The Burden of [Not] Being a Burden

Years ago, I attended a couples’ workshop with Stan Tatkin, the Founder of the Psychobiological Approach to Couples Therapy (PACT). During the workshop, Stan asked us to turn toward our partners, look them in the eye, and recite the words “I take you as my burden.” The room, which had over fifty couples, filled with giggles and a chorus of awkward voices repeating, “I take you as my burden.” Stan smiled and then asked us to reaffirm the vow, adding the words for the rest of my life. “I take you as my burden for the rest of my life.” It must have been over 15 minutes that we continued like this, with Stan coaching us to say things like, “I am sorry I am so difficult; you can stay mad at me forever.”

In hindsight, his intervention was brilliant. Burdensomeness, the notion that we can impose or be a burden, is not explicitly discussed in our culture (particularly where it concerns relationships). It’s not a feel-good kind of concept like harmony or independence. I’d even assert it flies smack in the face of the American way, that it’s very “un-cowboy.” But whether we acknowledge it or not, burdensomeness is embedded in relational expectations, infusing the ethos of partnership, sitting center-stage in traditional wedding vows, where we pledge to take one another for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and health.

Being a burden is inextricably connected to our humanness. When we fall short and let our partner down and spiral into a shame storm, deflecting and denying, suppressing and acquiescing, I suspect that what’s really transpiring is us unconsciously avoiding the impact of ourselves—our heaviness, our hardness—our burdensomeness. We fear rejection and the ramifications of being “too much,” so we diminish. It would seem a clever move; after all, hiding out or keeping still is a tactic employed by creatures great and small. Consider the octopus: shapeshifting, morphing from dappled cobalt blue to topaz to cloud-like waves of purple and red. Transforming its mantle into tentacled shells cobbled from coral and rock, disappearing behind black plumes of ink. Like the octopus, we know how to disappear, too.

Research shows that when we perceive ourselves as a burden, it comes at a cost; people who struggle with having high needs due to being elderly, mentally ill, or navigating physical illness are prone to withdrawal, depression, anxiety, and relationship burnout. It makes sense that we would avoid it. Etymologically speaking, burden is synonymous with impediment, encumbrance, and weight, none of which sounds fun or sexy. On the other hand, self-sufficiency, a highly prized commodity in our culture, is equated with strength, beauty, vitality, and stamina.

But I cannot help but wonder if burdensomeness—something as natural as toil, strife, and the inevitable bumps and breakdown of all we love—is the problem. I get stuck on our propensity to embrace burdens when they involve caring for an infant or paper training a mischievous puppy, both acts where the rewards outweigh the work. Youth after all, is abundant in cuddles, joy, and giggles—and so too is early love. A body turned decrepit, or a thirty-year marriage on its last legs, these things become lackluster.

In Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy (EFT), the partner who is overtly communicative, expansive, critical, and seemingly needy is called the Pursuer. The Pursuer often [by default] garners much of the attention, with the partner who leans towards conflict-avoidance or easygoingness—the Distancer—flying under the radar. “My biggest problem is my partner’s problems…Nothing I do is ever good enough.” the Distancer says. This replicates the couple’s dynamic: a predictable pattern where the Pursuer brings the majority of wants, complaints, and needs for the couple, while the Distancer believes they will forever come up short.

The irony is that the Distancer, in an attempt to avoid burdensomeness by erring on the side of stoicism, going it alone, not taking up space, and avoiding asserting themselves, unknowingly ends up being more trouble than if they risked direct communication. In other words, they end up being a burden in their attempt to thwart burdensomeness.

Because when one person is perpetually low maintenance, their partner becomes high maintenance by default. They become the person communicating every complaint, always advocating for more: More help, more dates, more sex, more conversations, more time, more therapy. Being the person who flags the majority of issues in a relationship is a burden, a burden incurred by proxy of a partner who avoids owning their burdensomeness.

My twenty-plus years as a couples therapist have taught me that the most challenging people often don’t recognize (and own) when they are hard. Or when they glimpse their difficultness, they collapse into a puddle of self-blame or shut down. Brené Brown, a leading researcher on shame resilience, describes these behaviors as strategies we use to offload hurt. She elaborates on them in her book Rising Strong. According to Brown, we:

Chandelier: Packing our hurt so far down we don’t know it’s there.

Stockpile: Keeping the tough stuff in as long as we can, saying we are fine when we are not, sucking it up, grinning, and bearing it until we inevitably blow.

Become High-Centered: Fearing that if we recognize our hurt or pain, we’ll get stuck—unable to move forward or backward, like a car straddling a curb, spinning our tires.

Numb: Blocking out emotional pain by using any diversion that distances us from underlying feelings lurking beneath the surface.

Bounce Hurt: Think deflecting. Think about using blame or avoidance to escape feeling vulnerable and keep others at a distance. Think of walking on eggshells because that is what happens to those closest to you when they sense you are not as okay as you would have them believe.

Do the “Umbridge”: Based on the saccharine sweet (and simultaneously vicious) character Dolores Umbridge in Harry Potter, the Umbridge refers to when our painful emotions are not integrated with our pleasant ones. People who tend towards this behavior will smile and say they are fine when they are not; they will go out of their way to communicate an air of okay-ness that directly contrasts with their internal world.

In Summary:

Here’s the thing: There’s simply no such thing as an easy human, and maybe being easy isn’t even what it’s cracked up to be. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not advocating for a chronic state of being disagreeable or difficult. But I like to imagine a world where we own our hardness and, even more importantly, express concern for its impact on our loved ones. In this world, we appreciate the merits of burdensomeness, generously extending ample amounts of compassion, humor, and kindness because we know that burdensomeness is a two-way street.

But the truth is that owning the ways we are a burden is complicated and can feel counterintuitive—admitting we’re difficult or that we messed up, apologizing for hurting a loved one for the zillionth time, involves flexing emotional muscles that long ago atrophied, or perhaps were never even there. Given that, here are some final thoughts on the benefits of showing up for love (and life) burden and all:

Being a burden eases loneliness. It sucks for one partner to feel like they’re the only person in the relationship messing up, having needs, complaining, and (sometimes) taking more than they can give. When you let your partner see your regrets or disappointments, you assume a more relational stance than someone who aims for perfection or never makes a peep.

Owning your burdensomeness enhances gratitude. More than being appreciated for a thoughtful gift, dinner out, or a well-placed compliment, I believe most of us long to be seen and appreciated for the sacrifices we make and the work we put in. None of us are easy, and nothing says thank you more than acknowledging what a pain in the ass we can be. Cultivating a practice of expressing gratitude to your partner for loving you “in spite” and thanking them for taking you “as their burden for the rest of […]” may be as sweet as love ever gets.

Being a burden paves the way for empathy. To know what another is feeling, you must first be able to recognize your own emotions. When you stockpile your hurts and disappointments, telling yourself (and your partner) you’re okay when you’re not, you unplug from essential feelings and parts of yourself. Research shows that when it comes to feelings, if we can’t name them, we can’t know them. Meaning if loneliness, anger, hopelessness, etc., are not accessible to you, you’re likely not accessible to your partner when they’re hurt and longing for empathy.

Lastly, when you cease being avoidant and assume a more active, engaged role in your relationship, you share the heavy lifting and give your partner a break. This allows them to take on different roles that require flexing other emotional muscles, including humility, remorse, self-reflection, and mindfulness. It’s all good and necessary stuff.

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If you’ve liked what you’ve read, couple it with John Gottman and Brené Brown on Running Headlong into Heartbreak or What it Means to Function Securely When Your Partner Won’t.

Have a question? Contact me via VideoAsk, where you can leave me a text, audio, or video message HERE and contribute to future musings concerning my Letter(s) to a Couple in Crisis.

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