Should you expect your partner to give you emotional support? It depends

Two therapists on how to assess your needs and communicate them effectively to your partner.

Two therapists on how to assess your needs and communicate them effectively to your partner

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

Emotional support would seem to be a natural expectation in any loving relationship. Perhaps that might be why so many of us can feel let down by our romantic partners when they don't seem to understand what we need or seem to want to meet our needs. We reached out to two therapists to talk about what's behind this tension between ourselves and our chosen partners.

"I think it's absolutely OK to look for and expect [emotional support] from your partner and I think most people do, whether or not they think that they should or they allow themselves to," said Dr. Wendy Zhao, a clinical psychologist at the Clinic on Dupont in Toronto, adding there are situations when our intimate partners are the ideal person to turn to.

Yet expecting emotional support doesn't always translate to receiving it. 

"Expectation" is a dangerous word, said Toronto-based psychotherapist Jodee McCaw, since with expectations comes the assumption you should have something.

"It doesn't encourage people to think about what are we essentially trading off: I can have this or that, but I don't necessarily get everything I want," she said. "Because none of us get our whole wish list, although sometimes we wish we did."

What you need and want may depend on a lot

It's also useful to factor in the complexities of each person's emotional development, which McCaw noted varies with gender, class, cultural influences and the unspoken rules learned within families. Because of this, how each person operates in a relationship can be vastly different. "Children learn intuitively from what they see around them," she said. "They learn what they see, and so it's one of the reasons why they're very affected ... by culture, by family stuff — all kinds of things." 

McCaw elaborated on the "unspoken rules" that can exist as a result. For example, one person grows up learning never to ask for help and to wait to be offered, while another learned that if one needs help, you ask for it. If you bring those two people together, conflict can occur.

"The other distinction there is that people vary tremendously in how much emotional support they want or they need," McCaw said.

Not all people in loving relationships desire the same things from their intimate partners. They might have shared interests and enjoy activities together while not really turning to one another for comfort or reassurance, which McCaw said is relatively common. She also noted the "best friend-companion" marriage model is a modern development and emotional support was provided by extended family in the past.

Today, people may also seek support from friends and family instead of their partner.

"If they are well supported elsewhere … [and] can have their needs fulfilled outside the relationship, absolutely nothing wrong with that," said Zhao. Where conflict can arise, she continued, is when there's a mismatch: one partner requiring a lot of emotional support and the other partner incapable of providing it.

"If our partner is, again, unwilling or incapable of giving us the support that we need, then that's definitely a source of great conflict," said Zhao.

When your partner is not giving you the emotional support you seek

"The first thing is don't panic. It doesn't mean that your relationship is doomed," said Zhao, who recommended communicating with your partner and understanding what kind of support you need. "Is it empathy? Is it validation? Is it advice? Is it service? Is it like,… 'Let me handle this for you. Let me problem-solve for you.' Is it that?"

Similarly, McCaw said complications arise when people don't understand what form of emotional support they want. "When one person says to the other, 'You're not giving me any emotional support,' they're certainly expressing how they feel," she said. "But what they're doing is giving their partner zero information about what they actually need … what that actually looks like."

McCaw advised couples to follow the feelings and the hurt because she said when there's anger, there's almost always hurt underneath it. "You're looking to [communicate] those kinds of feelings," she said, while noting many don't consider how to actually do that. Along with carefully considering what you want to say and how your partner may react, she recommended going in with more questions than answers. "You get far further by saying, 'What does this mean for you?'" she said. "Because if you go in with sort of that sense of, 'I'm pretty sure this is what that means,' you've shifted the conversation away from what your partner is actually saying or doing [and toward] your fears."

How to gain clarity on your own needs and work toward receiving better support from your partner

McCaw said if you feel you have friends or family who've been able to meet your emotional needs better than your partner has, it's worth figuring out why. Find out what it is about what they offer that works for you and ask them if there's anything that makes it hard for them to support you.

"You can ask them if there's anything for them that is hard for them about meeting your emotional needs, but if you've got people in your life who are doing a better job than your partner is, then you've got a wonderful source of information to figure out some stuff about what you would like to see happen," she said. "And then you can go back to your partner with, 'OK, here is what I think would help.'"

Zhao advised couples to communicate mutual expectations early in a relationship so they don't find themselves feeling disappointed years down the road when their needs are not being met. And she said a couple's therapist can assist with learning how to communicate needs respectfully. "So then, our partner won't feel blamed or won't reject our request or won't feel their request as threatening for their own personal reasons," she said. 

Expect that the level of emotional support can fluctuate depending on life circumstances: a partner who is having a bad day may not be capable of being supportive in that moment. Couples can also take each other for granted, which may diminish support, particularly when they've been in the relationship for a long time. But it doesn't mean they can't come back from that, said Zhao.

Assessing your real needs and being able to relay them effectively is key to receiving better emotional support from your partner.

"Mostly, your partner wants to make you happy and they just can't tell how when you're telling them what they're doing wrong," McCaw said. "What a partner needs [to hear is how to make you happy] in a way that they can really understand."

Janet Ho is a writer and hobby artist. You can follow her at @janetonpaper.

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