Balancing support/help within the relationship.
January 28, 2017 11:21 PM   Subscribe

I'm in a wonderful, co-supportive, loving relationship. (It's a cis-gender heterosexual relationship). However, due to several factors, I'm feel like I'm always in the position of being supportive / helping / giving, in a few different ways. I'm happy to do so but sometimes I feel like I'm not receiving much in return. How do I / we feel balanced?

Context:

We're in our late 20s / early 30s, very committed (we've talked about getting married and having children in the future (not anytime soon), and describe each other as partners). It's been about a year and a half. I'm the guy in the relationship (3 years older).

Overall, it's a really wonderful relationship, and things are really healthy and communicative. (In fact, I'll probably show this question to her.) We try to use 'I feel' language, and try to talk often about how we communicate to each other. When we bring things up, we're at a point where we can talk calmly about how we feel and can discuss those feelings with each other. We live together, and have a healthy balance of friends and spend a good amount of time apart with our own friend groups (which are now starting to overlap).

We both have careers where we have personal projects in slightly different but overlapping fields. Let's say she does widget-making; I do basket-weaving. We are both interested in technology, and so she does widget+software, I do basket-weaving+software things.

I feel quite personally stagnant and in-place for the past year or two, even though by external metrics I'm 'doing well' - teaching basket weaving+software as an adjunct professor at a prestigious university, working on large projects. She's in grad school learning software (she already knows widgets) and having a really fun, great time, and I'm really excited for her.

And lastly, another important factor is that starting early on in our relationship, we had a BDSM/Kink-full relationship that swung towards being D/s in the bedroom -- I was D, she was s. Recently it's been a little bit more toned down. We've talked about this aspect of our relationship a lot, and I think we have a pretty healthy relationship with it, but I can't deny the fact that it has probably influenced our basic dynamic. Still, we keep it private, and I doubt that friends (who we haven't told) have noticed.

So, on to the question:

I help her often. For example:
One aspect: I usually help her with code/software an average of 3~4 hours a week, and am totally happy to do so. I'm fairly well versed in software/tech/code. She started to learn code a year and a half ago, and so this means that we often have impromptu help sessions. I do find that it eats into my own personal time, but we've solved this by trying to schedule specific times so that our expectations our set as to when and how I can help with code. I can confidently say that have been very helpful in solving specific issues - I feel (proudly) like a very helpful one-on-one tutor, sometimes.

Another aspect: I've navigated bureaucracies / politics and organized events, etc, and have slowly amassed my own know-how in terms of how to get things done and how to ask for things. She's starting to apply to positions and run events, etc, and she often asks me for advice, which I'm happy to give.

Another aspect: I have a good network of friends who are older and who work in various different fields that I've introduced to her. We all get along and have great conversations. Recently she's started collaborating on really exciting projects with one of my friends, and another with two mutual friends. This is great! I admit I'm envious, but I think it's great.

I'm very excited for her overall, and I'm impressed and proud of her, so I'm very happy and it makes me happy for the person I love to also be someone I respect and am proud of, so much that I'm maybe even a little envious! These are all the things I wanted in a relationship, so I'm happy.

BUT:
I am slowly starting to find that I feel... like I'm pouring myself out in the role of giving and supporting, and often not receiving anything in return. I'm slowly starting to realize that I do want to receive, and save some time and mental energy for myself.

I'm so happy to help her, and to give her advice, and to introduce her to my friends. But she doesn't have that much to help me in regards to skills/knowledge (she's got a lot of skills/knowledge I don't have, but just not in my field). She can't easily offer me help regards to navigating work/career/project worlds, since she hasn't done that yet. Her friends are wonderful and interesting, but all still in grad school and a bit younger, and so they're less potential collaborators, more just friends.

I also recognize that a lot of this is on me: I've always been someone who has difficulty with asking for help or receiving help, and so have learned a lot by 'doing things myself' and figuring it out. I recognize that I could work on my ability to ask for help and advice more.

She's emotionally supportive - we regularly check in every day to hear how our days went, and she asks me and likes hearing me talk about how I feel and what I think. So I'm very grateful for that. But this whole AskMe is difficult to talk about, since I'm essentially telling her that I feel weird about helping her. I've brought it up before, and we've discussed it, which as helped. But it doesn't change the concrete facts that I have more knowledge and knowhow and people-resources that's helpful to her than vice-versa.

One last thought is:
I see how much she's growing, partially thanks to my help, and am.. envious. Sometimes I can't help but think that if the roles were reversed (that is, if I were in a relationship with someone older than I was and further ahead in my field, someone who would be able to offer me help and resources) then I would be growing a lot more than I would be right now. This is a horrible thought and I try my best to push it out of my mind, because I'm in love and committed and very happy with our relationship. But the thought is sometimes there.

SO:
I don't really want to 'help her less' to balance things out, because that feels... petty. I do want to be helped also. I don't think helping is a zero-sum game at all, but I'm starting to think that I need to 'keep' more energy towards helping myself.

TL;DR: I really like being supportive in our relationship, but lately I feel like I'm always the giver/helper and she's the receiver/helpee. This should be totally fine..... except I don't always feel fine! And so I'm struggling between 'how I feel' and 'how I want to feel', and not quite sure what to do.

Questions:
Have you been in a similar position?
What have you found that works for you and your partner?

Thank you, AskMe.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (9 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
This is an interesting question and really well written. You absolutely have that going for you.

The main thing I see is that you don't know what you need.

Your partner has clear goals for advancing her life, and she's working toward them. She does have the benefit of in-house council (you), that's probably helping her better than if she was pursing these objectives while single. But she's going through a growth spurt.

Would you feel the same envy if you weren't a part of her growth?
Would you feel the same kind of drain if the help you gave her was purely for recreational pursuits instead of being goal-growth oriented?

It sounds like you need to do some introspection and figure out what your next moves are. Once you find passionate things to work toward, you will have more specific needs to meet. Maybe you get help from your partner, maybe you find other connections. But when you have your own projects you're excited about, a) there may be ways your partner can advise you or contribute and b) you will have a better basis for setting boundaries and saving mental time/energy for yourself.

The first step of this could very well be being more strict about setting aside time to introspect and develop your goals and find your passion projects.

In the meantime, try to join your partner's team instead of competing with it. Life is long. You're going to have to trade off being the most productive/passionate person in the relationship. Someday she will probably top out on her learning curve and be coasting while you are in a season of growth and development.

Cultivate the ability to enjoy your partner's success and cheer her on as part of her support team. A rising tide lifts all boats, you know?

Similarly, besides digging in and figuring out what makes you feel good and growthful with your projects, dig in and figure out what actions make you feel loved. With your partner, hobby and romance are conveniently being conflated, which may be confusing your brain. Very likely what you need from her to have your batteries recharged has nothing to do with projects advancing, and what you need to have professional growth has nothing to do with her.

Good luck!
posted by itesser at 11:52 PM on January 28, 2017 [5 favorites]


itesser had the same instinct as I did: it sounds like you might get a lot out of a new hobby, wherein you can find your own coach-figure and feelings of learning / growth. It's not going to be reciprocal immediately (or ever) -- she might always be doing something that you have done first, but there are plenty of things you can do that other people have done first.

You're not alone in this. My boyfriend and I have nearly identical software engineering credentials / work histories, but I am initially violently territorial when he picks up a hobby that I consider "my thing," especially if my status in said area was hard-won. The solution is always to invest more in another "thing" so we can share the feelings of growth.
posted by batter_my_heart at 1:05 AM on January 29, 2017 [2 favorites]


If you're planning to get married at some point, every success she has means more success for your team and probably more money for your household.
You chose to date and live with a younger woman.
posted by LoonyLovegood at 2:08 AM on January 29, 2017 [18 favorites]


It seems to me that you maybe need to find someone else you can learn from. You mentioned up top that you feel a bit stuck/bored with your career, despite the trappings of success. Meanwhile your girlfriend is in the exciting phase of learning new things, setting and achieving new goals. You're a bit like Alexander the Great, weeping because you have no more to conquer, and meanwhile Napoleon is sidling up to you like "hey buddy, quick question about cavalry charges in hilly conditions..." Of course you'd feel a degree of resentment, if you think of yourself as being used to allow your protege to easily and quickly master everything you'd struggled hard for.

I think you need to seek out some other person whom you can learn from in the same way your girlfriend's learning from you. Maybe that means taking on an entirely new domain or pursuit, something where you are still a novice; maybe it means pursuing a new goal or project in your field that will allow you to establish new relationships. I think you'd cease to resent her for biting on your skill set if you were expanding that skill set. But that's not an experience you can get from your relationship with her. And that's okay.
posted by Diablevert at 4:40 AM on January 29, 2017 [5 favorites]


In addition to the other great advice you've gotten here, I think it would be completely reasonable of you to ask her to put some energy into finding people other than you who can help her with her coding. If she's in grad school for it, then there must be other resources available to her, and if she takes advantage of some of those, she could also potentially be building closer relationships with people in her professional circle or just expanding her social circle in general. I don't think it's fair of her to expect you to be her one-on-one tutor for free, and losing 3-4 hours of your free time a week seems like one of the biggest factors that is contributing to your resentment.
posted by colfax at 6:35 AM on January 29, 2017 [7 favorites]


Another aspect: I've navigated bureaucracies / politics and organized events, etc, and have slowly amassed my own know-how in terms of how to get things done and how to ask for things. She's starting to apply to positions and run events, etc, and she often asks me for advice, which I'm happy to give.

I'm not sure what kind of support and help you wish you had, given the successful-sounding position you're now in, but one skill she appears to have that you lack is the ability to identify people who can mentor her and the confidence to ask for support and advice and then get a yes in response. Get her to help you with that? She can't be your informal teacher unless you decide to take an interest in her field, but she might teach you to find and approach one, if that's what you're after.

in fact you say this yourself:

I also recognize that a lot of this is on me: I've always been someone who has difficulty with asking for help or receiving help, and so have learned a lot by 'doing things myself' and figuring it out. I recognize that I could work on my ability to ask for help and advice more.

She's right there, an expert in this field, there's nobody better you could consult about how to start doing this. recognize that she's a resource here and use it. perfect way to equalize the knowledge-sharing balance.
posted by queenofbithynia at 7:04 AM on January 29, 2017 [14 favorites]


I think a lot of the advice given here is great--maybe a new hobby would help spark things for you, or finding things she can teach you to do. I haven't been in this precise situation, but I know that when I feel like I'm getting worn down helping someone, I often just need more time to myself. Maybe that would help you. Time alone to do important things or watch re-runs of Who's the Boss or think about what might make you feel better about this whole situation. If it's possible for you to have a little getaway by yourself, that always helps restore me. Sometimes it's as simple as knowing I'm in a hotel room hundreds of miles away and nobody can come in and ask me for anything.

Good luck.
posted by mermaidcafe at 9:55 AM on January 29, 2017


Get a professional mentor; your girlfriend can then support you and be a good sounding board in your dealings with that mentor.
posted by furtive_jackanapes at 12:11 PM on January 29, 2017 [3 favorites]


I'm so happy to help her, and to give her advice, and to introduce her to my friends. But she doesn't have that much to help me in regards to skills/knowledge (she's got a lot of skills/knowledge I don't have, but just not in my field). She can't easily offer me help regards to navigating work/career/project worlds, since she hasn't done that yet. Her friends are wonderful and interesting, but all still in grad school and a bit younger, and so they're less potential collaborators, more just friends.

It sounds as though in your mind "support" means supporting someone's career efforts, and that's it. You don't say much about other ways that partners can support each other. Does she offer you other kinds of support? Do you support her in ways that aren't career-related?

My husband has no useful advice or support to give me in my career, and I don't advise him on his. Despite that, we've been together for 20+ years. I can't imagine trying to get through life without having him as my teammate.
posted by Lexica at 3:54 PM on January 30, 2017 [2 favorites]


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