“You keep letting me down. You are never there for me.”
“I feel the same way. You’re always criticizing me.”
Ellen* and Mark are sitting in my office, giving each other the same essential message that they’ve given every time they’ve fought, over their eight years together: As a spouse, you are a disappointment.
Even when they’re not fighting, this underlying issue is there, for both of them. How is he going to disappoint me next? Am I going to disappoint her now? From what they describe, they co-exist in a dank brew of irritability, expectations of being let down, and a strong sense of needing to walk on eggshells.
Not a great way to live your life, or conduct your relationship.
“What were your dreams about this relationship when you got together?” I ask them.
Ellen speaks first. “My whole life, I never felt like anyone was rooting for me. You know my parents got divorced when I was six. After that, they were each busy trying to hold their lives together…working, dating… Taking care of my little brother became my job. Then, when they each remarried, they had their new families.”
“I always hoped that when I got married, I’d finally have someone who would be on my side.” She pauses for a moment, her eyes teary.
Mark speaks up next.
“Yeah, I know that feeling. My folks weren’t divorced, but, I never really fit in. You know how it was for me…feeling so different from everyone else. I always thought that one day, I’d meet the one. And she’d be there for me, no matter what.”
Even if your parents didn’t divorce; and even if you didn’t feel alone most of the time, you may carry the same hope as Ellen and Mark: That your partner will provide you with constant, unconditional love and support.
As babies and young children, we are incapable of caring for ourselves. We need someone to take care of us until we have the ability to care for ourselves. And as we grow up, it can be hard to let go of this desire. After all, being taken care of often feels great.
Moreover, the notion that in marriage we will find someone who should always support us, and never let us down, is held out as an ideal in our culture. This expectation saturates our society. It is present in virtually all movies, romantic novels, serious (and not-so-serious) television shows, and in nearly every Hallmark card.
There’s just one problem: This “ideal” simply isn’t possible.
“What are you talking about?” Ellen asks me.
“Simply put, you are two different people. At times you have different ways of seeing things, and different priorities. How could you always support each other, be there for each other, or take care of each other?”
Of course, it’s wonderful to have your partner see things your way, do what you’d like him to do, and cheer you on in your endeavors. But there are going to be times when this will not be the case. There is no way around this, because no two people always see eye to eye, always get along, or always behave lovingly toward each other.
And, although it was your parents’ job to take care of you when you were small, it is impossible to get unwavering support from another adult, once you grow up. As long as most people expect this of their partners, most people will end up disappointed in their partners and in their marriages.
“Well, then what is the point of being in a relationship?” Mark asks, his voice edgy with irritation.
An excellent question.
When people grapple with the difficult concepts of “meeting needs” and “unconditional support”, they often wonder: “If a relationship isn’t about meeting each others’ needs, what is it about?”
Indeed, why be in a relationship?
There are many reasons to be in a relationship, and what they are may surprise you! I’ll be discussing this in my next blog post. Stay tuned!
If you are struggling in your relationship, feel free to contact me. Whether you are considering couples counseling or individual therapy, I’ll be glad to help you find your way to a stronger, more fulfilling connection.
*All identifying information changed.