I learned quite by accident that the phrase I crave the most – and distrust the most – is “I support you.”
Experience has suggested strongly that when people (partners in particular) say this, they don’t actually mean it. They’re trying to say that they approve of your actions or position or decision, but that’s not support. That’s just approval.
So, what? It’s the same thing, right?
No, please gods, no. It’s not at all the same thing. Approval is thinking someone is pretty. Support is asking them out, building a relationship, getting married, having a family… See what I mean? It’s the difference between thought and action.
The frustrating thing for someone like myself who relies heavily on both support and approval is that it feels greedy to ask for both. When you’re already fighting an uphill battle with poor self esteem, asking for action on validation feels… dirty, maybe? Like an inconvenience? An imposition?
The further complicating factor is that we’re not often taught as kids what the difference is, and it’s definitely not demonstrated by the adults. I remember a lot of talk about “supporting each other” when I was growing up, but it equated to one party doing whatever they wanted regardless of consequence because the other person said they “supported it” when in fact they meant they approved of the idea. What followed was a lot of stress and resentment and anger.
Support has a few forms
The first thing that comes to mind for almost anyone when you say “support” is money, and while that’s not entirely wrong, it short-changes the concept. Yes, we support each other through application of cash. I get child support from my ex to pay for our mutual children. My husband, who makes far more than I do, supports our household by paying the majority of the bills. This is financial support, and while it’s vital and critical, that’s not the only way to
Emotional support is really what people are thinking of when they really mean “approval”. This is the cheerleader, the fans waving on the side line. If it’s the high-quality type, it’ll come with a lot of honest feedback on whatever it is that we’re trying to accomplish. Blind support without care for what the person is actually accomplishing is really enabling. Enabling, in this context, means to show approval regardless the result or behavior is healthy, productive, or legitimate. It’s the “whatever you want, honey” response, and it’s demeaning at best and dangerous at worst.
I think what most people are asking from their partners when they ask for help is practical support. For someone like me, a writer and artist, this would mean things like watching the kids so that I can go to a conference or meeting. It would mean putting away the dishes and helping out with the chores so that I can meet a daily word-count goal. It would mean sitting down and talking about what those goals and milestones would be, and working together to meet them.
Practical support is the Holy Grail for creative types. It’s the most needed and least understood form, but it’s vital.
DIY has its pros, but mostly cons
Wouldn’t it be super-duper (to our partners) if we could just handle all this stuff on our own? To be fair, a lot of creatives types do. On the down side, that means that they end up doing double-duty in all things around the house and relationship. They take care of normal routine stuff in addition to trying to carve out time for their own creative expression. No small portion of the time, this leads to a condition of “singleness”, either through breaking up or separating emotionally from their partner within the relationship.
Think about this, though: If we were going to be committed to supporting our expression and creation all on our own, what would be the benefit of a relationship? Sure, sex is great and all, but that doesn’t get the painting finished. (Okay, maybe sometimes it does, but that’s a very weird method and supporting art probably isn’t an issue there.) This statement is not meant to be scary, but I do want to point out the value of what support means to the creative types and what the price might be of not being supportive.
Sure, we can do it on our own, but it costs. We will arrange our lives around our creative needs, and if you’re not down with that – if you’re not going to make room and actively help – then there’s not going to be room for you, too. It sucks, but asking a creative person to just kinda not create – or actively interfering with their creation process – is saying that you really don’t care about their needs or wants or desires. And fuck that. We have a whole society marginalizing acts of creation, we don’t need it from our personal lives as well.
Say what you mean, mean what you say.
If you “support your partner” in their endeavor, make a plan. Be specific. If you merely approve of them doing the thing, say so. If they come back and actively ask you for specific types of help, know that they’re asking for a bigger commitment from you. Before you groan and roll your eyes and think about how much you don’t want to take a turn doing dishes or folding laundry, know that that kind of request comes from a place of trust.
That’s the big deal, in the end. Support is something you give – and receive – with someone you trust to have your back. It’s making sure your husband gets up on time to run before work because he’s training for a marathon. That’s not enabling him, that’s actually being supportive. It is not making sure that the vodka is in the freezer before you leave for work because your boyfriend likes his martinis as soon as he walks in the door at the end of the day – that’s enabling. It’s paying a little more to get your girlfriend the fancy art supplies for Valentine’s Day instead of chocolates or a piece of jewelry she’ll never wear. Most importantly, it’s actively thinking to yourself, “What can I do to help my partner meet their goals?”
And to you creative types: You also need to take some responsibility and share your goals and dreams with your partner. If you don’t, ask yourself what you’re afraid of. If they reject your ideas altogether (assuming those ideas have merit and/or you want to do them), it might be time to get a new partner. I’ll wager, though, that if they love you – if they want to learn to build an amazing relationship – they’ll do what they can to help.
This in the context of creativity because that’s my bag, baby, but the principles apply to just about anything. Want to lose weight? Trying to learn French? Building an application? State your needs, be excellent to each other.
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