I remember a long while back I was dating this guy who, shall we say, had a lot of problems. He was at least 50 pounds overweight (and it bothered him, not me), didn’t make enough money to pay his rent (or afford a real bed), complained endlessly about how I was the only person in the world who didn’t think he was funny (I’m sorry, I don’t get off on corny, knock-knock jokes) and seemed to have some weird issues with his mother. Don’t ask. I didn’t. He was like Eeyore 24/7 and even though I liked him, I didn’t like him that much.
When I was in the thick of it with Eeyore, I went to a friend seeking counsel about what I could possibly do to help this guy with all of his problems. What she said to me was revolutionary: “It’s not your problem.” She was right. It wasn’t. This bit of truth helped me realize that I was like a mule carrying this guy’s crap up a steep mountain. Was really I free to unload helping him with his resume, lending him $10 bucks so he could buy a six-pack, comforting him while he bemoaned his “floppy love handles” and listening to his stupid jokes? Yes, I was.
Eeyore and I broke up soon after that conversation and felt instantaneously lighter. But that doesn’t mean that it got any easier to know the difference between what was and wasn’t mine to worry about when I was in a relationship. I would argue that it’s one of the hardest boundaries to draw when you’re a couple — what’s your problem vs. what’s our problem. Because the more you care about the person, the more you want to best for them. That leaves you constantly toeing the line of should I say something about how he should get his cholesterol checked because he eats so much bacon or keep my mouth shut? Should I weigh in when he vents about work or nod and say something encouraging? There are no hard and fast rules for these things. It’s the Wild West of emotional intimacy. Below, I’ve cobbled together a few examples of what is and is not appropriate to carry on your back:
Not Your Problem: Bad moods, periods of funk or confusion. Take a walk or go in the other room while your partner sweats out his cranky tantrum alone. In return, you can only hope he will offer you the same courtesy when you’re in a foul one.
Your Problem: Severe anxiety, depression or mental illness. Unfortunately, if you see a future with this person, your going to have to be part of helping them get the professional help they need.
Not Your Problem: Student loan debt, credit card debt, not being able to pay bills because he spent his extra money on beer. He needs to cobble his own funds together to pay off his credit cards…or buy a roll of toilet paper. You’re not his mommy.
Your Problem: You own property together or have a joint bank account and your partner’s money mismanagement is going to destroy your credit. S.O.S. Do something FAST, like take over control of all the budgeting.
Not Your Problem: Your S.O. likes to smoke cigarettes when he drinks and eat bacon three times a day. He’ll quit when he’s ready to quit. In the meantime, it’s perfectly acceptable to make a show of how much kale you eat and request that he not to smoke in your presence.
Your Problem: A serious health diagnosis that will require your care taking. You’d better prepare yourself to be strong enough to be 100 percent there for your partner because he’s gonna need you.
Not Your Problem: The person you’re dating isn’t sure what they want to be when they grow up. Listen to them complain about their boss and encourage them to find the thing in life that they love.
Your Problem: Sadly,news of layoffs are more and more common these days. Be prepared to lend a helping hand in whatever way is most appropriate — whether it be offering to re-do a resume, helping with networking or providing a bed to crash on temporarily.
Not Your Problem: Almost none of your S.O.’s family dramas is your business. Stay out of the drama about how much your partner’s cousin and his aunt hate each other.
Your Problem: If there’s a death or tragedy in the family, you’re going to need to support the hell out of the person you love.
Not Your Problem: Your partner is undecided about getting married and having kids. If you’re not there yet, this is a perfectly acceptable stance on the matter that you have no obligation to delve into.
Your Problem: Your partner has told you specifically that they never want to get married and have kids and you know you do, like, tomorrow. It’s time to ask yourself the hard questions.
[Photo from Shutterstock]