We bicker about who’s turn it is to take out the trash—“I do it all the time!”—or who ought to hand over their credit card to the waiter—“You never pay!—but conversations about an imbalance of emotional effort may be far less common in romantic partnerships.
To be fair, it’s a complicated, multifaceted conversation to have. Also, we may not even be able to pinpoint, with certainty, the source of distress and disconnect within the relationship. Instead, there can be an ever-present undercurrent of unhappiness and fatigue experienced by one, or both, partners.
Identifying Feelings of Emotional Unbalance
An “undercurrent of unhappiness” can present as one partner feeling more in tune with the relationship or that they’re putting more effort into keeping the proverbial spark alive. That person may feel like they’re more likely to initiate a date night, open up a dialogue about last night’s heated spat, repair ongoing issues, track quality (and quantity) of time together, and, in general, feel more likely to make a valiant effort to facilitate bonding.
The fed-up partner has likely also begun construction on a robust wall of anger and animosity.
After a while, the person may begin to feel resentful toward their partner, and may even avoid emotional maintenance altogether. When this happens, distance grows, partially because the fed-up partner has likely also begun construction on a robust wall of anger and animosity.
“The risk of an emotional imbalance is the buildup of resentment, and resentment is toxic, but I want to make sure to flesh out an aspect of this,” said Dr. Alexandra H. Solomon, clinical assistant professor at Northwestern University’s Department of Psychology and author of “Loving Bravely: 20 Lessons of Self-Discovery to Help You Get the Love You Want.” “The story ‘we have an emotional imbalance’ is a story that is going to be told by the person who perceived that they are giving more than their partner.”
In other words, it is helpful to acknowledge your experience as different from your partner’s, as well as the possibility that the issue could be entirely yours, as well.
“The important thing here is to check out if the resentment is coming from you feeling overly extended in the relationship, or if you a person who is critical and tends to hold grudges,” advised Dr. Linda Carroll, a relationship therapist. “In one case, it’s your work. In another, it’s time for a conversation about feeling taken advantage of and not cared for in the ways you need.”
In cases where it’s your work, it’s important to have realistic expectations for the person you’re with, said Carroll.
“For example, appreciating what they bring, not what we think they should bring; knowing where to go for needs we are not having met and to have them met in a safe way (meaning not by finding a lover to meet us emotionally) by our primary person is a huge part of a balanced relationship.”
Addressing the Issue
If you’re feeling resentful it may be helpful to acknowledge that feeling and treat it as an important piece of data, said Solomon. Then, when you’re in a calm and collaborative state of mind, turn toward your partner and initiate a conversation.
Do you make another attempt at finding balance, or do you cut ties and seek a partner who may be better able to fulfill your needs?
An example of that conversation could be, “It is my experience that we have an emotional imbalance going on in our relationship. I have been feeling like I am the one who is doing more of the heavy lifting. Here are some examples. I am aware that I am starting to feel resentful. Can we please look together at this problem?”
“When Partner A does this—‘Hey, I’m feeling resentful. Can we talk about this?’—it’s important for Partner B to respond with empathy and curiosity, not defensiveness and dismissiveness,” said Solomon. “Even if B doesn’t agree with A’s assessment, B ought to be willing to explore A’s concern, saying, ‘Your data is valuable. Let’s work together to understand what’s happening.’”
Broaching the conversation this way invites intimacy, bonding, and true collaboration. Contrarily, approaching it as “me versus you” in the heat of resentment only leads to embitterment, slammed doors, and wounded hearts.
Once you’ve had this conversation, it’s important to continue to check in with yourself, and your partner, to make sure that you are communicating your needs and expectations in a way that can be understood clearly.
“It’s really easy to slip into mind reading, assuming that our partners should know what to do and say in order for us to feel cared about,” said Solomon. “It is also sometimes easier to complain that we are doing all of the work than it is to give voice to our unmet need, longing, desire. The latter is far more vulnerable—and therefore healthier.”
When Conversations Aren’t Working
“In every healthy relationship, these differences can be talked about and we can restate intentions to learn how to care for each other,” said Carroll. But there are also unhealthy relationships where inequality can be blatant and downright painful.
These are cases where the imbalance is ongoing, and even when addressed via therapy and the sort of conversations outlined above, fails to resolve. If you’re truly the only person putting forth energy—and if your partner is repeatedly unresponsive to your vulnerable pleas and candid conversation attempts—you may become faced with a decision.
Do you make another attempt at finding balance, or do you cut ties and seek a partner who may be better able to fulfill your needs? That decision is yours, and yours alone. Just bear in mind that if there’s work to be done on your end, the problem may follow you wherever you go, and if the weight is on your partner’s end, you may find yourself happier and lighter by ending the relationship. Whatever the path forward entails, try to seek out the positives, fix the negatives, and determine what may be ideal for yourself.
Artwork by SAMANTHA HUNTER