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Pessimist won't show enthusiasm for optimist partner's joys

Carolyn Hax

Carolyn Hax

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Carolyn Hax

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Q My partner often feels I don’t react to events in his life as a supportive partner.

He believes that when he is excited about something or happy about an upcoming event, I should be just as happy as he is, and express myself that way to support him.

I am more of a glass-half-empty kind of woman, so it is difficult for me to express myself otherwise. I always seem to want to talk about the what-ifs and my concerns and my personal outlook on things, which always differs from his.

This upsets him very much and usually causes him to lash out at me, saying I need to stop this and start thinking about how it ruins the moment for him. He tells me no one else who loves him reacts this way but me.

I feel this is controlling behavior on his part: “If I share something with you that is good to me, you have to say only positive things about it as well, otherwise I am going to get mad at you.”

So what am I supposed to do? Give in and stop being me and only say what I know will make him happy? Or say what I am really thinking at the time, which I know he does not want to hear and will get angry with me for saying?

I really need an outsider’s view because we have been going around this for too many years. — Annoyed and Confused

A About this “give in” thing — is it possible? Can you, in fact “stop being me” (which we’ll get to in a bit) and “only say what I know will make him happy?”

If it is, then yes, try a loving, “That’s great, [partner’s name] — I’m so happy for you.”

Because that’s not caving, and asking you to check your pessimism is not “controlling.” His lashing out is childish, certainly, but the frustration it expresses is legitimate. You keep doing what you “always seem to want” without regard for how that affects him.

Really? Why?

Again — if it’s possible for you to quit the what-ifs, then, yes: Choose to honor your partner’s wish. “Hey, that sounds great.” Your outlook works for you but doesn’t for him, so why keep pushing it? How do you expect him to benefit — and how has he actually benefited — from your popping all his balloons? Meeting his needs doesn’t automatically mean denying your essential self.

Granted, sometimes it’s not so simple. Maybe your pessimism is so ingrained that any cheerleading sounds insincere. Maybe your partner’s unchecked optimism gets him (and you by extension) in trouble — certainly there can be mood, health and financial consequences to getting swept up in the latest greatest thing. Maybe the wing-clipping on your part evolved in response to the petulance on his.

Even these cases, though, don’t justify your insistence on citing what-ifs, for the simple reason that it’s not working. He doesn’t appreciate the reality checks. He doesn’t embrace your counsel as a welcome counterweight. Who would, really, relish anyone’s reflexive negativity?

So find a way to be sincere in sharing his joy. Forget looking for happiness in a potential outcome, since it’s not in your nature; look instead for the happiness in him, in his face. Find the happy in seeing him happy. Consider a formal depression and anxiety screening if there’s zero joy to be found.

If he does genuinely benefit from your grounding influence, then that’s all the more reason to find a more effective way to exert it. Cheer him on first, if that’s what works with him — then step in later if and only if you see real peril ahead. You naturally think in hypotheticals, yes? So keep doing that, just don’t voice all of them as they occur. Let your reaction be an unspoken “maybe” until there’s something factual — and therefore necessary — to respond to.

Tell him you plan to do this and, even better, show him you can. Ask him to meet you halfway by not reacting negatively when you do find cause to be cautious.

IF all of this is possible, with a capital “if.”

If instead you’re unable to hold back, or if holding back leaves you uncomfortable in your own skin, then you need to say so to your partner, with your profound apologies, “I cannot be the person you want or need me to be. I cannot express the enthusiasm you want when my entire brain screams caution.”

And: “Your always wanting enthusiasm from me, and my always wanting caution from you, and our never just accepting each other as we naturally are, mean we’re basically torturing each other.”

And: “So we need either to give up wanting and trying to change each other, or to break up.”

That’s all recurring arguments are, by the way. Weaponized stubbornness. Because you’re both so dead certain you’re right that you can’t see how being right means you’re wrong for each other.

Email Carolyn Hax at tellme@washpost.com, follow her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/carolyn.hax or chat with her online at noon each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.

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