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Sex & Love How much emotional baggage should your partner really expect you to deal with?

Oct. 7, 2021
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In the first year of our relationship, my partner sat me down and told me with great care, “Jade, I love you. I want to support you, and I want to throw you the life rafts I can, but I can’t drown with you.” I was furious with him. For the rest of the night, I was caught in a flurry of emotion, swinging between doubting whether this relationship was right for me and being outraged that he didn’t think it was worth it to fight to the ends of the Earth for me.

Looking back at that now, I cringe. 

My partner was right. No one’s partner is ever obligated to save them at the risk of losing themselves. Too often we romanticize ride-or-die love—this intangible, everlasting whirlwind in which you’re expected to show up with a shovel and a can-do attitude to help your significant other cover up a murder. One day, I thought, I would find my other half, and they would love me exactly as I loved them. They would fight my demons for me and win my battles for me, just like I would for them. 

But real life doesn’t work that way. Real life is messy. In reality, your partner has their own damage—and you don’t always get to just pile on because you’re suffering. 

Growing up, I always viewed boundaries as something you set with toxic people—individuals you needed to keep at arm’s length. The first time one of my partners told me that they were setting a boundary for the sake of their mental health, I spiraled. I felt like if they had to set a boundary with me, it meant I was toxic. In the end, they had to comfort me instead of taking space and maintaining the boundary they’d set in the first place. Not only is that emotionally exhausting, it isn’t really fair. Slowly, I had to learn that instead of expecting help from my partners, I had to ask—and that meant they could say no.

Initially, I felt like my partner was trying to boil our romantic life down to something transactional and unfeeling. In truth, it was the exact opposite. When I examined where my feelings were coming from, I realized they had nothing to do with my relationships, but the emotional baggage I was seeking support with. My own trauma—my own fears of abandonment and fairytale ideas of precisely how “real love” worked—fueled this rejection of my partner’s ideology. 

Slowly, I came to realize that my partner doesn’t owe me a single thing. He was choosing to offer me what he felt he was capable of at that moment. I (slowly) came to the realization that this way of dealing with things wasn’t because he didn’t love me; it was because he was choosing to be there for me when he was able. Him doing so—freely and of his own accord—ultimately made me feel more appreciated. 

This understanding didn’t come easily or naturally. Instead of offering me a guiding light, I felt like my partner was turning his back on me when I needed him most. I felt completely alone—but I was wrong. It took me a while, but eventually, I could see that he was offering me a shoulder to cry on, but within the bounds of what he felt comfortable with. 

I had been demanding such onerous support from my partner, even after being told it was not something he was able to give. The realization of my selfishness sat like a rock in my stomach—this wasn’t the sort of relationship I had envisioned for myself. I had never wanted to take and only take, but by not stepping up and taking responsibility for my own emotions and the baggage that came with them, I was doing just that. 

My partners had always been fairly good at setting boundaries and saying no when they needed to, but that wasn’t a skill I had. If I loved someone, there wasn’t anything I wouldn’t do for them. You need help moving? I’m there. A home loan? Here’s my credit score. A kidney? Here, take mine.This was how I thought romantic relationships worked. Constantly giving, no matter how much you’re receiving, is exhausting—even in the name of love.  

Nine out of ten times, my partner is going to be able to provide support for me when I need it, because he loves me, and because he has the capacity to offer assistance in that moment. The times when he can’t provide support, he communicates that to me. When he’s unable to support me emotionally, it doesn’t mean we coexist in an emotionless relationship. We love and care for each other; these feelings don’t dissipate simply because one of us can’t be there for the other emotionally at some point. We both know that when we are able to support one another and be that emotional touchstone, that’s exactly what we will do—it just isn’t every second of every day.

There’s a tremendous freedom in this trust—knowing with absolute certainty that if my partner is taking time to comfort and care for me, the only thing fueling that is love. That his only motivation is wanting to help. I know I have his full attention, because he has the energy and mental capacity to be present with me. Knowing that we have an agreement to only provide emotional support when we have the mental capacity to do so cuts down a lot of anxiety within the relationship. He isn’t sitting there listening to me worry and cry at what seems like the most inane things because he feels obligated to do so, but he’s choosing to take the time to really listen to me.

In past relationships, there always came a point when love alone wasn’t enough; both of us were trying to be everything the other person needed all at once. This wasn’t sustainable. We all have a different threshold for what we can handle emotionally. It took me a very long time to see that. I would wrap myself in love stories of soulmates and the mythology of “other halves.” But while love is a great foundation for any relationship, it’s never going to be the only thing that makes a relationship persevere through all odds. 

Before this discovery, I spent a lot of my relationships fearful of the end. I worried incessantly about burdening my partner, which only resulted in my needing to rely on them more and more. It made for a dreadful concoction of misinformation, distrust, anxiety, and a false sense of entitlement to someone else’s attention and feelings. 

Still, we all come with our own pre-existing baggage. It’s messy and hard to deal with, but it is ours to deal with. A huge part of dealing with and healing from trauma is reaching out for help, but that doesn’t mean you get to demand that your partner take the weight of your emotional baggage for you. Some days, they’ll be able to help carry it, but on others, their hands might be full. And that’s okay. So set boundaries. Respect the lines your partner draws. As a former ride-or-die, I-will-bury-your-dead-body sort of partner, I can attest to how much healthier and better this has been for my mental health—and my relationships.