“My partner doesn’t listen to what I’m saying and instead tells me to fix XYZ instead. Is there something wrong with me?”
It’s no surprise that the current pandemic is bringing out both the best and the worst in people. After all – for a while – the only thing you had was each other, four walls, a pet or two and the occasional food delivery guy. You’d have started to see things in your partner that you didn’t like or didn’t agree with. And as time passed, you saw them as an extension of yourself – the extension that can’t seem to wash the dishes right or put the laundry into the laundry basket rather than next to it. By this time, you’d probably have forgotten that the reason that you’re with your partner is that you adore them as they are.
That’s when it starts to seem like you’re constantly trying to clean up after them, to fix their messes and vice versa. Most of the time, it’s not that they are trying to “fix you”; it’s that they are trying to empathise with you.
Knowing the difference between someone who wants to “fix” you and “empathise” with you is what will define how healthy your relationship is and can be going forward.
A partner that wants to “fix” you
Psychologists equate the need to “fix” your partner as a projection of your own needs to fix your own faults and shortcomings. So while you might feel that there is something wrong with you, it’s actually the projection of an internal struggle that your partner is facing. It could be that your partner has developed a low self of esteem after years of living with constant parental disapproval and rejection. It could even go as far as it stemming from the fact that your partner was subject to psychological abuse. As a result of this, your partner has been conditioned to see everything as “less than perfect” and “in need of repair”. So, in your partner trying to fix you, she/he is actually trying to fix what she saw as a flaw or fault in herself/himself.
When your partner wants to “fix” you, they are usually…
1. Constantly criticising you – From the way you dress to the way you hold your spoon, nothing is good enough for your partner.
2. Unable to accept you as you are now – Maybe because they see your future potential and are impatient for you to reach that potential. In pushing you to try to get there before you are ready, they make you feel unappreciated and rejected for who you are.
3. Always giving rather than receiving – Because your partner thinks that you need “fixing”, they will see the need to step up and create a sort of “parent-child” dynamic that will only serve to devalue your contribution.
Now, what happens when your partner keeps trying to “fix you”…
1. You exhaust each other – Your partner will feel tired of “rescuing” you in their attempts to care for you and you will start dreading your interactions with them. You will both start feeling the same way about each other as you would the household chores – it’s annoying, taxing and burdening.
2. It becomes a power struggle – As they start doing more for you (even if you don’t want them to), the dynamics will shift and you feel like the relationship is unequal. Your partner will feel like a parent and you feel like as if you were being smothered by a parent.
3. You both start to lack empathy while taking care of each other – When it starts to look like you both cannot meet each other’s needs, you will start to detach from your partner in order to protect yourself. This will lead to developing distance within the relationship.
If it has come to this, it’s time to reevaluate your relationship. Most of the time, people who are constantly trying to “fix” things are completely unaware that they are doing it. Sit down with your partner and heal what has become dysfunctional – because “fixing” isn’t loving.
A partner that wants to “empathise” with you
When you try to share something with your partner, most of the time it’s because you want to feel heard and understood, but more often than not, you will find yourself being given advice. When this happens, it can feel as if you’re being talked down to as your partner tries to solve the problem you’ve handed to him/her. This then causes both the feeling of loneliness (i.e. “he/she doesn’t want to listen) and frustration (“all I wanted was to vent”).
But what’s really happening is that the person offering the “advice” or “solution” is doing so from a place of support and love, as they feel like they are resolving whatever it is that is causing you pain. To the person on the receiving end of the advice, it can seem like, “Here’s the solution, apply it, and it’ll all go away”. So how do you both find a way to allow for empathising without the need for advice?
Brené Brown, a professor, lecturer, author, and podcast host, defined empathy as putting yourself in the shoes of the person you love. Sympathy, on the other hand, is feeling “compassion, sorrow, or pity” without actually experiencing their feelings. This makes your words empty and does more harm than good because, at the end of the day, you are invalidating what the other person is feeling.
To avoid empty sympathy, stop using words like,
• “Well, it could be worse…”
• “I think you should…”
• “This could turn into a positive experience for you if you just…”
If you try to say, “I don’t want you to fix my problems” or “Will you please just listen?” you are most likely to get this response,
“Why are you telling me this if you don’t want me to fix it? What’s the point? I don’t get it.”
Instead, try starting your conversation with:
• “I’m going to vent, I just need you to listen”
• “Sharing this with you will make me feel better but all I need is for you to listen”
Another trick is to try something from Dawn Serra. She and her husband have come to an agreement where they ask each other,
“Do you want empathy or advice?”
And if your partner tries to offer you advice anyway, gently remind them of what you asked for before the conversation started. Always keep in mind that you are on the same team; they mean well.
From here, all you need to do is to practice this with your partner. Setting up a clear communication technique will make it easier to see that they are coming from a place of kindness and love when things get heated. Remember that the best way to help someone is to ensure they feel lighter rather than better, as sharing is a form of unburdening more than it is problem-solving. There is nothing more valuable than to offer to carry someone else’s weight for a few minutes if only to give them space to breathe.