I’ve got a proactive personality type. When I see a to do list, all I want to do is start getting stuff done and checking off items. This can be really helpful when it comes to work or chores, but it’s not really a very helpful mentality when it comes to relationships.
Here are some things that I’m learning about relationships right now. They may be helpful to other people, they may clarify to others why a friend or family member acts the way they do, or they might just be me clarifying to myself what I think and what I’ve learned. But I’m going to write them here anyway because I find it helpful.
When you are in a relationship (of any kind: romantic, friendly, family) with another person, it’s likely that the other person will have times of difficulty and problems in their life. It’s even possible that they might have some serious work they need to do in terms of their emotions and mental well being. They might realize they’re depressed, they might decide they want to improve their communication skills, or maybe they have some really unhealthy habits in relationships. Whatever it might be, it’s highly likely that someone you are in a relationship with will have some personal long term problem that they try to solve.
Oftentimes when that happens, it’s easy to see it as a problem in the relationship.
If you are in a relationship with someone, their struggles will affect you. If you’re not very careful, it can look like it’s a problem that both of you have, when perhaps it’s actually one person has a problem that is affecting their partner. For example if your partner is dealing with depression, it may start to look like your relationship is poor because your partner isn’t showing affection or isn’t interested in doing the things you used to do.
For the go-getters among us, it is also easy to think that these types of problems need to get solved. Every day that goes by without closure, without a normal, safe conversation, leaves us feeling off balance and worried. Lesson #1: you cannot fix this yet. You can and will tolerate those feelings of discomfort if you want a healthy resolution. Things like depression don’t fix themselves overnight. They take years of serious therapy, and if someone you love is trying to sort through a big issue like not knowing how to communicate or serious anxiety, it will be at the very least months before you start to see the pay off of hard work. You just have to wait.
It sucks. It feels miserable. I am at least in part writing this blog so that I can refer to it in the next months to remind myself that I just have to wait, and show up, and keep offering any support I can. But when I try to hurry the process or force conversations that will “resolve” things, or expect the other person to be totally “fixed” after we talk things out once, I’m going to be disappointed and I’m just going to be more hurt. Recovery takes time.
But even more than that, no matter how hard you want to fix the problem, no matter how much it might seem like you know what the other person needs to do or feel like you can explain just the right way, this is not your problem to solve. To take our depression example, you are there as a support person. You are not there to make it better.
Some relationship problems are for both people. Figuring out how to communicate with each other, negotiating boundaries and support, working through finance things, talking through intimacy and sex, making long term plans about how you want your relationship to look…these are all relational issues. One partner being depressed/anxious/dealing with serious problems at work or home or school is not a relational issue.
Of course if one partner is dealing with problems, it makes sense that they would ask for support, talk about it, and try to deal with how it affects the relationship. But the hard work of dealing with the root problem? That’s their work.
I don’t get to cure someone’s depression. I don’t get to force them into therapy and make them talk. I don’t get to deal with their employment or money problems. These are not for me to solve. Just as I need to learn how to relinquish my need for control when it comes to timing, I also need to learn to relinquish my need for control when it comes to problem solving. I can ask, support, help, cajole, explain how a problem affects me, ask them to change certain behaviors…I can make my opinion known that something is a problem. But my family/friend/partner’s problems are their own and they get to own them. And if I expect them to deal with those problems the way I would, at the pace I would, or simply because I would, I am going to be hurt and disappointed.
So despite my huge need to make it better, work on it until that uneasy feeling disappears, I simply can’t. And neither can you. This problem is not yours.