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Owning your part in relationship: a story about how I woke up

This is a story about cleaning the house. Wait! Hold on. It gets more interesting. It’s a story about how I tried to get my needs met by controlling someone else’s behavior. It’s a story about the toll that took on my marriage and on me. And it’s a story of how, when I woke up to own my part, I felt less resentful, more empowered, spontaneous, alive, and connected in relationship.

Rewind to my late 20s when I had just met the man who would later become my husband. Finally, I understood what my partnered friends were talking about with their maddening “you’ll just know” advice. As far as I knew, it was true love, it was awesome, and of course, it was going to last.

Not knowing much about how to be good at marriage or about my own patterns in relationship, I plunged in. He seemed to rely on me for emotional support and I was comfortable being supportive. I spent a lot of time focused on meeting his needs and managing his moods. I had ideas about how things should be done and how he should do them. For a while, this seemed to work.

But over time, I felt increasingly burdened, drained, anxious, and resentful. I felt like his mother, trying to keep everything together and be the responsible one. It didn’t seem like I had a choice, if I didn’t do these things – help him calm down, make sure the bills were paid, the house was clean – everything would fall apart, wouldn’t it? These are just the things adults do, I heard myself saying. When I see pictures of myself from this time I’m shocked at how tired I look. Inside part of me kept asking, what about support for me?

So what’s my part in this dynamic? If you had asked me back then I would have been annoyed. Can’t you see how hard I’m working? I’m the responsible, together one here and he’s the one with the issues. Sound familiar?

good-model-for-modern-relationships-webWhat’s my Part?

We tend to recreate in relationship the role we played in our family of origin. I came from a family where my role was to orient to someone else’s emotional needs. As an adult my relationship pattern was to be the “sidekick,” the quieter partner to a bigger personality who I could orient around.

Not surprisingly, I ended up married to a person who was overwhelmed by his emotional needs, looked to someone else for help to self soothe, and had a harder time attuning to me. We both had a set point which made this arrangement comfortable; him taking up 80% of relationship space, me taking up 20%. The truth is, as much as I was drained by my emotional caretaker role and wanted more in the relationship it was uncomfortable to actually receive it.

Turning Towards You: How to Wake up to Your Part

When I began to tune into me, I had to face how hard that was and why. Therapy helped me begin this healing process. There were a lot of hard feelings that came up. But wow, it was probably one of the most important things I’ve ever done! You can begin this journey too with some simple writing exercises.

  1. Give some thought your family role. What felt good about this role and what felt hard?
  2. How do you notice your family role showing up in your relationship (or in other areas of your life)? Focus us on how you feel with your partner, rather than their external characteristics. Often it may seem like we are choosing someone completely different (i.e. a quiet type who will not be like the angry father we grew up with) but the way we feel or role we take in relationship with them is similar.

It’s important to remember that as children we will give up parts of ourselves to get the love we need from our caregivers. Be kind to yourself as you explore this. Chances are that you took on this role in order to survive the situation you had no power to change at the time.

In a way, we can admire the genius of our roles in serving their purpose – to get us the love, attention, care, and connection with our primary caregivers. For a child, even negative attention is better that none. But while they helped us survive when we could not leave or change things, they have a cost. As adults in relationship these core beliefs are still running behind the scenes, often outside our consciousness and wired in our nervous systems, telling us we’re not safe. For me, this was the belief that it’s not safe to have needs of my own. The cost: I had learned to check out of my own needs.

Truth Time: Owning Your Needs

Here’s where we come back to cleaning the house, a place where this dynamic plays out for many of the couples I work with and for me. You may want to give some thought to the areas this dynamic shows up for you.

Managing the behavior of others is a common strategy to try get our disowned needs met. I had a need for order and ease that I wasn’t aware of as mine. If the house wasn’t in order, I felt anxious and agitated. His needs around this were different but it didn’t matter. I’d try to control him by nagging, shaming (telling him he wasn’t being responsible), and withholding so that my needs were met. You can probably guess what kind of impact this had. Definitely my part!

Let me share a truth here – you can’t change him. What seems to you like a “normal adult standard” is really your standard. It’s about your needs. If you have a need for order in your home and he doesn’t or his version of what that means is different, you have several choices: accept you’ll do most of the cleaning to meet your own need; come up with a solution like paying a housecleaner; or, give yourself permission not to do it and notice what comes up. For me, it was a lot of anxiety. Eventually I learned how to just allow that or if I couldn’t, I cleaned up because I needed to.

Waking Up and Healing

Trying to get him to do it or care about is an option with a lot of costs. One, it doesn’t work. The more you nag, the more you feel bad about yourself; you’re obsessive, overbearing, and annoying. He may do it for a while to make you happy but eventually reverts to his own way. The more this dynamic gets reinforced between you – you’re the responsible one, he’s the little boy being bad. You feel resentful and he feels like he’s in trouble or maybe gets angry. Two, you become focused on trying to get him to change him rather than on yourself and your own feelings and needs, reinforcing your own pattern.

This doesn’t mean you can’t have feelings about it or ask for what you’d like. You might share that when you come home to see his dirty dishes it makes you feel anxious and it’s hard for you to settle and connect. You can ask if he’d be willing to wash them now, and express how that would make you feel. And then let go of it. Come back to your choices – leave it and be with your feelings or do it for yourself if you need to.

It’s not fair and it’s not easy. I’ll be honest, it’s hard to have a partner that doesn’t share my need for order because it can leave me feeling alone, and sometimes I still slip into resentment. But it’s much easier to claim this as my own rather than do the job of managing him and it’s much better for our relationship. Ironically, the more I stay with myself, the more he ends up trying to meet my needs because now he’s free to choose rather than just comply or resist.

One caveat: If you are concerned that doing this may have physical, legal, or severe financial consequences for you, it’s time to examine whether you really are safe in this relationship. Talk to a therapist.

We are not victims in our lives but we need to wake up! By becoming aware of and working with your part you are empowered to change the only person you really can – you.

Jodie Stein

Jodie Stein

Jodie Stein, MFT is a San Francisco based therapist who helps women in transition to be fierce about loving themselves. She sees women navigating relationships, separation/divorce, becoming married, or learning to follow their own rules. She believes that you have the choice to create an authentic life that you love and brings her unique blend of heart, humor, warmth and challenge to help you get there.

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