What do healthy emotional support dynamics in a relationship look like? What's reasonable to expect from a close relationship in this regard? Etc.

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What do healthy emotional support dynamics in a relationship look like? What's reasonable to expect from a close relationship in this regard? Etc. Empty What do healthy emotional support dynamics in a relationship look like? What's reasonable to expect from a close relationship in this regard? Etc.

Post by The Wisp on Tue Apr 07, 2015 8:02 pm

This came up on DNL prime once again, and it seems to be a recurring theme. There's frequent discussion of and complaints about men having unhealthy ideas of what to expect from their partners in terms of emotional support. Common themes seem to be not reciprocating, dumping all their emotions on them, expecting their partner to fix the problems, expecting their partners to "be their therapists", and so on. I can see why these may be unhealthy and undesirable dynamics, especially from the woman's perspective. 

On the other hand, emotional support seems to me to be one of the big benefits of a romantic relationship, or a close friendship. That's one of the reasons people with social networks fare better than those without them. However, sometimes when I read complaint like the ones mentioned above, I almost feel like people are saying that you should just hang with your partner(s) and friends to have fun, and keep all that unfun emotional stuff to yourself and your therapist. Now, just to be clear, I know they're not actually saying that, that's just how it feels at times.

I guess I'm not sure what healthy emotional support in a relationship is supposed to look like, or what separates it from using the person as a therapist. I'm also not sure what degree of emotional support it is reasonable to expect from a romantic partner or close friend. It would seem to me that too little emotional support from your close relations is unhealthy as well. Additionally, I've heard anecdotes of people doing some pretty inconvenient things to support partners or friends emotionally and being happy to do it and not considering it unhealthy. For instance, having a friend come over on a late weeknight evening after a breakup. So, I'm just confused.

Just to provide some context behind this post, I've really only received emotional support from therapists or through text-based internet communities (primarily this one) in my teens and adult life. Both are very different than real-life emotional support from a partner or friend, so I have no experience with this form of emotional support. If you had asked me even a year ago I would have thought that emotional support in a relationship or friendship was basically like therapy, except it's mutual and less formal or scheduled, but I think I was wrong to think that.

So, what do healthy emotional support dynamics in a relationship look like? What's a reasonable amount of emotional support one should expect from a partner or friend? What about comparatively less close friends or more casual partners, for that matter? How do you avoid not treating somebody "as a therapist"? What about when one person has much more need than the other for emotional support for an extended period?
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Post by eselle28 on Tue Apr 07, 2015 8:45 pm

I'd actually say that the first step, and the one where a lot of heterosexual romantic relationships seem to go wrong, is acknowledging when emotional support being given and affirming that it's a form of work. In less healthy interactions, both people sometimes assume that one of them talking about their problems and the other person listening and comforting is just how the relationship is structured or sometimes even that all relationships are structured that way, or the person who needs emotional support treats asking for it as a gift to their partner rather than a request for service (which is the dynamic that I think is being complained about on the prime site).

Once it's acknowledged as a kind of work, I think a lot of things flow from that naturally. Most people acknowledge that work of various sorts needs to be done in all but the most fleeting of relationships, but also that a relationship that's all work is stressful and unenjoyable. I think most people would also say that work should be divided fairly - not necessarily exactly equally, but not too disproportionately, either. If you're asking someone to listen to and empathize with your problems, I think you'll generally find that they will want the same from you at some point in the future. I find that a sense of proportionality helps, as does expressing gratitude both in the form of verbal thank yous and by acts. A friend who needs company on a late weeknight evening after a breakup who says thanks in the morning or maybe makes some cookies the next week is generally quite welcome to ask for emotional support. A romantic partner who needs to freak out about upcoming exams as you're headed to a relative's funeral or a friend who needs to sleep over every time a first date doesn't work out and then doesn't help with the dishes in the morning (I've had one of each of these) is going to be resented pretty quickly.

I'd also say that in healthier relationships, it helps when people can be fairly clear about what they're looking for (advice, comfort, just someone to listen to them complain) and when they have some understanding of what their partner would like in return. If advice is what's being asked for rather than comfort or listening to venting, I think it's fair for your partner to expect that you'll take at least some of it (if someone gives advice that doesn't work for you, it's best to learn not to ask them for it) and that you work on whatever the problem is. Even with venting, your partner may want you to take some steps to work on problems if they're recurring and the kind of problems that have the potential for improvement. Accepting that something is a problem for the other person if they describe it as such is also pretty key - I see this dynamic between men and women fairly often, where the man's problems are seen by both as important while the woman's are sometimes challenged as being overreactions. There are also times when it's better not to bring a problem to a particular person, to avoid leaning on them too heavily, because they're dealing with even more challenging problems at the moment, or because a particular subject is one that's hurtful to them or isn't something they can help much with. That's why it's generally good to have at least one other person in you life besides your partner who you can share your feelings with - some of your feelings about your partner may not be appropriate to share with them, and they may also not want to hear about things that inspire jealousy or that hit their particular triggers.

There are times when one person in a relationship will need much more support than the other for a sustained period of time. It tends to be pretty challenging for people, and I would say that it's probably not a good dynamic to start a relationship with. Gratitude, again, seems like it's pretty important here. Your partner or friend may not need a ton of emotional support, but might appreciate you running some errands for them or giving them a small gift or treating them to dinner. In these kinds of relationships, I think it's a good idea for the partner who usually needs more to be attentive to the times when their partner does need support - if someone's providing it on an almost daily basis and has their one request for comfort or attention ignored, that can lead to feeling unappreciated or uncared for. I'd say it's also important to try to make sure that he relationship doesn't become entirely about support even in times when the need is great. The supporting partner needs a break from the other partner's feelings, and sometimes that person could use a day off from them as well. I find it works well both for the person who usually needs more support to intentionally schedule some fun time or some paying attention to partner time, and to realize that sometimes the other person is going to need to draw a boundary and say they're not up for talking about certain subjects tonight because they've had a rough day themselves.

As for friends who aren't very close or more casual partners...I'd say tread carefully and try to keep the requests for support proportional with your level of investment in the relationship. Thinking of what you'd be willing to do for them is sometimes a good guideline. I'd particularly recommend keeping things mostly light if you want the relationship to stay casual.
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Post by Enail on Tue Apr 07, 2015 9:28 pm

Eselle covered it so well I don't have anything to say - in fact, so well I feel a need to post just to second everything she says!  Recognizing it as work, expressing appreciation, taking care to reciprocate in kind and in other ways as appropriate, being aware of context, making sure there are things in the relationship other than support. Yes, yes and yes.

For newer relationships or relationships that have not previously had an emotional support aspect, I'd add to start gradually with mentioning slightly more personal/emotionally difficult topics than have previously been discussed, and watch for reciprocity or conversely, signals that they don't wish to engage. Show them that you'll manage your own feelings by moving on to other topics afterwards. Listen and show your support at a similar level if they become more personal with you. Keep it gradual and let the relationship become more supportive over time, don't try and push into revealing all your deepest darkest secrets at the first sign of willingness to listen.
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Post by reboot on Tue Apr 07, 2015 9:28 pm

The best rule of thumb is to not ask for the types, amount and duration of support you are unwilling to give to that individual. It is completely independent of whether that person need or will ever need the support.

Eselle's point about expressing gratitude is also key, coupled with checking in with the person on their emotional state. Sometimes when the support system gets too skewed to one party, the other party feels like they cannot ask for support since they are too busy being the support, and do not want to leave the person in the lurch by withdrawing support, and that builds resentment and exhaustion. This is one reason why having more than one person to provide emotional support is important because in a bad time you run the risk of tapping people out.
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Post by eselle28 on Tue Apr 07, 2015 11:08 pm

reboot wrote:
Eselle's point about expressing gratitude is also key, coupled with checking in with the person on their emotional state. Sometimes when the support system gets too skewed to one party, the other party feels like they cannot ask for support since they are too busy being the support, and do not want to leave the person in the lurch by withdrawing support, and that builds resentment and exhaustion. This is one reason why having more than one person to provide emotional support is important because in a bad time you run the risk of tapping people out.

This is a good point, and I think it ties into something larger. It's easier to give emotional support to people who are willing to do some of the management work related to that themselves - being self-aware and able to communicate about what kind of support they're seeking, checking in on the other person's emotional state, being able to end the conversation and move on to other topics as Enail described rather than waiting for the other person to signal they're done talking. I know a woman who does a lot of these things, and I find it a lot easier to be supportive of her than I do for other people who I know about as well and like about as much. Other people seem to find it pretty easy to be supportive of her as well. Obviously that isn't something that someone who's in the early stages of grief or who's having a particularly bad flare up of mental health problems is going to be up for, but it might be a useful strategy for people who need emotional support for long term problems on an ongoing basis.
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Post by Enail on Tue Apr 07, 2015 11:20 pm

Yes, I think that's a very important point. The people I know who I can give high levels of support in a long-term way are people who are very aware of and respectful of the needs and boundaries of others. I think signalling strong respect for boundaries can help show people who are willing to be supportive in healthy ways that you are someone they can offer support to  without risking an uncomfortable need to backpedal. And showing care for their social, emotional and pragmatic needs in an ongoing way can help with lasting healthy, supportive relationships.
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Post by kleenestar on Wed Apr 08, 2015 1:59 am

There's a lot of very smart theoretical stuff being said here, but maybe it would be helpful to have an example.

Today was a really rough day chez Star. Mr. Star's grandfather died last night, I had to give two fairly intense lectures in one day, we're staying with my parents so most of our usual comfort methods aren't available, and on top of all that we had a fairly cranky baby to take care of - she didn't like having her routines disrupted.

Here's what some of our mutual support looked like:
- I listened to Mr. Star as he told me stories about his grandfather.
- I hugged Mr. Star many times during the day.
- Mr. Star drove me to my lecture and took care of the baby while I spoke.
- I asked Mr. Star what he needed; when he didn't know, I made three suggestions and helped him choose one that would make him happy.
- A friend came to my lecture and stuck around afterward to chat; I smoothed the conversation so Mr. Star could be around someone he cared about without having to be "on" socially, while Mr. Star wrangled the baby so I could be "on" professionally.
- I rocked the baby so he could play a comforting computer game.
- Mr. Star took the baby for a walk when she cried so I could go to a meeting.
- Mr. Star was stressed about packing a lunch, so I figured out what we could eat and packed one for us both.
- When we got home late and my mom wanted to chat, I stayed up with her and sent Mr. Star to bed.
- etc. etc., this is not by any means a complete list.

A couple of things to notice:
- Most of the emotional care flowed from me to him, since he was hurting. Most of the practical care flowed from him to me, since I had a major commitment I couldn't keep without his participation. But on a different day, the balance might look very different.
- Acts of care aren't just about talking and listening. There are a wide variety of activities that we both used to show care and support each other emotionally and practically.
- If you asked each of us who had done "more" today, we'd say the other. (I can say this with certainty because we actually had this conversation.) I thought he was heroic to help me meet my obligation even as he is grieving; he thought I was heroic because he needed so much emotional caretaking and didn't have any energy to give back.

Is having a concrete example of what this can look like helpful?
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Post by reboot on Wed Apr 08, 2015 12:56 pm

Kleenestar's example is awesome, but might be a little advanced for you now, but I am in the process of having a work acquaintance evolve into something deeper. It is not a romantic relationship, but I think the building of support sharing is similar to a romantic relationship.

She and I have been work acquaintances for a while on the "Hey, how are you? How was your vacation?" and work griping level. In October (maybe September?) we were at a conference and she shared with me a few vexes in her marriage on the level of, "Sorry, my husband is texting me. It drives me nuts when he does this because I can't do anything from here. He always blows up my phone when I am on work travel and gets mad when I don't immediately respond." I commiserated each time that yes that was annoying, especially when you ask someone not to do that and explain why you cannot instantly reply. And that was it for this and the other topics. Sharing, but not oversharing. Supporting but low stakes. Over lunch on the last day she went into some more detail and between the time we ordered and received the food, I listened and gave verbal support. Then we dropped the topic until I circled around to it later and we discussed a bit more. It was not highly charged or really emotional. More a "Thus is going on and I am stuck. Support? Advice?" type thing.

Since our return, the sharing has deepened. My warning sign when I need to stop the sharing (because I want to say DTMF and she does not want to)  is when the urge to say DTMF is strong and/or I want to call him a crap person (vs his behavior being crappy). When that happens I Chang the topic by asking her something work related like this, "Sorry yo change the subject, but I just remembered X and need to ask you about it before I forget". She is (luckily) good at reading cues and knows that means " I need a break from this topic ". Had she not picked it up, I would have said, "I want to honor you situation and thoughts, but I need a little break to give you the support you want. Can we time out and discuss this later when I am recharged?" (if someone ignored that I would tell them I could not be support for them anymore).

For her part, she is always asking me about things I have shared, asking if I need help with work things, or offering to do errands since I am often tied to my desk or on travel and Rooms is gone for the summer. She always asks after the people I have talked to her about and how they are doing, including the pets. If I look tired or stressed she asks if I am OK and if she can help. When I came to her about some family health stress she listened attentively and offered advice/support.

Basically we have shown each other that we are on eachother's team. We have not reached the point of high emotional exchange, but I know I would feel comfortable coming to her if I needed it and I think she feels the same about me. It was a slowly, slowly, step-by-step process of building emotional connection outside of our work relationship with a lot of testing the waters.
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Post by The Wisp on Thu Apr 09, 2015 2:05 am

eselle28 wrote:I'd actually say that the first step, and the one where a lot of heterosexual romantic relationships seem to go wrong, is acknowledging when emotional support being given and affirming that it's a form of work...

This post is fantastic and was exactly what I was looking for. Thank you!

kleenestar wrote:There's a lot of very smart theoretical stuff being said here, but maybe it would be helpful to have an example.

...

Is having a concrete example of what this can look like helpful?

That was helpful, though as reboot said it seems very advanced and not really at my level (of course, I doubt that I'll be in a relationship as intense as a long-term relationship built over many many years while co-parenting a baby any time soon, if ever, so I don't have to worry about "accidentally" finding myself in such a situation Laughing). Again, thank you for providing the example. It provides insight into what a healthy dynamic in a long term relationship might look like.

reboot wrote:...We have not reached the point of high emotional exchange, but I know I would feel comfortable coming to her if I needed it and I think she feels the same about me. It was a slowly, slowly, step-by-step process of building emotional connection outside of our work relationship with a lot of testing the waters.

This example is also very helpful, thank you!

I am developing a friendship with one guy right now that might be headed this way. But, I feel like there's a difference between "just" openness and actually seeking support. We've been talking for the past couple semesters during and after class, and we've had lunch once and had a study session once. Me, him, and a couple other people from one of our classes are going to dinner next week. Just today he mentioned to me that he and his girlfriend recently broke up and as such his social circle has shrunk quite a bit. I think he was trying to signal that he wants to hang out with me more outside of class, but it didn't seem like he was actually seeking emotional support based on the way he said it. Maybe in the future he'll be looking for emotional support (at this point our relationship is still uncertain because we just haven't hung out much outside of limiting classroom settings) Shrug

As you said, this all seems like a very gradual process with each person, usually, and you can't really know how deep you'll get with any individual when it comes to emotional support.
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Post by reboot on Thu Apr 09, 2015 7:49 am

My guess is his mentioning breaking up and the social circle shrinking was the equivalent of the texting conversation in my story. A test of the waters to see how you reacted (e.g. a screed on them bitchez, politely ignoring because admitting lack of friends is awkward, a sorry that happened) and see what kind of sharing was possible.

Also, this testing is usually pretty unconscious, it is just talking and basing what you can talk about with this person on their reaction to different topics, it could just as easily be hobbies, politics, media, etc..
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Post by eselle28 on Thu Apr 09, 2015 11:51 pm

I'm with reboot. It sounds like he's putting out feelers toward possibly getting closer as friends and seeing what kinds of subjects are up for discussion. I suspect it is unconscious, but that's the kind of thing that people tend to do when they're working out what kind of relationship they'll have with each other. Dinner with classmates sounds fun!
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Post by reboot on Fri Apr 10, 2015 12:23 am

He also just admitted a vulnerability. Saying you have few or no friends can open you up to mockery
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Post by eselle28 on Fri Apr 10, 2015 12:30 am

Two vulnerabilities, when I think about it. Having few or no friends is one. I also think there's a lot of pressure on people to only talk about romantic relationships ending in terms of how glad they are to be single, and that it's showing a soft spot to mention a negative effect of a breakup.
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Post by The Wisp on Fri Apr 10, 2015 12:48 am

eselle28 wrote:Two vulnerabilities, when I think about it. Having few or no friends is one. I also think there's a lot of pressure on people to only talk about romantic relationships ending in terms of how glad they are to be single, and that it's showing a soft spot to mention a negative effect of a breakup.

Yes, this is true. We did have a pretty deep conversation about philosophy and religion about a month back, so we have some rapport established. Of course, I worry that I didn't signal as much openness as I had intended to when he brought that up about his girlfriend Sad (of course, class was about to start, so the context was weird). I did think I signaled some sympathy, though it wasn't effusive either.

I did make sure to signal that I did want to hang out with him, though, so I think I'm okay (I think he also gets that I'm shyer and less expressive). And I'm probably over-thinking this anyway.
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Post by eselle28 on Fri Apr 10, 2015 1:05 am

I think you're fine as well. It sounds like you responded appropriately given the context, and it's cool that you guys will have an opportunity to hang out soon.
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Post by reboot on Fri Apr 10, 2015 1:12 am

eselle28 wrote:I think you're fine as well. It sounds like you responded appropriately given the context, and it's cool that you guys will have an opportunity to hang out soon.

Cosigned. Offering to hang out after someone says they lost their social circle is 100% a good response. Remember, support does not have to be words. Actions communicate too.
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Post by Enail on Fri Apr 10, 2015 12:12 pm

That sounds really good, Wisp! I think you handled it well!
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