Relationships: Are we Responsible for the Feelings of Others?

Are those in our lives responsible for how we feel? And are we responsible for their feelings?

We expect those in our closest relationships, our family and our friends, to care about us and how we feel. But do we have a right to expect that they will be responsible for our feelings? And what does that mean?

Amethyst is expecting her first child. Her husband, Tom, likes to play darts, and as he has done every Tuesday and Thursday night since she met him, he goes to the pub to play darts with his buddies. Amethyst doesn’t play but usually goes along and watches. Since her pregnancy however, the smell of beer makes her sick so she stays home. She doesn’t want Tom to miss his darts, but she also feels lonely when he heads off twice a week on his own. Her hormones have her feeling weepy and nauseous a lot of the time. Tom is feeling the strain in the marriage and is glad to have the light relief of a few pints with the lads.

Amethyst is confused. In her world, people do things to make other people’s feelings better. When Tom was laid up with a broken leg for six weeks, she gave up her weekly visits to her sister, and her exercise class to stay home in the evenings to be with him. She is hurt and disappointed because he isn’t doing the same for her. Tom points out that he is home on the other nights, and she accepts that this is true, but something doesn’t fit for her. Tom doesn’t play by the same rules as she does. Tom doesn’t adjust his behaviour to please her, or to ease her fears, or at least, he doesn’t do it routinely. He does it when he feels like it. He is irritated by Amethyst’s request to him to forgo his darts, and points out that if he HAS to stay home, he’ll feel resentful. Amethyst doesn’t want him to feel resentful, she wants him to want to stay home and be with her, and he doesn’t. He wants to go to the pub to play darts when the mood takes him, and stay home when the mood takes him.

So who is responsible for whose feelings here? Should Tom stay home with his pregnant wife, because that’s what she wants? Or should Amethyst cheerfully see Tom go to the pub, because that’s what he wants? If this arose in your relationship, how would you and your partner deal with it? I’m sure some of you will empathise with Tom, and still others with Amethyst. I can hear some people rushing to find a compromise, a solution that gives neither of them all of what they want, but gives them each some, leaving both somewhat unhappy. And that’s certainly a possibility.

Tom and Amethyst each believe they are right and the other is wrong. Each can see the other’s point of view, but believes their own is more valid. Neither wants to hurt the other, and both want to do what’s best for the relationship, but neither do they want to relinquish their own position. Privately, each of them sees the other as selfish, and ironically, neither can see their own selfishness in asking, “Don’t please yourself, please me instead.”

Underlying this relationship issue is the assumption that they are each responsible for how the other feels. And in giving over that responsibility to someone else, each is effectively handing to their partner the control over their own happiness, because if the other person is unable to be there, to give them the attention or behaviour that they believe will make them happy, then they are going to be disappointed and the other will be to blame.

No one can be there all the time for another person. Even if they are willing to forgo their own desires or wishes in order to fulfil the needs of the other, there will always come a time when they cannot be there because something else takes their attention away: work, children, their own illness or the illness of a relative, and so on.

Perhaps a better solution might be to find happiness within themselves, separate from the behaviour and actions of others. Of course it’s lovely when other people behave in a way that pleases us, but perhaps we could see that as a gift they give, rather than our right or entitlement?

Jude Fay MIAHIP is a counsellor and psychotherapist at AnneLeigh Counselling and Psychotherapy, Naas and Celbridge, Co Kildare, Ireland. Jude works with individuals and couples aged 18 and over.

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