What to do you when your success becomes a source of your partner’s stress

How do you regain balance in a relationship when imposter syndrome creeps in and one of you feels burdened by the other’s success?

Relationship Resilience

For a lot of couples, COVID marked a significant shift in how they interacted at home. Forced to work side by side and even be privy to each other’s Zoom meetings, we suddenly gained a profound awareness of our partners’ professional lives. We bore witness to their busyness, the level of respect they commanded from their colleagues, and their work-based vulnerabilities and strengths.

For Cassie, that was when her long-term relationship began to be impacted. She had been with her partner for over a decade and, for most of their professional lives, it had been she who had suffered with imposter syndrome and finding the right fit at work. When she joined a new company in late 2020, she really began to find her groove. Her confidence grew and she was beginning to feel the best at work that she ever had.

In contrast, her partner was at a crossroads and felt lacking in personal and professional confidence. While Cassie was, for the first time in her career, really thriving, her partner had just moved into a much more senior managerial role and was struggling with the transition.

“It wasn’t one specific instance that I can put it down to. It was that we both were in very different places, getting very different things from work,” she said. “Having struggled with the right fit with work up until that point, I was very sure about what I needed from my next role. So, when I got it, it felt like everything clicked into place. Whereas he had always done well at work and enjoyed it, moving into a more senior role meant he was beginning to experience imposter syndrome just as I was leaving it behind.”

With no commute or down time to give them space to decompress, their work life began to creep into their home life. There was nowhere to hide and Cassie’s partner’s dip in confidence soon became something they couldn’t ignore. The gap in their professional sense of selves became jarring.

Cassie began to feel like she couldn’t celebrate her professional wins. Not because her partner wasn’t happy for her but because each accomplishment served as a mirror reflecting his own perceived shortcomings. Her triumphs became triggers for areas where he felt he was lacking.

“In a healthy relationship, there’s a sense that it’s natural to celebrate each other’s successes. But sometimes, comparison can be the thief of joy,” notes Georgina Stumner, a counsellor who helps women understand what is holding them back from being happier and more confident.

“If we are struggling with our own confidence and sense of self-worth, then someone else’s success might amplify our own inner critic. This can leave us feeling frustrated and angry about our own shortcomings, and embarrassed and resentful towards others.

“Conversely, if we’re the one whose career is going well, then we might also struggle with this dynamic. We might feel as if we need to hide the evidence of our success, in order to avoid upsetting our partner. This can leave us feeling resentful, and can deepen any chasm in our relationship.”

Balancing act

To get past this relationship hurdle, communication is key. “There’s sometimes an assumption that if we are in a healthy, committed relationship, we will be so attuned to our partner that we will know exactly what they are thinking and feeling,” Georgina said. “But the reality is that none of us are mind-readers, and we shouldn’t expect this of each other.”

She recommends taking the time to think about what you want to get out of the conversation. “Figure out what you want to say and how you’d like to say it. Think about what you have noticed in their behaviour. Avoid making assumptions and creating your own narrative for what’s going on.”

She also advises choosing the right moment, while at the same time, not suppressing your feelings for so long that you risk blurting it out unintentionally at an inappropriate time or place. There’s nothing quite like being confronted with your shortcomings in the middle aisle at Lidl.

“Think carefully about when and where you plan to bring it up. It might be a quiet moment at home, or it might be when you are out in the car, or out walking. Try to create a non-threatening environment.”

Finally, Georgina said, be sure to share your motivation for bringing this up. If we are on the receiving end of this kind of conversation, some of us might misinterpret it as an accusation or an attack. So, it’s important to share the reasons why you’re bringing it up and emphasise the fact that you care and that you want to help.

Thankfully for Cassie, she and her partner were able to find their way back to each other. Having navigated this difficult phase, she now recognises that relationships are a constant work in progress – they will never be fully “fixed”, and there is no “all done” box to tick.

As for how to survive when your partner is requiring a lot of your emotional energy? She recommends leaning into your other relationships for support when your significant other doesn’t have the capacity to give it. Being tribal in nature, humans aren’t designed to have all our needs met by a single individual. Depending on one person entirely is a recipe for disappointment, and you are inevitably setting your partner up for failure.

Niamh Linehan
Niamh is a part-time writer and full-time foodie who also enjoys running, reading and relaxing – usually in that order. When she's not at her desk, she can be found sitting in one of London's newly opened restaurants enjoying small plates at big prices.

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