On Monday there was a meltdown at my house. I teach on Monday nights and by the time I got home, I found my wife in a miserable huddle of blankets on the couch. Not even the dog was snuggling her.
So, here’s the thing. I have a savior complex. Not even a four-year relationship with a fairly abusive woman I now refer to as “the black hole of emotional need” really cured me entirely. It helped, but still I struggle. I know how problematic it is, I know that it creates unnecessary stress in my life and I know all about how ugly and self-aggrandizing the impulse is at the core, but still I struggle. There are a few things that exacerbate what is probably something of an innate tendency:
- A childhood family dynamic in which I often played the role of caretaker, particularly with my Mother. As an only child with an emotionally distant Father, this felt like a big burden.
- An overly developed or sensitive empathic ability. It is VERY hard for me not be pick up on the emotions of the people around me. Even people I don’t know or even particularly like. It is nearly impossible not to become sucked in and often overwhelmed by the emotions of people who are close to me.
- My entire life experience that has taught me that people like you when you listen and actually care about what they have to say. Lots and lots of reinforcement.
Although it sometimes feels unsafe to be in a relationship with someone who doesn’t really NEED me in the ways I’m comfortable with being needed (afterall, what is she keeping me around for if not for emotional support?), it feels more and more liberating as the years go by. Slowly I’m realizing that the kind of intimacy I really want is only possible in the equal footing relationship that I have found with my wife. See, she doesn’t actually need me. She wants me. This is one of those big kahuna moments that comes after lots of therapy. At least that is the way for me. My wife can manage herself quite well all by herself and I have gotten surprisingly good at letting her do just that. I guess practice has to pay off eventually. Go me!
Well, on Monday night I had a slip. The frustration I could hear in her voice when she told me about some workload fairness problems she’s having with the other Fellows, the sadness in her face when she launched into worries about how once she takes her job this summer and the baby comes her life will be over, the tears (there were tears – this is BIG, she’s not a crier). All of it was just ballooning out of control in her mind and the force of it crashed right into me. Instead of holding my own space and listening to what she had to say, I was drawn right into the center of it. Desperate to comfort her and fix the problem and make it all better RIGHT NOW. This is not helpful. I know it’s not helpful. I have a very long track record to remind me should I ever be able to forget.
So, I’ve got to stay on the wagon. Fixing everyone’s problem is not my job. I DO NOT want to teach this to our child. This is a family legacy that I really want to end with me.