Tate finished work and took a deep breath before opening the door. He braced himself for the mood he’d find his girlfriend in. Hopefully, she’d had a good day. Tate tried his best to make her happy, but lately, she rarely was. Where had the fun, playful woman he’d dated for the first six months gone? He blamed himself. He’d been the one who’d convinced her to move towns. She had no job and no friends. No wonder she was miserable.
Today Tate was greeted with the silent treatment. “What’s happened, darling?” he tried to gently coax something out of her, then made a little joke hoping to get a smile. Nothing.
Later that night they fought and she cried. Afterward, he held her in bed and listened, rubbing her back as she talked. On call that weekend, Tate rolled over in bed and checked his phone. “Have you got work tomorrow?” she whispered into his back. He could feel the tension in her body. “Yeah…”
She didn’t say anything but he felt her body shake with tears.
Tate is a friend of mine. Eventually, he and his girlfriend broke up and he told me this story. Even a few years later, he still felt guilty. “She was just so sad,” he said. “I feel like I could have done more to make her happy.”
Tate, like a number of men, feel it’s their job to make their partners happy. It’s nice to think of little things that make each other’s day, do thoughtful actions, and make each other laugh, but many people like Tate, feel responsible for their partner’s happiness.
Why we feel responsible
One reason is because it makes us look good. People who express guilt or regret — “I’m so sorry I have to go to work” — are better liked by others. One study shows this is because taking responsibility (even when it’s not your fault) shows empathy.
Taking responsibility and empathy are important, of course, but there’s also a risk of becoming over-responsible. You may not even be aware that you’ve become over-responsible for those around you.
“Like many dysfunctional beliefs, it often starts in childhood,” says Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen. Some of us grow up hearing statements like, “Feeding you kids is costing us a fortune.” or “Look how sad you’ve made your mother.”
Some of us learn in childhood to keep our parents happy — we become hyper-tuned to the moods of others and learn ways to “cheer people up” to avoid conflict or uncomfortable negative emotions. If you’re avoiding conflict or feeling guilty over things outside your control, it’s a sign you’re being over-responsible.
What toxic guilt looks like
The truth is none of us are responsible for the happiness of another person. We don’t have control over their moods.
This was a hard lesson for me to learn too. Like Tate, I felt responsible for cheering up the people around me. I was often surrounded by loved ones with mental illness and, having suffered depression myself, was scared of what would happen if I didn’t help them. I felt guilty when they were sad.
Feeling bad when you haven’t actually done anything wrong is called Toxic Guilt. Tate’s girlfriend sulked every time he had to go to work and it made him feel guilty. He felt responsible for her loneliness. But there’s nothing wrong with going to work — his guilt was toxic.
Taking responsibility for someone else’s happiness never works out long-term. In the end, you get exhausted by your efforts to constantly boost someone else’s mood. When all your efforts fail, you get frustrated.
What to do instead
Dealing with sadness
If your partner is sad, there’s nothing wrong with cheering them up. Just know it’s a short term fix.
A better approach may be to listen to why they’re sad, be a sounding board for them, hold them while they cry — we all have bad days. We don’t need to avoid sad emotions.
If they’re sad often, perhaps they need professional support to work through some issues. You’re don’t want to fill the role of solo rescuer— we all need more than one person supporting us in our lives and sometimes professional support is necessary. You haven’t failed in your role as a partner if you encourage them to get help. Saying: “this is more than I can handle” is setting good boundaries within your relationship and may save it long-term.
Dealing with toxic guilt
If you’re feeling guilty without good reason you may need to set some boundaries. Tate could have said, “I need to go to work because it pays for our rent and food. You need to find something to do during the day too.”
Tate’s girlfriend was very capable of spending her days looking for work, doing the gardening, or finding a hobby — perhaps even joining a group to meet people.
Tate recognized afterward that he could have talked to his and her family about the situation too. He didn’t need to handle it all on his own. Talking to someone else about your guilt can help you see what’s really going on.
It’s loving to be supportive and do thoughtful things for each other. It’s wonderful to make your partner smile. Sometimes, though, the most loving action is a tough one — expecting our partners to take responsibility for their own happiness.
This article was brought to you by PS I Love You. Relationships Now.