Sometimes it takes us years to understand basic lessons like this one: Everyone needs a cheerleader, an ardent fan, a steadfast supporter.
Your cheerleader may be your parent, though hopefully as you become an adult, Mom or Dad isn’t the only cheerleader on the sidelines. Your cheerleader ought to be the person you make your life with – just as you are his or her biggest fan.
And that means supporting your partner through the down days, the most heartfelt victories, and the long-term dreams that may, at times, require emotional CPR.
Cheerleading, it seems to me, is something we engage in excessively for our children, manage in just the right amount for our best friends, and pursue with little enthusiasm for those we promise to love.
We may think we’re being supportive – by listening, for example – but as much as I am a proponent of skillful listening, cheerleading is something else, and we don’t clearly understand what’s involved.
Support Is Specific
How we love throwing around advice about being supportive. And it’s good advice. But what exactly does it mean?
In order to be supportive to a boyfriend, girlfriend, husband or wife – do we have to agree with or agree to everything he or she says? Do we offer consolation on a rough day and congratulations on a good one? Is a hug sufficient for the former and a “good job, Honey” for the latter?
What if we don’t have the 20 minutes to really pay attention when they’re speaking? What if we really don’t get why something is a big deal?
Is it all a judgment call? Good manners? When do we make suggestions, turn to tough love, or choose to keep silent?
We might imagine the answers to depend on the individuals and the circumstances. Still – is the pleasant but dismissive nod ever a good idea? Is jumping in to criticize the output of a dream always ill-advised? Like constructive criticism, isn’t the best support of all tangible, explicit – and genuine?
Supporting Your Partner’s Passion
In one of my most satisfying past relationships, the man I was seeing understood how important writing is to me. He had spent part of his professional life in a publishing-related field, had long been surrounded by writer friends, and his natural inclination leaned literary. Although he had transitioned from academia to the business world, he fully comprehended the range of stimuli I need in order to feel fully alive (and write), the periods of isolated quiet that are equally necessary (to write), and the centrality of the work itself – to me.
His cheerleading frequently came in the form of a very specific sort of generosity – instead of resenting the solitude I needed to chisel away at words, he happily filled his time with pursuits of his own, some of which we could enjoy together, quietly.
We also spoke of books and language together, along with a range of topics that he felt passionately about. He believed in me, in my ability to write well – and he told me so. To some degree, the outcome of my writing wasn’t an issue so much as cheering me on through the process.
Support, Freely Given
In the years since (and we remain friends), I’ve come to understand how rare an experience that is. This goes beyond the general willingness to be positive around a partner’s passions or work; his cheerleading was freely given and in some respects, natural, due to his interests.
That concept of emotional CPR?
When you receive rejections – be they in the creative realm, in a job search, in struggling through challenging subject matter at school – there’s no question that you’re more vulnerable. Your esteem (and possibly resolve) will need shoring up, so the more tender and reassuring the response by the one you love, the better.
Isn’t this what we do for our children? Why don’t we do it for our spouses?
As is often the case for women, I was raised to provide an abundance of support for my man, and for my kids. This cheerleading is active and constant: the sort of emotional support that is needed to press on with a lagging entrepreneurial venture, a long-term dream, a personal goal, a lousy day in class, a disagreement with the boss.
If it involved money, that, too, was given.
Yes, it’s about listening. No, it’s not about fixing. It is, however, about participating in the disappointment or the enthusiasm of the activity, accepting the full depth and breadth of its importance to the person you love, and never diminishing it – either because it seems impossible – to you – or it isn’t reaping “success” as yet.
And “as yet” is key.
Don’t we all echo the wisdom that we must fail in order to eventually win?
Emotional Support (the Guys)
Shouldn’t the empathy we extend to a best friend be granted to the person we chat with over dinner and wake up to in the morning? Don’t we all need to hear “I believe in you, I believe in your ability to do this” – from the person we are closest to? Shouldn’t that person mean it?
As for men giving emotional support in a relationship, are they less prepared to do so because we don’t expect it? Because we aren’t specific about what we need?
As I have been lucky enough to know a few men who have been admirable cheerleaders, clearly they exist. Is it unreasonable of me to anticipate a cheerleader for a passion that someone else cannot understand? Or is the onus on me to find better ways to communicate its importance?
In general, we seem more inclined to give our fullest support early in relationships and when we are young. The reasons are obvious: We are still “new” to each other and thus fully and actively engaged; we are, ourselves, still “new” and perhaps more open and empathetic as a consequence.
Simply put, benign relationship neglect has yet to make an appearance.
What Is a Supportive Relationship
Being supportive doesn’t mean accepting or encouraging self-destructive behaviors. For example, the painter who feels he must “suffer for his art” and takes this to a dangerous extreme would not receive a kindly pat on the back from yours truly. On the contrary.
Let’s also admit that sometimes those closest to us can sabotage our efforts. They may be doing so without full awareness, acting on some measure of insecurity, discomfort or fear.
This article does a nice job of covering the elements of a supportive relationship. Those elements include listening, not judging, being emotionally authentic and more.
Theoretically, if we have these fundamentals covered, we ought to be excellent cheerleaders – right?
Above and Beyond?
The traditional “golf widow” comes to mind. Is it realistic to expect her to do more than listen politely on Sunday night as Hubby talks about birdies and handicaps? What if we just don’t understand what motivates our partner or why it’s so important? Worse – what if it’s something we dislike, or we’re jealous of the time involved that takes him or her away from us?
Should we urge the golf widow to take a few lessons and join her spouse no matter what? And if the gender roles are reversed – then what?
Let’s assume that everything else in the relationship is good. This isn’t an issue of character or beliefs; it does, however, get to the heart of who we are. Don’t we all want to be seen, to be valued, and have what we value be more than tolerated?
The Value of Kindness
Kindness goes far, as does generosity. But these may not be enough. There are times when we need a spouse to recognize a pressing issue, a lifelong dream, or even the demands of what we have come to consider routine. Ideally, we want more than the polite nod and smile; we crave specific understanding – or at least genuine acknowledgment of what we’re feeling – from struggle to pleasure to triumph.
Some of us may find this easier than others. We may have been well schooled in the art of emotional support or we may be fortunate – as I have been at times – in a relationship with shared passions.
Bottom line: If we sense that we don’t have the cheerleading we would like, we need to speak up and articulate what we need. It may not be a cure-all, but it’s certainly a start.
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