Dudes, I've been having some seriously difficult times figuring out the answer to this question:
How much responsibility do I take for my partner's emotions? How do we negotiate for our needs / preferences, especially when they conflict?
Here's the sort-of paradigm I was working with in my head:
1) Everyone is primarily responsible for their own emotions and needs.
2) People should try to empower themselves, to increase their leverage and ability to meet their needs and feel how they want to feel. Examples of empowerment include: learning about oneself, telling others about their preferences, asking for things, and increasing any relevant skills—such as learning NVC.
3) Communicating is generally the first step, and people should strive to share any relevant information that might meaningfully affect their partner.
For instance, if I had planned to get dinner with a partner later tonight but realize I don't feel up to it, I should at the very least tell my partner about not going. If I neglect to tell them and they become upset that I didn't show up as expected, I am partially responsible for that outcome.
However, if my partner is disappointed that I'm cancelling dinner (after I inform them), I am much less responsible for that disappointment. My obligation is—as stated in (1)—mostly to my own needs. I am, of course, probably sad that they are disappointed and this will likely factor in, since I want neither of us to feel sad or disappointed.
In addition, my partner is totally free to try to form a compromise or make dinner plans for tomorrow or convince me out of my decision, or whatever, to try to find ways to get their needs satisfied as well as mine.
Let's try to dig through a few of the many layers of assumptions going on with this paradigm.
a) I know what my needs are, and I can mostly predict what they'll be. This lets me state them as current / future preferences and negotiate for ways to meet my needs.
b) I trust that my partner is at least somewhat accounting for my needs in their calculations—like with the dinner example. I trust that they will try not to upset me by wholly neglecting or denying my needs. If they cancel dinner, they have done so because their needs were important enough to risk making me sad.
c) I am capable of negotiating at approximately the same level as my partner. One of us doesn't completely dominate the other.
d) Communication is open, honest, and as frequent as it needs to be. I am not a pathological liar. I have some way to be contacted. I read / listen to my communications.
e) I trust the honesty of my partner. I trust they're not going to hide relevant information from me or at the least attempt not to. (Relevance is up for debate and may be different from relationship to relationship.)
This paradigm seemed pretty good to me, but lately I've been running into issues where (a) is not a safe assumption. I.e. sometimes people don't know what their needs are because they've engaged in lifelong self-denial, and this has resulted in their needs remaining hidden from them. Sometimes their needs are actively scary to think about. Sometimes they feel they're not allowed to have or express needs. Sometimes they just have very little direct connection to their needs, for whatever reason.
In this case, it's obviously pretty hard to expect people to be responsible for their own emotions and needs! Much less negotiate over them or be completely transparent about them.
Relationships are hard, as it turns out. And people are complicated.
The appropriate action in this case seems to be to try to help my partner figure out their needs—in a collaborative, safe way. I might also recommend they talk to a therapist, if they can.
But in the meantime, I'm not sure of the best way to handle the normal day-to-day aspects of a relationship, if I risk harming my partner through my actions because they can't tell me beforehand that a risk is present. Or if they can't tell me what they're needing from me, when harm is done. Or they can't tell me what seemed to negatively affect them about our interaction.
My paradigm just breaks down so hard! And I'm already not-that-good at following it myself! Shit!
There are a variety of ways to approach this, including:
- Not dating people who can't express their needs
- Avoiding all but the safest interactions
- Assuming more responsibility for their emotions than I otherwise would and taking a more active role in figuring out their needs
- Just hurting them until we figure out how to prevent that from happening
- Adopting some other paradigm
There are lots of pros and cons to each of these, obviously. It's very unclear to me which would work out best.
I am but a simple human, not some kind of love connection therapy sex god who can solve all interpersonal problems with a few heavy crying sessions. If you find such a being, PLEASE PUT US IN TOUCH.