Ask A Helping Han #9: Emotional Imbalances in Romantic Relationships

Hi Han,

There is an issue I keep seeing pop up in the dating world. My view is torn, and I was hoping I could get your thoughtful perspective. I'll give you my personal example of this issue, but I see variants of it all the time.

Many years ago, I started dating someone casually. I was very clear that I wasn't interested in a serious relationship (mentioning it several times etc.), though I did care about them very much. It became clear very quickly that they were in love with me. This wasn't uncomfortable for me, and they didn't ask for more than I was willing to give, but I knew that we wanted different things and that, ultimately, they were going to get their heart broken.

I took the perspective that they were an adult and could make their own decisions. And if they chose to still be involved with me, despite knowing there was a difference in what we wanted, then that was their choice to make. I didn't want to make the decision to end the relationship "for their own good.”

Now, I'm not sure that approach was the right one to take. I still believe people should have self-determination, but in a situation where someone is "impaired" by strong emotion/self esteem issues etc., are they actually in a position to make that judgement themselves? I would never hook up with someone who was drunk, so why is it okay to do the same with someone "drunk on love"? Knowing that they were not going to get what they wanted, and that I essentially held all the power, was it my responsibility to stop things going on for as long as they did (or not start them at all)?

I'm caught between not wanting to make people's decisions for them, and not wanting to engage in behavior that I know will ultimately hurt someone. How do I be good here?


How To Be A Good Person


In my experience, it is really, really rare to find oneself in a relationship where one person does not have stronger feelings for their partner than the other. Ending up on the same page is one of those rare, amazing things that I swear feels like Hallelujah Chorus is playing in your head when it happens. More often than not, it seems like one person falls harder than the other, and it sets up a power dynamic where the partner who is less invested holds more of the power, because they have less to lose if things don’t work out. It’s just an uncomfortable truth of dating.

I don’t think that you did anything wrong in this situation. Autonomy is super important, and your partner knew what they were getting in to. Maybe they hoped your feelings would change, but you were up front about what you had to offer, and they had a choice as to whether they were content with accepting that or not.

I have definitely broken up with people who felt more for me than I did for them, and I stand by my decision to do so. However, I didn’t make that decision because I thought I knew better than they did what they needed or could handle—I did it because *I* was uncomfortable being the person who held more power in the relationship. I have been on the other side of the equation, and was honestly fairly okay with it most of the time. It hurt sometimes, sure, but overall I made the decision that I would rather be with the person than without, regardless of whether they loved me as much as I loved them.

What it comes down to is that we are the best people to decide for ourselves what we can or cannot handle in a relationship. If someone is okay with being in something fairly one-sided with you, your only responsibility is to not take advantage of that fact to manipulate them or hurt them on purpose. If you’re uncomfortable with the situation, absolutely get out—but it’s okay to acknowledge that that’s for yourself, not them. I sometimes think that we’re over-socialized to believe that it’s not okay to be selfish in a relationship. That’s fine to an extent, but it’s also important to remember that you’re allowed to have wants and needs. You don’t owe anyone a relationship, and you don’t owe anyone a breakup (unless they’re the one breaking up with you, obviously—then you absolutely have to respect their wishes).

You’re doing just fine. Don’t second guess yourself on this—we talk about love being an addiction, and in a way that’s true, but I don’t think it means a person is so impaired that they can’t make their own decisions. That veers dangerously close to “crime of passion” territory. Your partner was a consenting adult, and it was completely fine to let them make their own choices.

I’ve said it before, but every romantic relationship eventually ends in a breakup or a death. Jaded? Maybe. Accurate? Absolutely. Opening yourself up to someone means accepting the risk that comes with putting your heart on the line. Ultimately, it’s every person’s own choice whether that’s a risk they think is worth it.




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