Stuck in an Emotional Rollercoaster
Note: This has been edited for clarity.
Dear Dr. Deb,
My partner cannot meet my emotional needs. That aside, I think we have a wonderful relationship. He’s everything I want. But the emotional part is huge – and he admits he isn’t capable of handling that.
He avoids emotions and takes anything that touches on that as an attack, which leaves me walking on eggshells and feeling like I can’t be myself around him.
He started counselling because he says he realizes he needs to work on himself, but honestly his behavior has gotten worse since then. It’s a cycle of highs, and lows, and I’m having a hard time ending it. I don’t know what to do.
I feel lost.
We’re all familiar with the idea of “happily ever after.” But the truth is that “happily ever after” rarely comes without a few bumps in the road. When those bumps turn into weeks and months of emotional neglect, as you describe in your relationship, something much bigger is going on.
Everyone has emotional needs in relationships (and outside of them). Yes, even your partner, for all his resistance to expressing his feelings. We all have our own vision of what to expect and what we value the most. But our major needs as emotional creatures remain the same: secure attachments, attention, emotional connection, sense of self, and the need to feel understood, just to name a few.
That said, let me say right out of the gate that you can’t expect your partner to figure out how to make it up to you before you yourself have identified what your needs are. Sure, it’s tempting to think that the onus is solely on your partner to fix it because he’s the one who is obviously withholding and acting out. But remember that relationships are not one-sided. Changing just one part of it won’t make it the wonderful relationship that you imagined.
While helping to meet each other’s needs is an important piece of any relationship, I’m a firm believer that the responsibility for our emotional fulfillment ultimately rests on us as individuals.
The more couples I work with, the clearer it is that many adults seem to be unaware of their own needs. As I’ve mentioned in one of my previous columns, this usually happens when childhood needs were ignored, shamed, or minimized, teaching the child to hide or deny how they really feel to get approval.
Some adults carry this learned behavior their whole lives, clueless about identifying their wants and needs. Unfortunately, it’s likely that they’ll bring unresolved needs into a relationship, expecting their partner to fulfill them. That’s a recipe for disaster.
In your letter, it seems that your partner wasn’t even willing to acknowledge your emotional needs, which made you think about ending the relationship in the first place. However, he seems to be taking a major first step by seeking professional help, so give him credit for that. Just remember that it’s a process, and it will take time for him to be comfortable discussing both his emotions and yours.
Try to take this time to work on yourself through introspection. Once you identify your expectations and needs, you must communicate this openly to your partner. He’s not a mind reader, and neither are you. Lay your cards on the table so he’s encouraged to do the same. Be straightforward, but resist criticizing or placing blame.
One of the most common reasons couples argue is disappointment because of unmet expectations. It isn’t that you shouldn’t have expectations, but they need to be realistic. I’ve encountered clients often saying that they expect their spouse to be totally supportive of all their emotional needs. Your partner can’t –and shouldn’t – meet all your needs. There will always be moments when they won’t be able to. Disappointment is inevitable.
A successful relationship takes compromise – I can’t emphasize this enough. Ask your partner if there’s anything he would be willing to do to meet you in the middle. Is there a way for the two of you to come together?
Stranded, I want you to have a partner who cares for you, knows they can’t be everything to you, but is willing to compromise and find solutions as much as possible. Hopefully, with professional help, the two of you can start communicating openly and effectively, and work on understanding each other in a deeper way.
Remember, just because your emotional needs are unmet right now in this relationship doesn’t mean you’ll never find fulfillment. If you’ve exhausted all your options, done the self-work, communicated clearly and openly, and find that your partner is still unwilling or unable to meet them, leaving your relationship is always an option.