I’m a queer woman in my late 20s living in the U.S., and my girlfriend lives overseas. In the 2.5 years we’ve been together, about half that time has been long distance, and about half together. We’re absolutely crazy about each other and we want to get married and have babies.
The problem: we fight. A lot. The germ of our fights is almost always: I have issues with anxiety and depression and am an empath (to a fault) whereas she’s somewhat less in touch with her feelings. I’ll reach out seeking care and compassion when I’m down, and she doesn’t really know how to give it. I’ve tried to give explicit how-tos, but this invariably makes her defensive and worry she’s “not good enough” for me.
I do have a work-in-progress toolbox of self-soothing techniques, but sometimes you just want to cry on your girlfriend’s shoulder, ya know? How do I help my partner help me without asking her to change who she is?
On the Empath to Love
Dear Empath to Love,
There’s “who we are” and then there’s the relational skills we have. In intimate relationships especially, it can be easy for folks to confuse these two things as one in the same, but they’re not.
This is an important distinction to draw in couples specifically because it can be very helpful in combating the moments that “Can you do this thing differently?” gets met with “I’m not good enough for you!” or “I don’t know how to do that emotional skill yet” gets cut off by “You’ll never meet my emotional needs.”
As a relationships therapist, I see both of these toxic pairings pop up often in a variety of ways. Luckily, it can set partners on the right path to a new way of interacting simply by shifting their perspective around this emotional skills vs. emotional needs gridlock.
First, why is this gridlock so common? When we’re younger, we learn how to interact with our caregivers as a means of survival. As small little babyblobs in the big, big world, we are rendered fatally defenseless without another person’s caretaking. In this dynamic and throughout our childhoods, we learn how to cry, use anger, charm, get quiet, ask directly for, manipulate, and a variety of other traditionally healthy & unhealthy strategies to get our emotional and physical survival needs met.
This installs in us buttons activated by certain actions (when you yell, I withdraw; when you pull away from me, I get angry; etc.). This also maps out who we might gravitate towards in our adult relationships (read more about this relational concept in Attached by Amir Levine & Rachel S.F. Heller).
As adults, most of us are attracted to partners who link up with the relating style that we’ve been (usually unbeknownst to us) learning and practicing from our babyblob state all the way up until now. Are you accustomed to shutting down when someone yells? You might gravitate towards a yeller to keep you in that familiar shut down place. Are you used to being the most empathetic person in a dynamic? Girl, you’re likely to choose someone who’s barely passing Empathy 101.
What does this mean for you and your empathy-allergic, overseas sweetie? It means you’re right to pay attention to the “germ” as you call it or, the overarching theme that dictates your arguments and what each of you are contributing to the emotional needs vs. emotional skills gridlock that ensues.
You help your partner help you, Empath to Love, by helping your partner help you. Your current cycle is you feel the feels, you ask for very specific kinds of help, she feels helpless & unhelpful because she doesn’t know how to help you in those ways (yet), and then what do you do?
Do you withdraw? Get angry? Do you accept the help she’s able to currently give you? Do you break down your requests for emotional help into smaller pieces that she’s more likely to successfully achieve, therefore feeling like a more competent and worthy partner who then may have the confidence to expand her empathy skill set? Do you give her space and permission to practice, fail, and learn? Do you do the same for yourself? If not, I recommend you start.
Yana Tallon-Hicks is a relationship therapist, sex educator, and writer living in the Pioneer Valley. You can find her work and her professional contact information on her website, yanatallonhicks.com.