tell your partner everything and have all your emotional (and sexual) needs met by them. If you need some sort of support–for instance, someone to listen to you regularly talk about your fears of being dumped–your partner should be available for that, and if they’re not, there’s something wrong with the relationship (or with your partner as a person).

(While this sounds like it’s only applicable to monogamy, plenty of poly couples actually work under the assumptions. Their “primary” partner is supposed to be able to fulfill all of their emotional needs, and their “secondaries” are for a bit of fun on the side. Aside from the sexual component, the “primary” partner still has to be able to do all the emotional support stuff.)

This is the point where someone is tempted to protest But It Works For Us, but okay–if it works, it works. But for many people it doesn’t. Worse, they think that the problem is with them, and not with our collective assumptions. If you and your partner are being honest, open, self-aware, and respectful of boundaries, but you still can’t fully meet each other’s needs, maybe it’s time to explore other options–not necessarily breaking up, but adjusting your expectations about how much of the support you need should come from one person.

(By the way, that doesn’t even imply that you should try polyamory. There’s no reason why certain emotional support needs can only be met by partners and not by friends.)

My concern about these conversations is that we’re always auditing people’s boundaries and shaming them for not being available enough to their partners. (Even when we’re not those people’s partners, perhaps especially then. I get so many comments from people I literally don’t even know about how I must be a terrible selfish partner. Suppose I am. What’s it to you?) I could already hear the responses to this post as I was writing it–“So what, you’re saying it’s ok to refuse to listen to your partner’s feelings?” “So it’s ok for someone to just shut down all their partner’s concerns?”

It’s notable how words like “all,” “always,” and “never” end up creeping into these conversations when they were never originally there.

Well, first of all, there’s setting boundaries and there’s abuse. Setting boundaries is, “I’m sorry, I don’t feel like I can handle this discussion. What else can we do?” Abuse is, “Come on, you’re acting crazy. This isn’t a big deal. You should be grateful I’m still with you at all.”

Second–and this is basically the whole point of this post–expectations about what’s reasonable to ask of a partner vary wildly from person to person. For me, listening for hours per week to someone venting about work or school or people they know is totally reasonable, but having more than a few “I just feel like you don’t love me as much as I love you” conversations per relationship completely destroys my ability to stay in that relationship. For whatever reason, I just can’t with that conversation. I hate feeling like I have to prove my love, I hate feeling like we have to quantify the amount of love we feel and compare it, I hate feeling like I owe my partner stronger feelings just because they have stronger feelings for me, I hate being pressured to show my love in ways that I’m not comfortable with. I just hate all of it. But that’s me. And some of the things that I am happy to do for partners, others probably aren’t.

Finally, I’m not sure that “is that ok?” is even the right question to be asking in these situations. Is it ok for you? If not, then don’t date that person. Otherwise, it’s not really relevant. Relationships with zero or minimal emotional support do exist; they’re casual hookup situations and they work great for some people.

As always with needs and boundaries, the more extensive yours are, the pickier you’ll have to be about your partners. If you need a partner who is able to support you through your mental illness at a very high emotional level, many people will not be a good fit for you, and it’s not because they’re selfish and emotionally withholding. It’s because your needs are in conflict.

Likewise, if you need a relationship in which Serious Conversations About Feelings and Relationship Talks are minimal, many people will not be a good fit for you, and it’s not because they’re clingy and suffocating. It’s because your needs are in conflict.

Of course, everyone always tells me that it’s not as simple as “just don’t date the person who isn’t a good fit for you,” because you have strong feelings for them and you can’t just get over them. This is true, and being unable to date someone you really want to date is never a good feeling no matter what the reason. But I’m not sure that being in a relationship with strongly conflicting needs is any better, unless you’ve made a plan with yourself/your partner about how those needs are going to be met (outside the relationship).

Instead, people tend to assume that being single (for now) is necessarily worse than being in a very emotionally mismatched relationship, and then end up blaming and resenting their partner for not meeting their needs or for having needs that the relationship cannot accommodate. The belief that romantic relationships should provide for all of one’s needs makes it both impossible to accept the relationship as it is, and impossible to leave it.

Gently guiding that belief to the grave where it belongs is a topic for another post, but understanding the fact that many couples have conflicting emotional needs and that this doesn’t make anyone wrong or bad is a crucial first step.

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On Conflicting Emotional Needs in Relationships
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6 thoughts on “On Conflicting Emotional Needs in Relationships

  1. 1

    The assumptions you mention here tend to erase single people from the equation fairly absolutely as well. If the assumption is that one gets all one’s emotional support from a romantic partner then what does that mean for people without one? Either that they are not allowed any emotional support (perhaps even shading into do not deserve any), or that their emotional needs are an entirely different thing from the emotional needs of people in relationships and should, legitimately, be handled by a committee of friends, family colleagues and others. I think I’ve seen both of these corollaries at work before. People tend to draw too absolute a distinction between life on one’s own and life in a relationship, with all sorts of difficulties arising for people on both sides of the divide. As someone who has never been in a relationship, all of whose friends have been in one for over a decade, I come up against this quite a lot. It can be fairly alienating too, as there is a pervasive assumption that one simply shouldn’t share one’s emotional issues with people one is not in a relationship with. I suspect that both I and many of my friends would be much happier if they felt they could share their problems with me, or each other, and they felt that they could support me properly in my loneliness and frustration and depression without breaking this societal taboo against providing emoitional support outside the approved channels.

  2. 3

    I think “what do you want from me” is a good question people should ask and answer.
    Quite often folks are NOT actually communicating. Your emotional needs cannot be met when the other person doesn’t even know what they are.
    If I take your two examples of “venting about life/work/friends” and “I don’t think you love me as much as I do”, both instances can be taken very differently by the person who is listening.
    If you believe the person who talks about life/work/friends wants your help and advice, this can get very stressful for both when the person actually just wants 10 minutes of your time and a sympathetic “that sucks”.
    Same with “You don’t love me as much as I do”. What do you want from me? Do you just want me to tell you “I love you” more (maybe because I think it’s cheesy, but for you it’s important)? Do you want to tell me that you feel that I’m behaving different towards you (because I’m at the end of my tether and just. can’t. give. at the moment and am “cashing in” on the realtionship because I feel safe with you)?
    If I just hear the first thing and run with it, thi ngs can go bad.

  3. 4

    Your specific examples seem to be about a person venting to their partner… about problems in the relationship. I use “venting” very specifically there, because venting is about expressing a feeling and is not about solving a problem. And I think venting to the person/situation you’re venting about is just a dick move. I mean, hearing that your partner feels like you don’t love them or appreciate what they do for you feels like shit. I think a kind partner would try to express feelings like that in a self-responsible, solution-focused way, even if they’re not sure what a solution would look like.

    Expressing that one feels unloved by one’s partner is often a tool of emotional manipulation, too. As you note, it tends to have the function of baiting the other partner to reassure them–prove to them–that they do love them. Eventually, the other partner may feel like they can’t express their needs in the relationship without setting off a giant spiral of insecurity. It is a very effective tool for abuse, in that it lets the perpetrator turn any conversation about the other partner’s needs into a conversation about them and their feelings. I had a partner who operated this way, and it was exhausting.

    Incompatible needs are a very real thing, and having all of one’s emotional needs fulfilled by a partner is a tall order even for healthy, happy relationships. Yet beyond simple incompatibility, I think it’s just shitty, potentially abusive relationship behavior to act as though your partner is responsible for your needs and feelings. We’re responsible for ourselves; we can express what we need, but how other people respond to that information is their purview.

  4. 6

    It’s notable how words like “all,” “always,” and “never” end up creeping into these conversations when they were never originally there.

    Because boundaries are forever, black and white, binary, all or nothing. That’s what a lot of us believe, particularly once someone has set a boundary with us. If we truly respect the other person’s feelings and agency, we will never cross it again. Even Captain Awkward’s underlying message appears to be, even if there’s the chance a boundary might be opened or relaxed to you in the future, it’s better to be on the safe side and act as if it’s forever.

    We also have this idea that intimacy means no boundaries– that someone setting boundaries with us means they don’t love us. Also– even more insidiously– that if other people are setting boundaries with us, that means we’re terrible, unapproachable people who lack the capacity to love and be loved. That if we were truly the right one for our partners, they would not be setting boundaries with us.

    This, incidentally, is what else I hate about the “relationships are always good for you” crowd in psychology media. They play up relationships and love as a magical panacea for all our emotional problems, and put the blame on us– our stupid personalities, our stupid demeanors, our stupid emotional needs– if our relationships, for some reason or another, aren’t as intimate as we’d like. Or that have too many boundaries. I have spent more years than I care to count feeling inadequate as a human being, like I was lacking charisma or social capacity because I, apparently, didn’t have this amazing boundary-melting ability.

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