My entire life I’ve been that person that others feel comfortable opening up to. I’m not sure what it is, exactly. Maybe it’s because I’m so average looking, like a movie extra. The girl next door. Cute when viewed from certain angles but not terribly distinctive in appearance.
I personally find it weirdly easy to form positive impressions of new folks when they look like people from my past I’m quite fond of (transference, anyone?). So maybe the fact that I look generic works in my favor that way.
For example, at the very first conference I went to representing Poly Land, one of the attendees told me I reminded him of his kindergarten teacher. In a good way. In a way that made it easy for him to tell me things. To trust me.
In any event, I’ve been a confidant to more people than I could possibly count. Relatives, friends, friends of friends, partners, metamours, clients.
It isn’t great all the time. I do get tired, especially if the talks are intense and I have things going on in my own life that are sapping my ability to do emotional labor. That said, usually I can dig down deep and find a little extra for the people close to me.
But strangers on public transportation or in front of me in the grocery store line like to tell me their entire life stories, too. And it gets to be a lot.
I Get Energized From Helping People I Love
However, there’s one place where it never really gets to be too much, acting as a confidant. And that’s in romantic relationships. For someone I love, I’ll gladly stay up all night when I have to work the next day if they have an issue they want to talk through. Something they really want to process. Even if I’m exhausted, stuck in the work week from Hell, sick with the flu. I’ll be there. I’ll listen. We’ll talk.
Being supportive to someone I’m dating (provided they’re reaching out for support in a way that’s fairly kind to me and not accusatory and/or proto-abusive) isn’t a burden. It brings me tremendous gratification.
Rather than something that drains me, I’ve found supporting someone I love can give me a second, third, or fourth wind.
One-Sided Support Wasn’t Fair, Exactly — But I Did Feel Needed
There was an odd double standard in my first marriage, between my ex-husband and me, in the way we viewed emotional support. I was more than happy to give it to him when he needed it. To hold him, let him cry, and offer him validation and later insights as he shared with me what was bothering him.
But for him, being on the other side of things in the supportive role was too much. But he didn’t come out and actually say that. “That’s inappropriate for you to want that from a partner,” he’d tell me instead. “That’s what a therapist is for.”
Which perhaps could have seemed a reasonable boundary — except for the fact that he objected to it like it was universally inappropriate and not just something he was unwilling to do. And the fact that he was getting that level of support from me and seemed perfectly fine with it contradicted that claim.
And there were other double standards, too. I really wasn’t able to express any vulnerability in front of him. He would get irritated with having the kind of deep emotional conversations I craved. And I learned to cry in secret because he’d react so badly if I cried in front of him:
He always panics, doesn’t know what to do. My pain causes him pain, he tells me. Especially when it’s nothing he can do anything about.
“I don’t expect you to do anything about it,” I tell him. “I just need to cry.”
“That’s a selfish way of looking at it,” he says.
It doesn’t feel selfish. It feels like survival. But I have a feeling he won’t understand. And he’s generally suspicious of too much explanation.
“It’s not anything you’ve done,” I say instead. I try to explain that it’s people in my past who’ve hurt me. And now that he’s made me feel safe enough, the old pain is catching up to me. A backlog of sorrow, anger, despair. Like a pile of emotional bills I haven’t paid for years.
“Well, I’m not them,” he says, resolutely. As though I don’t know that already. And as though knowing that will take away the feelings. Or cause me to make progress any more quickly.
“I know,” I say, stroking his arm.
He tells me that if I don’t get my shit together he’s going to have to break up with me. That watching me cry is too painful. And that he deserves a relationship where he’s not in constant pain.
I sigh, nod. In a perverse turn of events, the fear of losing him makes me feel like I’m going to cry again. So I excuse myself to go to the bathroom. I run the water and cry as quietly as I can.
It wasn’t easy, living with someone who I felt like I had to hide so much of myself from in order to keep the relationship going.
But we lasted for quite some time (we were together for a decade, all told), in spite of myriad incompatibilities. There were a number of reasons for this:
- I overlooked a lot because he complimented me a lot and in the right ways.
- I’d been told my entire life by my mother that I was a “small doses person” and that it was very unlikely that anyone would want to date me long term, let alone marry me. So when someone actually did, it felt like I’d hit the lottery.
- I was vehemently anti-divorce and swore I’d never get one. When that first marriage did eventually end, even though I knew it was the right decision and that we didn’t make sense and were better off apart, it really screwed with my self-trust and my identity. Because here I was, doing something I never thought I’d ever do.
- He needed me.
That last point was so key. There was something so intoxicating about how much my ex-husband needed me. The emotional support was one leg of it, sure, but I was also the breadwinner. The only one with a job for four years. The person who did all of the chores. And most of the cooking.
And while it was most definitely stressful trying to make ends meet on one income (especially as he really liked to spend money that we really didn’t have on things he didn’t need, leaving less for me to work with on the things we did), I always had that one upside: He needed me.
I felt important. Helpful.
When I Remarried, It Was to a Person Who Was Good At Basically Everything and Eager to Support and Help Me
When I did eventually remarry, it was to a person who had previously been my best friend. Someone who was just as much of a workaholic as I am. Who also has that weird guilty feeling in their stomach every day until they do something productive, even on weekends.
When I met Justin, he was working full time and running a non-profit he’d founded while dating three women. He had his own home that he’d bought by himself with no parental help at an impressively young age, younger than anyone else I hung out with. One that he was fixing up with his impressive DIY skills and viewed as an investment he was eventually planning to flip.
Like me, he found it easy to teach himself things from books. We also weirdly had the same practice when we learned to cook new things: Reading a dozen separate recipes online, noting general trends, and then synthesizing a brand new one that seemed to combine all of the best techniques.
I never expected to even date him. I thought he was super cute but boring, and he thought I was off my rocker. And it took us a long time of talking while we dated other people polyamorously to realize that we’d each been wrong in our first impressions.
Still, I always thought he’d end up mono-ing up with one of his existing partners before I had a chance to move to the area (I was relocating, but my work required six months’ notice for the tax changeover to move my job cross-country).
I never expected to date him. And a few years later, we were married.
He is a man of many hidden talents. When we first got together, it seemed like every day I was learning something new about him that he could do. I learned he could fix cars. Program computers. Rewire a house.
And when it comes to being emotionally supportive, our relationship is so completely different than my first marriage. Self-admittedly, he isn’t always the most eloquent. He often has trouble putting his feelings into words — especially on a tight time frame (he’s always done better having the time to compose them into writing and send them to me later).
But he’s always there with a hug. He’s a very good listener. And he told me early on that in our relationship that it was okay to cry for any reason.
Poor thing. I’ve literally cried on him more times than is probably decent. But he never seems to mind — and every now and then, he’ll get so touched by my tears or whatever stress or pain I’m going through at the moment that he’ll even tear up with me. Which by the way is about the sexiest thing I’ve ever experienced, that kind of empathy.
It’s pretty damn amazing. Okay, sure, the sex is phenomenal. But even more impressively, he never stopped being a good friend to me when we started dating. And he never stopped being my boyfriend when we got married.
Quite Helpful But A Hard Person to Help
Really, there’s only been one thing that has been really hard to get used to.
Before he met me, he was completely on his own. He had friends and people he dated, but he was essentially solo poly (although at that time that wasn’t a term people used much/at all). He didn’t live with any of his partners. Wasn’t entangled.
He was a very independent, autonomous person who was used to doing everything for himself. Not relying on anyone else for anything, really.
And then I showed up. And we weirdly made incredible sense together. Not only did we fall head over heels for one another, but we were great roommates. Viewed money similarly.
And our core values lined up perfectly. It was almost eerie.
So I ended up moving in with him and eventually marrying him.
We’ve been together for 8 years. But even now, after all these years, he still acts like he’s single in a lot of ways. It’s been hard for him to stop trying to do everything by himself. For him to let me help him. To delegate.
He will often refuse help that I offer. (To do nice things, I find I have to surprise him with it or ignore his refusals, which I hate doing because it technically violates his consent, although he inevitably is appreciative when I do it.) Meanwhile, he looks for every opportunity he can to do nice things for me and help me out.
He’s quite helpful, but he’s also a hard person to help.
It’s like I told him the other day: I feel like he forgets he’s in a domestic relationship. He’s still trying to do life completely on his own.
“You’re a hard person to really help — makes it hard to show you the kind of love I want to show you,” I’ve told him.
I’m not sure what he thinks, really. Because I inevitably tell him important things at bad times. Like when he’s pulling into our driveway and we have to get out and put groceries away. And he needs time to emotionally process things and doesn’t always report back to me what he finds.
But Certain Kinds of Help, Like Primary Prevention, Are Invisible
The other issue of course is that in general Justin doesn’t even seem to need much emotional support. Most days he seems so even keel. So happy. I can’t remember the last time he approached me telling me he needed to talk about something, that he needed some support. I know it’s happened, but it’s exceedingly rare. Of all the people I’ve ever dated (and it’s a long list), I would say he’s needed it the least.
He just doesn’t seem to get very sad. Which is weird seeing as he’s had a history of depression.
I asked Justin about this a while back. I explained how I felt like he didn’t really need me at all. He’s pretty much good at everything. He’s the adultiest adult I’ve ever met. And he didn’t even seem to need me in the way that practically every other person I’ve met has needed me: For emotional labor.
And even though Justin says he’s not always good with words, he said something very simple then that explained everything: “I don’t get sad because you keep me happy.”
All at once I understood. Maybe I’m not such a bad partner to him after all, I thought.
In healthcare, they talk about certain health-sustaining measures (e.g., healthy diet, avoiding smoking, immunizations, exercise, etc) as being “primary prevention.” These are typically the province of “wellness” programs, and bottom line, it’s about preventing disease before it happens instead of treating it when it does.
Talking with Justin and reflecting on what he said, I realized that I am essentially the primary prevention of his loneliness, depression, and anxiety — through my love and support. That’s why I help him all the time but don’t feel like I do a damn thing for him. It’s because he rarely gets emotionally “sick” since I do such a good job keeping him feeling well.
Dating Someone Who Doesn’t Seem to Need You Can Be Difficult…But in the Long Term, It’s Amazing
I dated someone a while back who seemed really obsessed with whether I appeared to need them or not. They talked about wanting me to be vulnerable with them an awful lot, something I was 100% willing to do. I certainly didn’t anticipate any problems going there. I’m bad at some things, but being vulnerable with the people I’m dating is something I’d literally never had anybody tell me I have problems with.
And I really did my best to open up. I shared things with them I don’t talk about. The things I’m not proud of. Experiences that shook me to my core. Ones I haven’t yet reached a state of closure about that would allow me to write about them publicly (at least not in any detail, in a way that honors what it felt like to live those moments). And in doing so, I shed tears.
It was odd to force that vulnerability to happen, on cue, faster than it normally would have unfolded. But I did my best. And I certainly felt a lot in the process.
But they weren’t satisfied.
Looking back, I suspect it’s because they weren’t really looking for vulnerability per se but instead wanted to feel like I needed them. Perhaps so they could feel emotionally secure in the relationship or perhaps to feel like they had a bit of control over me (and often, these two things are linked for people — feeling secure and feeling in control of someone or something).
Or it could be that their schema for vulnerability required need and not just openness — obsession and not just love.
I doubt they would agree with my assessment (for a variety of reasons), but all the signs were certainly there.
And I get it. For the longest time, I would have agreed. That a meaningful connection required feeling like the other person didn’t just want me but needed me. In a sense, I really did feel that way for quite some time, especially in the early years of my relationship with Justin. And even now, occasionally I’ll have a day where I will get so frustrated that I want to grab his shoulders and yell, “LET ME LOVE YOU! LET ME BE HELPFUL TO YOU! YOU AREN’T SINGLE! YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE THE ONLY ADULT! I’M HERE TO HELP!”
But more and more, I’m moving away from that. I ask him what he’d like help with. Try to suggest something to do. Or, most effectively, I’ll do it without asking (since I mentioned above, he often will automatically say no to offers of help and then get overwhelmed/upset that he did everything on his own later).
Okay, usually I do kind of a mediocre, verging on terrible, job when I help out with chores. He has a certain way he likes things done, and I was a stray kid who lived with a variety of families during adolescence and as such have no belief that there’s one objectively “correct” way to do any given task.
But he often appreciates the effort.
Anyway, it hasn’t been a quick or easy lesson, but I’ve learned that it can be difficult dating someone who doesn’t need you…but in the long term, it’s amazing.