I’ll never forget something a friend said to me once about her relationship. The emotional support her guy gave her was something she could count on, even in troubled times. These were her words: “We’re in it together.”
I also recall an acquaintance whose story boils down to this: She sustained serious injuries in a car accident, leaving her with life-long physical issues to manage. Within two years, her husband cut and run.
From what I pieced together, it wasn’t without regret, and I can only imagine, terrible guilt. But her challenges weren’t “their” challenges, though they had once been a happy family consisting of the two of them and their child.
What makes some people steadfast in the support they give to their relationship partner? Why do some stay strong when the going gets tough, and others pull away when minor complications arise? Why are some marriages broken by layoff, medical issues, money problems or parenting dramas? Why do some couples grow closer when tested by life’s challenges?
Defining a Supportive Relationship
How exactly should we get our arms around a supportive relationship? What are the elements that keep us standing by our partners because “we’re in it” with them?
This article on 5 critical elements of a supportive relationship identifies common sense basics, placing them in a framework of mutually beneficial support.
The elements described include:
- real commitment to being there (what I think of as “all in”)
- honest communication
- not taking responsibility for the other person’s life
- believing in each other
Let’s think about what these behaviors mean to each of us. For example, commitment may require a marriage certificate for you, and a live-in partner for me. Or, the person you love resides three states away and you see each other monthly, yet his or her presence, caring, and involvement in your world are demonstrable. And by this I mean that actions speak louder than words, even when actions are words — words of comfort, of encouragement, of humor — just when you need them.
The Importance of Communication
We all know that honest communication is a must in a successful relationship — any relationship. That doesn’t mean we “tell all” and go about it thoughtlessly. It does mean that we respect our partners and their right to know what’s going on with us. Moreover, we respect the necessity of communicating as clearly and in as timely a fashion as possible when we see things going awry.
Essential to successful communication is a rule that I continue to work on: Listen first, talk second. And part of that listening entails listening with my eyes. We need to be observant of behaviors (whatever the words may spell out); likewise, we need to pay attention to body language.
When people love each other, it can be hard to be truthful; we soften what we say or rely on euphemisms so as not to cause hurt.
Honesty, even presented prettily, is non-negotiable.
I Own Myself; You Own Yourself
When I consider the notions of responsibility for our decisions, believing in each other, knowing we cannot live another person’s life for them, and equality in a relationship — here’s where I land. In my experience, the best relationships are those in which I truly see my partner and he truly sees me, flaws and all. That means he understands that I own myself and I take responsibility for my decisions, although I will consider his opinions, his input, and the impacts of my actions on him.
But my days of putting my wants, needs and options at the bottom of the list?
One of the critical lessons I learned in my marriage: Don’t give away too many dreams or choices in the misguided conviction that it is beneficial to “us.” The more of yourself you give away, the less there is for your spouse to respect, much less love. The less there is to believe in.
Believe in Me, Please
Believing in the person you love? Really believing? It requires making the effort to see what they care about most, and if at all possible, to be the cheerleader for their dreams. Now, if you’re barely five feet tall (like yours truly), and spending money on modeling classes with the desire to sashay down a Fashion Week runway, listen up! Pay attention when your spouse says “Sweetie, have you done all the research you can to see what your opportunities are?”
Believing in your honey doesn’t mean encouraging delusions!
But if Hubby is smart in my fictitious example, he might try this: “I think you can do anything you set your mind to, but there may not be a market for models of your stature even among petites. On the other hand, your hair is magnificent, your fingers are elegant, your mouth is sensual… What about options in hair care, nail polish or lipstick? Could we look into those avenues of modeling… together?”
Whatever he does, whatever you do — can the judgment! Have opinions and express them? Of course. But belittle or dismiss what your partner cares about?
Belief Mismatch = Inequality
Mismatched belief in each other was just one area of inequality in my marriage, which was anything but egalitarian in nature.
Despite the years I invested in study, work experience, and writing before I ever walked down the aisle, and though we earned about the same amount of money, my career and aspirations were secondary to my husband’s. If not in words, certainly in deeds. My role (as he saw it) was to bring in half the income, support him in his career, and of course, to raise the children.
And you know what? I did exactly that. Because I loved him, I believed in him, and to some degree, I felt as if “I made my bed” and that was it. I was trapped by convention, trapped by my upbringing, trapped by belief in the myth that I ought to be able to “do it all,” and trapped by love.
This has been true in other relationships, but I hope that over time I’ve become more aware of a lack of supportive belief, and less willing to tolerate it.
“Equality” Is Elusive
Perceptions of equality vary, don’t you think? If you stayed home and took care of things on the domestic front while your spouse did the bread-winning, maybe that’s precisely what suited you — both. For me, the formula was, or should’ve been, something different. But the notion of an egalitarian marriage, at least in so many words, wasn’t around when I slipped on that wedding ring. And from this column on egalitarian relationships, here is a realistic depiction of what happens when whatever the arrangement is, one person feels short-changed.
Resentment builds. Friction is inevitable. Likewise, emotional distance and its consequences.
Describing her husband and their married life, this writer explains:
… he was on the road and I was on the front line. He was focused on career and I was focused on getting through the day. When he was around, he was chipper and I was pooped. It’s a dynamic that plays out in millions of marriages…
Flash-forward a few years, as the relationship erodes and then lands us in divorce court. Sure, marriages fizzle on many dimensions, but unequal distribution of familial tasks breeds resentment, resentment makes for a spotty sex life and when intimacy falls away for an extended period, it’s a sure sign of trouble to come.
That writer was me.
Helping Those We Love: Methods, Limitations
When faced with life’s most disorienting events — death in the family, loss of income, loss of home, a medical situation that leaves us reeling — the way our spouses or partners respond can make or break the relationship. They can actively help, they can do nothing, or they can act out in ways that are counterproductive.
Some will exit Stage Left. Some will throw money at the problem. Some will stick, unselfishly, and we as a couple grow closer as a consequence; or at least — we don’t grow apart.
Then there is the non-devastating but enervating accumulation of irritations. They drain us of time. They squeeze out pleasure. They put a strain on relationships, and sometimes to the point of relationship collapse. One or both partners just can’t take any more. One or both decide to call it quits.
Another scenario? Perhaps one of you in the midst of a serious challenge is survivable, but both of you dealing with personal or professional dramas is not.
Sure, I’m focusing on opposite ends of a spectrum of behavior. Most of us dwell somewhere between the extremes — supportive if the give-and-take isn’t one-sided; willing to give if self-image is nourished by doing so; helping to a degree so as not to feel guilty; able to be supportive in some instances and, for reasons of our own, unable to do so in others.
These are aspects of character, personality, values, upbringing, experience, physical stamina, emotional fortitude — and no doubt, individual circumstances.
And let’s be realistic: We all have our limits — limits to patience, time, generosity, energy, financial resources. The proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back? That, too.
Limits may be tested when we expect change from those we love, they promise change, and then we don’t see it. Or, we don’t see it served up the way we’d like. But shouldn’t we remember that relationship support is not requiring the other person to be like us, but loving him and standing by him while he’s figuring things out? And doing what we can to be helpful during that process?
And here I wish to add an item to the list above: acceptance.
Without acceptance of who the other person is — and this requires that you truly see them — you have only delusions and, ultimately, disappointment.
Without acceptance of what enables your partner to feel like herself, love what she loves, chase her dreams — where is the emotional support?
Another aspect of acceptance? Realistic expectations.
Should we judge those whose limits of kindness or self-sacrifice are less than we might hope? Are we blind to what they must be feeling? Deaf to their needs and whatever baggage they’re carrying from the years before we met? Should we judge ourselves harshly if we don’t want to take on one more care-taking responsibility that others might see as part and parcel of love?
Are You All In?
At this stage in life? Give me a great relationship without the typical conventions — I’m a happy woman! Come on. You know that some relationships are wonderful without being “all in.”
They’re supportive up to a point, supportive on specific dimensions, and likewise, your support needn’t be 300% — and everything works, as is.
So what happens when there is a financial emergency or a medical crisis? What happens when one of you is sick, laid off, dealing with grief?
I suppose that’s when we see exactly what we’ve got. We should look closely and speak candidly. We’d be wise to recognize that emotional support can come from many places including friends, family members, even online communities. We’d also do well to understand the differences between compromise and sacrifice, and our own ability to give as good as we get.
There are times in my life when I see that I wasn’t all in, neither was my partner, and that suited nicely.
Yet I confess: My most significant love affairs and my marriage are different. Through good times and bad, whether achieved or not, the goal was always “We’re in it together.”
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