The Art of Not Playing Protector
How I crushed my partner’s spirit by trying to solve his problems for him.
By Kai Morgan
Would you like to be loved by someone who is always there for you? Who helps you and takes care of you unconditionally when life is hard. Who can always be relied on to hold the fort, no matter what happens?
I’ve been that woman, for a man I loved very much — to the extreme. And it wasn’t good at all — it was poisonous and destructive for both of us in the end.
My ex was made redundant from his job very suddenly. I came home from work and found him in tears holding the letter — the only time I ever saw him properly cry in nine years. He was hurt, shell-shocked and terrified.
We tried so hard to stay positive and proactive. I had no magic wand to wave for him, but I did have an ability to write well and persuasively, which he didn’t. So naturally, he turned to me for help with his job applications.
At first, I just proofread and tidied them up. But, before long, I was writing them for him instead. It just seemed like a sensible division of labour. Yet, all the applications seemed to disappear into a black hole. Often, there wasn’t even a rejection email — just silence.
So, I started to exaggerate his abilities in the applications.
If they wanted knowledge or experience in a certain area, I’d go out and research it on the Internet, and weave it into the application, then explain it all to him so he’d be able to speak about the topic in an interview. I painted him in a stunningly impressive, glowing light — because I could, and because I loved him.
Now the interviews started to come in. Though heartbreakingly, he wasn’t able to live up to the image we’d presented in writing; and just failed again and again.
Things started to spiral out of control. He was desperate and demoralised beyond words. My evenings after work became miserable drudgery. I was tied to the computer writing yet more applications until bed time. I still exaggerated them, because that was what he begged me to do.
He took over all the cooking and washing up to maximise my time for his applications. While I worked, he would fetch me glasses of water and bits of chocolate from time to time. Meekly, he was attempting to support in some way. This is not the way for two people to feel confident in themselves or their relationship. This is not the way for a relationship to grow. Before long, I sincerely hated his job applications. The slightest sign of these feelings in me would send him into an unbearable panic that I had lost faith in him and his ability to find a new job — so, I hid them and soldiered on.
If you think what I did was immoral, then you’re probably right.
When you love someone that much, and they’re in so much pain, sometimes you might do wrong things to help them.
Meanwhile our relationship was going sour. He swung between intense, grateful affection for all my support, and cruel out-of-the blue attacks about how useless I was at various things. I felt bewildered and sad that he could be like this, despite all the loving care I was giving him.
Now I understand that the care I was giving him was actually exacerbating his lashing out. I now know I was killing his ability to fight his own battles while compounding his feelings of inadequacy.
If you, or someone close to you, has been in this situation, you’ll know that it wasn’t about the job itself. It was about a man scared that his ability to contribute usefully to society was over; and the world had moved on, and didn’t want or need him any more.
What’s so sad about this story though, is that both of us genuinely thought we were doing the right thing. I thought that taking such warm, close care of him was what he needed. And so did he.
He never said: just butt out and stop treating me like a baby; I’m an adult who can deal with this. He urgently craved my protection and care, like a hungry infant. He would say: you make me feel so safe; the only person who’s ever cared for me in this way was my mother. How were we to know that we were both getting it so wrong?
He would say in vulnerable moments: will you be able to take care of us both financially if I can’t get another job? And of course I said yes, and was strong. As far as I could see, that was what he wanted and needed to hear, to make him feel safe.
Taking care of him became pretty much my sole reason for being.
We got it so wrong.
Over those months, his masculinity seemed to just quietly dissolve and fade away. Only to resurface and flare up in the form of anger and unkindness towards me at seemingly random moments.
He was clearly suffering from severe depression; and I frequently tried to steer him into seeking professional help, but this just annoyed him.
Sometimes, I think about what I could have done differently. It’s a hard one, because the impulse will always be to help the one you love, and give them what they say they need. Also, because the issue of unemployed middle-aged men who may never work again is bitterly real and cruel; and the odds against us felt desperate enough to merit desperate measures.
I believe now that instead of agreeing with his view he couldn’t write good applications, and taking the task away from him, I could have communicated genuine confidence and trust to him. Let him know he had the answers within himself.
Instead of completely sacrificing my own happiness to “help” him, I could have taken better care of myself, so that he could have at least had the peace of mind of knowing I was content.
I could have pushed back more when he was unkind, rather than just making allowances for him, for being under stress and unwell.
Maybe everything I’ve said here is just common sense, and most couples already know it. Maybe it was only my partner and me who missed the memo, and got sucked into these weird, unhealthy ways of caring for each other in a time of crisis, instead of staying adult.
I suspect there are loving, caring people out there who believe that an extremely mothering type of care is the right gift to give when times are hard. There could equally be men reading this from a bad place, who feel that being insulated from pain by their partner’s love will make things ok. We all try so hard in life, but we don’t always get it right, or really know what we need.
In any case, if you are anywhere along the path towards the unintentionally poisonous place I’ve described, this story is for you. Please take a moment to step back, reclaim more healthy roles — and don’t let things get as bad as my partner and I did. I can’t turn the clock back now, but there is at least always an opportunity to reflect and learn for the future …
The story was previously published on The Good Men Project.
About Kai Morgan
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