You Are Not Responsible for Your Partner's Feelings
Six steps to move out of symbiosis toward a differentiated relationship.
Posted Aug 22, 2019
Most of us have been taught that we are responsible for our loved one’s feelings—that we need to make sure they're not feeling sad or lonely.
Some people maintain a basic core belief (click here for a short video explaining about core beliefs) that if our partner feels pain, it is our responsibility or fault, and we must fix them, cheer them up, give them a hug, protect them, and so on.
What is the problem with holding a core belief of your pain = my responsibility?
The main consequence of such a core belief is that it keeps you reactive in your intimate relationships. Every time your partner shares something difficult or painful, you immediately get tense and feel that you need to do something about it.
You stop listening from a comfortable, open position because once you start hearing your partner’s pain, you immediately start thinking, “What did I do this time? What do I need to do now? How much effort and energy will I have to invest in cheering them up or asking for forgiveness?” Over time, such mental effort can lead you to start avoiding your partner, since you already have enough on your plate.
Such automatic reactivity keeps you in a symbiotic relationship, where both partners are wary of sharing the pain or burdening their partner, and one’s difficulties are experienced as a huge emotional burden on the partner.
Slowly the relationship becomes a dangerous place where you don't want to share your pain in order not to hurt your partner (because your pain = their problem). In such symbiotic relationships, if one is hurting, the other must sympathize with that pain as proof for their love; if one is happy, the other should also be happy. This dynamic keeps the relationship poorly differentiated.
Consequently, both partners stop sharing their truth. They start avoiding sensitive topics, constructive feedback, frustrations, and conflictual tensions in the relationship in order to avoid hurting each other. Such avoidance is detrimental because it lowers the authenticity, intimacy, and vulnerability of the relationship.
You are not responsible for the way your partner feels.
As Lori Gordon writes, you might be a factor in their life that influences their experience, but you cannot take responsibility for their emotional happiness. That does not mean being oblivious to their hurt. Instead, find a way to hold on to yourself as your loved one is meeting their personal woes.
Meeting yourself in the presence of the other is Schnarsh’s definition of intimacy. Feeling and dealing with your pain directly builds character, integrity, self-respect, and confidence. So don’t rob your partner of a chance to grow. You don’t have to react in a certain way to every expression of emotion from them. Just let them meet themselves.
I once worked with a symbiotic couple where it was clear that the husband could not deal with his wife’s anger toward him, so he constantly belittled her pain by not listening or being sarcastic. In our sessions, we discovered that both of them shared the core belief that your pain = my fault.
After illuminating their core belief, he said that he’s now ready to really hear his partner’s pain. I asked him how much he really wants to hear her from 1 (not really interested) to 10 (dying to hear her laments). He immediately said 8. That number felt too high for the reality of their current symbiotic avoidance of pain.
I invited him to pause, imagine he drank the truth serum, and take a chance and share what the real number is. He worryingly scanned his wife’s face and whispered, “Well, actually, 2 out of 10.”
To his surprise, his wife wasn’t insulted but rather released a deep, spontaneous laugh. She shared that she felt it was a 2 when he said his original 8, and she was actually glad that he admitted openly what she (and I) clearly sensed.
At that instant, they both experienced a novel moment of a differentiated relationship—he shared his honest pain, in the shape of avoidance, and she was able to "let it land," because he didn’t try to censor himself to protect her.
Such a process helps couples cut the symbiotic umbilical cord between them and dare to share their pain honestly, with no avoidance or censorship, and even without the need to solve or protect their spouse.
So now let us examine the different steps you can take to soften the symbiotic reactivity of your intimate relationships and allow your partner to share their aching openly.
1. Reflect to examine if you hold a core belief that you are responsible for your partner's feelings, or that their pain is your responsibility, or that it is your responsibility to keep your partner happy at all times. See what you gain and what you lose from trusting in such a core belief.
2. If you would like to soften (or change) this core belief, share this article with your loved one, so you have a common language and understanding, and set a time to have a mindful, calm talk.
3. When talking, try sharing your pain, criticism, frustration, or even anger at your partner slowly, in small chunks, pausing to let it be absorbed and digested by your partner.
4. Remind your partner to “hold on to themselves”: They do not need to react to what you are sharing. Remind them just to listen and let it land in their body. They do not need to apologize, fix, or encourage you.
5. If they start getting reactive, defensive, or aggressive, take a breath and/or break. If needed, you can always come back to this topic later.
6. Sometimes sharing the pain in this new, differentiated way, which is not a jab or an attack in the heat of a fight, can still lead to a certain distance, coldness, or even a rupture. That is unavoidable and natural. Remember to breathe and to stay open and loving toward your partner. Remind yourself and them that you are doing this in order to deepen the relationship. If you can stay grounded and not retreat and apologize for what you just said, over time your partner may return to this topic with a question or may wish to share his or her own hurt on this matter.
This process can lead you to a more aware partnership, which is less reactive and symbiotic and more authentic and differentiated. Over time, a sense of freedom will arise in the relationship, and you will feel freer to share what you feel.
You will discover a renewed appreciation toward your partner because they are willing and strong enough to meet you and your pain without reacting or crumbling. With time, such a process will slowly rewire your brain and help you internalize that you cannot prevent your partner from feeling pain.
So if you don’t want to keep your partner and your loved ones undifferentiated, and if you want to grow, then remember that you are not responsible for their feelings. Their pain is their pain, and your pain is your pain.
In closing, I offer this rephrasing: “To each his own pain.”
Gordon, L. H. (1996). If you really loved me. Science and Behavior Books.
Schnarch, D. M. (2012). Passionate marriage: Keeping love and intimacy alive in committed relationships. Scribe Publications.