When someone you’re dating is dealing with an issue, it’s not always easy to know how to handle it. Are you supposed to change how you act in the relationship? Do you let things slide because of what they’re dealing with? How exactly should you be supporting them? You want to be there for the person you care about, but sometimes, this comes at the cost of minimizing your own needs.
“One of the hardest roles to play [with someone you’re dating] is to be in the passenger seat when the other person is really struggling,” says Michele Burstein, LCSW, psychotherapist at Manhattan Wellness Associates. “It hurts to see someone you care about hurting, so you want to do everything in your power to make them not feel the hurt anymore.” In an attempt to do that, we may fail to express our concerns so we don’t add to their plate of shittiness.
Swerving around issues with my ex (like his bad communication) to minimize his stress would cause me to bottle up my emotions, leaving me feeling trapped and resentful.
I’m a repeat offender of this. In my past relationships — one in particular — I’ve shied away from discussing how I felt for fear of overwhelming the other person if I knew they were having a tough day. I wish I knew then that swerving around issues with my ex (like his bad communication) to minimize his stress would cause me to bottle up my emotions, leaving me feeling trapped and resentful.
“There’s the level where you acknowledge what this person [is going] through, and there’s the level where you have to protect yourself, too,” Burstein says. “It’s also looking at how many of your needs aren’t being met and how fair to yourself you’re really being. Are you making excuses [for the other person’s behavior]? Or are you just being sympathetic or empathetic?” Just because someone is having a hard time doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to talk about what’s upsetting you. You can recognize what they’re dealing with while also expressing yourself by saying something like, “I understand you’re really unhappy, and I can see how it’s affecting all of the elements of your life, but how can we work on creating balance or boundaries so it doesn’t have to affect what we have? I’m trying to support you, but I feel really neglected,” suggests Burstein.
You also might feel a certain way about their issue, which could very well involve or directly affect you. For example, maybe the person you are seeing is upset about not having a job and is trying hard to get one, but their unemployment weighs on you emotionally and financially, too.
“Communication really becomes key here,” says Burstein. “If you constantly put their feelings before your own, it’s likely you’ll bottle up these emotions and become resentful. You want to acknowledge that this is so hard for both of you and ask how you can best support each other. That said, there’s definitely an appropriate time and place for that. Right when they come home after being fired probably isn’t the best time to address your needs. Communication is key but self-awareness of time and place is also important.”
When 26-year-old Selena R.’s* partner spent more than a year waiting for his visa application to be processed, it took a toll on her, too. “He was upset and I was upset, but I would bury my feelings because I didn’t want to make things worse. But there were times where I would express how much I missed him and how hard things were for me, too. I learned to be mindful of when to center things around my own feelings and anxieties.” This consciousness came on the heels of a huge text fight that almost caused Selena and her boyfriend to break up.
“I learned from that experience that it’s better to take time to reflect before you talk about an anxiety or issue, so that way, you’re not exploding all at once,” she says. “Talking, rather than texting, helped me do this but only when we were able to have a clear and direct conversation.”
That self awareness and mindfulness is part of it — the other part is managing your expectations. You can’t think this person is going to be exactly who they were when everything was fine, says Burstein.
One way to manage those expectations and make it more likely both you and the person you are dating will get what you want from each other is to ask, “how can I best support you?” or “what can I do to make you feel supported right now?” says Burstein. “Let them know that you’re there for them in the way that they want you to be there for them, not in the way you’re assuming you should be.”
Leah P.*, 24, made the mistake of not asking these questions when the person she was dating was going through life-altering circumstances. “All I wanted to do was take care of him like I’d want to be taken care of, but that wasn’t what he needed,” she says. [When I did that to him] he felt that I was coddling him — what he really needed was a kick in the ass and someone to help him get back to a routine.” No matter how well you know someone, you’re conditioned to default to responding in the way you would want someone to respond to you, which is why we have to constantly check ourselves and check in.
Still, there are limits on what you can be expected to do. You may not be able to call them every hour because of work and other priorities, but you can promise to make as much time as you can and explain how you’ll do that. “If we neglect our own needs, we’re going to have a really hard time showing up for that other person,” says Burstein.
*Names have been changed to protect innocent daters everywhere.