Expert guidance on figuring out how you love and assessing your connections.
Words by Rae Witte. Photography by Studio Firma.
Much like beauty is said to be in the eye of the beholder, I think love is too. We refer to different love languages and attachment styles, but knowing and loving yourself outside a relationship puts you in an optimal position to participate in a healthy one. Giving and receiving love can look different for everyone. Ideally, you find a partner or partners that are compatible with your ways.
I like to hear people in love talk about what they love about their partner. However, there are a few responses or even the energy around the way someone talks about their loved one that has always made me cringe.
When I ask someone to tell me about their lover, it’s because I’m happy for them and I want to learn about this person – specifically through their lens of love. It has always rubbed me the wrong way to hear things like, “they keep me in check” or only what the partner does for them.
“I would imagine the healthy response would be someone sharing the positive qualities and the partner or the areas of growth that they’ve seen or showing support in their partner’s goals and dreams that they’re working toward,” Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Cindy Shu says. Shu adds that speaking about a significant other in a positive light is what you’d expect.
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The responses that only share what they do and that are completely void of anything about the partner always leave me with more questions – that I decide are absolutely none of my business – than where we started, but Shu explained what this type of response could indicate.
“I can imagine that if an individual speaks in that way, that’s their primary focus. Perhaps that’s really how they do see relationships – their partners are there to do for them or help them or support them specifically,” Shu says. “Perhaps that’s their understanding of relationships.”
This can work. Particularly if both parties’ needs are met, however, Shu said she would wonder whether there’s codependency happening. This could look like needing the other person to help them hold their own boundaries, requiring help maintaining their own emotions or looking to their partner to validate their experiences without being able to do so for themselves.
Loving someone primarily for what they do for you can threaten the longevity of a relationship, though. Roles in relationships can shift over time. Prioritizing what your partner contributes to your life over who they are can break the relationship if those roles waiver.
“If someone is the main breadwinner, and then something happens where they can’t be, how is the other person going to respond to that? Are they going to be OK with it? Or was that relationship based on being financially supported?” Shu explores.
Outside of financially, this can also look like the inability to regulate your own emotions and grow and evolve on your own. Shu adds, “Maybe it’s a stereotype or generalization, but males tend to say things like, ‘My partner keeps me in check by making me go to sleep early or doing the laundry.’” This societal norm or expectation puts those that identify as women in the position of being a caregiver or mother-like figure within the romantic relationship.
“It causes women in heterosexual relationships to feel burned out and to feel like they are taking care of a child as opposed to an equal partner,” she says. This codependency becomes an issue when the partner is a replacement for things you should be able to do yourself, particularly if the relationship ends.
Being in a relationship with someone who is providing these important things you can’t do for yourself can be risky. Shu says it can result in losing yourself and the expertise of yourself if your partner masters what it takes to fulfill your own personal needs. “If they really depend on how this other person shows up for them, they may lose their ability to cultivate healthy behavioral patterns or a healthy lifestyle overall on their own,” she says. Where will you find yourself if the relationship doesn’t work out? Will you continue to look for another person to fit that role for you?
If you find yourself questioning whether you value what your partner provides for you more than who they are, there are questions you can ask yourself to explore how you like to give and receive love.
Shu recommends recognizing what a healthy relationship with self looks and feels like first, and then you can ask yourself things like, what are your own insecurities or struggles? What are your coping skills and whether they’re positive or not? Do you tend to avoid your own feelings or emotional experiences? Do you tend to seek external validation from people? Do you need others to mirror your experiences to trust that what is happening for you is real?
Beyond taking a look at yourself, you can also assess what is familiar to you versus what is safe about the relationship or your partner. “We tend to seek what is familiar, what is known, and what is normal. If we grew up with emotionally neglectful parents, we might find partners who display similar patterns, and we think that’s normal,” she says. “We might engage in patterns of seeking their attention or wanting their attention and not getting it and feeling like there’s something wrong with us, as opposed to recognizing that this is a pattern that we’re seeking out and other people who are emotionally unavailable.”
Much like that initial question I ask, assessing your connection to your partner may leave you with more questions than answers, but the response to a casual conversation about what you love about your person cannot and does not necessarily paint the whole picture. And, it isn’t always an indicator that you’re overlooking who your partner is. Shu says that within healthy relationships having love for both who your partner is and what they provide for you (as long as it isn’t a replacement) and the relationship is best. You want to be with someone you love for who they are and how they bring out the best in you.