When you are unhappy, I am unhappy…

Does this phrase sound familiar? Unfortunately, many couples relate to each other from this assumption. They might or even consider it a mutual commitment, namely, to mirror each other’s bad moods.

Is this a problem? Are joint happiness and shared suffering not the very core of true love? Apparently, many people somehow came to believe that they are. Consequently, their way of showing love is to take on their partner’s feeling, especially the partner’s bad feeling and suffering. Often, these feelings are in the range of stress, anxiety and depression.
The math of this is clear: if both parties take on their partner’s negative feeling, both partners are unhappy most of the time, or at least more time than they would be without doing that.

According to Wikipedia, Codependency is a behavioral condition in a relationship where one person enables another person’s addiction, poor mental health, immaturity, irresponsibility, or under-achievement. Among the core characteristics of codependency is an excessive reliance on other people for approval and a sense of identity.

The term Codependency is probably overused, and as a result not so well defined. Referring to someone as codependent, often evokes shame more than it helps to resolve anything. Taking on the unhappy feeling of a partner, enables them to disown their feeling and stay in a bad mood longer, much like the quote above from Wikipedia explains.

In his book True Love, Thick Nhat Hahn describes the four essential elements of True Love. The first of these elements is compassion, or in his words, the ability to say something like: “Dear one, I see that you are suffering and I am there for you.” That is indeed helpful and healing, and it does not imply that the compassionate party takes on the suffering of the other. Rather, they are willing to Be With their suffering beloved, not disappear into the partner’s difficult feelings and be overwhelmed by them.

The literal meaning of compassion is suffering together. Yet, as Hahn suggests, one does not need to suffer in order to relieve the suffering of another. On the contrary, some level of detachment is needed in order to be present to the pain of another person; if one wants to try to relieve a partner’s pain, one needs to be somewhat outside of it.

Two other important aspects of True Love mentioned in that book are Joy and Equanimity. True Love must be joyful and fun, most of the time. Hahn describes Equanimity as the ability to see the beloved as separate; Someone that can both come closer, and be distant. Someone with whom one shares deeply and be intimate sometimes, and at other times can become more remote. This is the complete opposite of codependency, where the partners must always be close, in fact too close to notice any differentiation.

Children start learning the skills of balancing separateness and togetherness around the age of three. The child holds tight to mom, then goes to play on their own for a while, then goes back to mom for a few minutes and so own. Gradually the distances between mom and child grow, and periods of being apart lengthen. In the process, the child learns relating to another person from a sense of a separate and independent self. In Psychological lingo this called Object constancy. The child learns to trust that mom is there and available for connection, even when she is not in direct proximity or even out of sight.

Most people did not have a perfect childhood where they could learn to trust that mom will be there. Learning to trust a partner more deeply can greatly enhance any relationship. Making many small promises and keeping them, is the only way to slowly build trust. These promises are as small as “I will be home for dinner at seven” or “after my shower I would like to sit with you and hear about your day.” Both partners need to risk making promises and trusting the promises of the other.

When one partner does not keep a promise, as inevitably will happen sometimes, it is essential to acknowledge the failure and talk about it. Such conversation includes an apology for the failure on one side, and willingness by the offended partner to believe that the promise was made sincerely and not broken malevolently. That is learning to forgive, which is not easy and takes practice. If such conversation does not happen, accounts are built up. These in turn lead to mistrust, cynicism, coldness, distancing and eventually a crisis in the relationship.

When you notice your partner in a bad mood, the first step is to take a moment to be aware of it and maybe think what the root cause might be. Are they not feeling well physically? Did something disappoint them? Are they stressed about some future event? Whatever it is, try to not take it personally. Their feeling or mood is not your fault, nor your responsibility to fix. When your partner is in a low mood, it can be useful to acknowledge to yourself that you are in a better mood.

Now you might be able to help. Tell your partner that you noticed they are not well. Ask if they want a cup of tea or a back rub or a conversation. You can gently guess what bothers them: “Do you have a headache?” “Are you concerned about…?” Try to be clear that these are sincere questions and not judgments or objective statements, because surely, you do not really know what causes their feelings. Whatever help you offer, try to do that completely freely and willingly, so that no resentment is built up later. Be open to hear both yes and no in response, and be ready to accept that your offer of help might not be helpful and might not change your partner’s mood.

Try to limit your interaction to questions, neutral observations and offers of help. If you do make a suggestion, keep it simple and be ready to stop after the first one is rejected. Remember, it is not your job to “fix” your partner’s mood.

Over time, such practice will bring much more joy into your relationship. The rhythm of moving closer and apart might become as natural as breathing, and gratitude will accompany each time of meeting and coming close, feeling lucky for having this person in your life.

Rumi’s poem Birdwings, is a great description of that movement between intimacy and distance, openness and private time alone:


Your grief for what you’ve lost lifts a mirror

up to where you’re bravely working.

Expecting the worst, you look, and instead,

here’s the joyful face you’ve been wanting to see.

Your hand opens and closes and opens and closes.

If it were always a fist or always stretched open,

you would be paralyzed.

Your deepest presence is in every small

contracting and expanding,

the two as beautifully balanced and coordinated

as birdwings.