As humans, we are most fulfilled when we are able to receive and give support. However, quite a few of us are in lopsided relationships—we either receive a lot of support or give a lot, and don’t do very well balancing the two. If you constantly give support to others at your own expense, eventually this imbalance will negatively impact your life. Either you or the other unsupported members of your circle will begin to feel neglected. Maybe you receive recognition for being selfless and this is now your “normal” way of behaving. But the very word selfless should send up warning signals; paying less attention to ourselves and more attention to others puts us in a poor position to support others.
It may be that you are naturally “a giver” or that, through giving, you earned praise when you were growing up—“Oh, he’s so helpful,” or “She always thinks about others first. She’s so kind.” Certainly these traits are welcome, but not to the exclusion of one’s self. Remember: You should also receive support when you need it, and if you’re not, it’s time to examine why and start to rebalance the situation.
It is perfectly normal to do everything for your children when they are babies or toddlers. However, as they grow older, it’s important to adjust this situation and encourage them to flourish and do things for themselves. So if you still run around after children who are 15, 16, or 17 years old, or drop your leisure pursuits at a moment’s notice to fetch or carry for them, the relationship is imbalanced.
The same is true of a friendship or partnership. If your friend or partner is going through a particularly stressful period, of course you want to support them. You may even give up some of your own time, pursuits, or desires in order to do so. But this will not be sustainable long-term, and as they get back on their feet, you need to return to your own routines. It is important that you do not give up everything in your life, regardless of how needful the person you want to support is. If you do, there will be no “normal” life to return to—you will have given it up. Meanwhile, the person you supported will no longer need your support and may happily return to their routine, leaving you flat. By all means, support someone else, but not at too high a cost to yourself or you may find yourself in a parasitical relationship that cannot be sustained.
The second type of support relationship is one where you constantly seek support. Maybe you grew up with parents who did everything for you and so you are used to other people running around after you. You need to realize that in order to function as an adult, you must be able to do the majority of your living and working tasks yourself. It is perfectly reasonable to ask for help if you feel out of your depth, but don’t hand over the whole task or responsibility to another person, no matter how much you’re struggling. When you do this, you disenfranchise yourself—and you learn nothing. Get the other person to show you what they would do in the situation, and then gradually take over the task yourself.
This will be hard if you have been encouraged to be “needy,” and had too much done for you. Remember that the whole time you are being “supported” by another person, you are not truly autonomous and will never be in complete control of your life. In a partnership, this control is something that is sacrificed to a certain extent because there are two of you involved. In a healthy relationship, this is negotiated, usually to the benefit of both partners, not at the expense of one.
As is so often is the case, balance is key. In any long-term relationship, there is give and take: At certain points, one person’s needs will dominate, but in a normal relationship the pendulum will swing back the other way and the supported will become the supporter. If this does not happen, the relationship changes to an unsustainable parasite-and-host situation. You need to watch out for this in order to support yourself and your partner, and to keep your relationship healthy.