October 25, 2012 at 2:07 pm EDT | by Michael Radkowsky
A rocky relationship?

Dear Michael,

I’m hitting a major bump in the road with my girlfriend. We met almost a year ago and our relationship was fantastic until a few weeks ago. Suddenly things have shifted.

My job has become stressful over the last few months and I find it helpful to talk with Sharon about what’s going on. She’s a great listener, sometimes has good ideas for how to deal with the craziness, and when she tells me that everything will be OK, I feel much calmer. But lately she is curt with me when I want to talk to her about this stuff.  I feel like I’m getting on her nerves so am not pressing too much. Also, while I’m happy to listen to her problems, she never wants to share them, which makes me feel shut out.

I’m getting annoyed. She isn’t there to soothe me when I need her and she won’t let me take care of her, either. Aren’t I right that in a relationship, you’re supposed to be a rock for each other?

Looking for Soothing

Dear Looking,

Actually, relationships work best when you are your own rock.

While it was your parents’ job to soothe you when you were a little girl and something bad happened to you, it isn’t your girlfriend’s job to soothe you whenever you’re upset, now that you’re an adult.

Here are a few points to keep in mind:

First, Sharon may not always want to soothe you. She may have had her own tough day, she may be tired of meeting your expectation to calm her or sometimes she may simply not feel like listening to your job woes.

Second, while Sharon may be able to help you feel better at times, it’s not really possible for her to convince you that everything will be OK. Her reassurances seem to help for a while, but as evidenced by your asking for them regularly, they don’t stick, which is not surprising: As we grow up, it becomes our own job to soothe ourselves and no one else can actually do it for us. That’s a hard truth worth embracing. You’ll have a much better shot at actually believing that you can survive rough situations when you yourself find ways to calm yourself.

Third, when you regularly look to Sharon for something that you could learn to do for yourself, you put yourself in a needy, one-down position, which is unhelpful if you want to have a relationship of equals.

Finally, when you state that Sharon should be your rock, you are expecting her to be solid, strong and wise. If she is trying to meet this expectation, she may be hiding her own vulnerabilities, essentially limiting how well she lets you know her. Her not sharing with you, while annoying, may be an effort to appear more rock like. Some other possible reasons for her stance: she may not want soothing from you, it may be hard for her to ask for support even when she needs it or she may simply be uncomfortable sharing her own struggles. Keep in mind that closeness and vulnerability can be scary for all sorts of reasons. Sharon would do well to address her keeping you at a distance, if she would like a more intimate relationship.

Of course we can look to our partners for support, reassurance or a hug when we’re stressed. It feels wonderful to get these things, but we don’t always get them whenever we want them. The bottom line is that it’s our own job to keep ourselves calm.   When you think it’s your girlfriend’s role, you’re bound to wind up needy, anxious and peeved over not getting what you want. Therefore, the question to ask yourself is, how can I take responsibility for soothing myself?

Michael Radkowsky, Psy.D. is a licensed psychologist who works with gay couples and individuals in D.C. He can be found online at personalgrowthzone.com. All identifying information in the questions has been changed for reasons of confidentiality. Have a question? Send it to Michael@personalgrowthzone.com.

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