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We’re All Restaurants: Treating Emotional Responsibility Like Allergies

In order to understand healthy emotional responsibility, I’ve come to adopt the attitude of treating one’s own emotions & the emotions of others, like allergies.

Photo by Brittany Colette on Unsplash

In any relationship: be it with lovers, friends, family or colleagues, there’s often a question around emotional responsibility. In dealing with one’s own and others emotions, what is reasonable & responsible behaviour? What am I supposed to take care of, what should I share and what should I expect from others? What behaviour should I promote, what should I tolerate and what should I avoid? When should I listen to my own emotions and act on it and when should I take a step back?

These questions are particularly relevant in romantic relationships, where there’s many different forms of advice: from blogs, books, therapists, forums, your friends, your family.

The advice differs. A lot.

Emotional Contagion

For example, for some, in romantic relationships, there’s the expectation that the commitment in being together includes accepting the other & their emotions fully. You become one person. Secrets shared with one person, the other can know.

For example, when your partner is frustrated from an event at work, comes home, we should drop what we are doing, and be there to help listen and console them. We do this, because, as we understand it, our partner will do the same for us. There’s an expectation that we MUST without question be there for our partners.

This can be problematic if it creates an expectation and a normalisation that the partner owes it to the other partner. It neglects separating the individuals and the understanding that they are full and whole people themselves, first. This is potentially toxic if the one partner thrives on being a soother. This then becomes co-dependent: in desiring intimacy, the couple perpetuates negative behaviours of the other (sometimes completely unconsciously). The one partner thus becomes accustomed to requiring the other partner to be there for them to handle their own emotions. They are then more likely to unlearn being able to handle themselves on their own and the soother, desiring intimacy in exchange, is at beck and call, and thus over time loses their agency & control.

Emotional Absence

On the other extreme, however, is the attitude that we shouldn’t burden our partners with our emotions. We have to take control. It is our emotions, after all.

When we feel overwhelmed from a bad day at work, we should go run it off and not rope our partner into a problem and emotion that’s not theirs. This sounds meaningful in building healthy emotional boundaries and responsibilities, but if taken too far, it produces its own sets of problems.

When we don’t share our own emotions, it creates a communication vacuum. We aren’t telepathic. We don’t and can’t understand what’s going on in our partner’s hearts if they don’t talk to us. In not sharing our emotions, we run the risk of being out of tune with the other, resulting in miscommunication & arguments. Under the guise of: “I’m taking care of myself, so should you”, people sometimes hide behind this veil because they do not know, understand or want to deal with their own emotions or the emotions of others.

We are social animals, after all. Although it’s sometimes cathartic to talk to your plants or cats, we wish to share our lives with others. Not sharing any emotions of it under the principle of ownership, neglects the value of connecting with others.

So, how do we find the middle ground? How do we maintain healthy emotions relationships, whilst understanding our human desire to not keep our emotions to ourselves?

We already know how to do it, but we’ve been applying it in other facet of our life: allergies.

Dealing With Allergies

My girlfriend is celiac. When she consumes even a very tiny amount of gluten, she becomes bed-ridden with pain. We’ve learned to manage this.

When we live together, I’m not expected to be gluten-free. When I want some toast, I will make it, but will ensure that any crumbs don’t wildly fling around the kitchen where she might encounter it. Some days we make food together, in which case it is gluten-free (curries are usually a favourite). In order to reduce the likelihood of cross-contamination, we keep the gluten on the lower racks in the fridge (so that crumbs don’t fall into a salad for example). In some circumstances, I buy extra cutlery, just to be totally safe. Additionally, cross-contamination can occur when I’ve eaten gluten and then and then kiss her. So, before I kiss her, after I’ve had gluten, I just go brush my teeth (yay, for good dental hygiene). She knows and trusts me that I will ensure that I keep tabs. Sometimes, she will double check.

In order for this to work, she needed to tell me that she is celiac. She had to tell me before our first kiss. She is aware of her allergy and responsibility. I would not have known otherwise, unless she told me. It’s not my responsibility to ensure everything is safe for her, but appreciates it if I help (eg, ensuring my kitchen is safe). I’m also not expected to not eat gluten. Ultimately it is always my girlfriend’s responsibility to double and triple check, but because she trusts and knows I can help her (where I can), she doesn’t have to ask or live with extra anxiety. It’s not my responsibility to help, but she has a choice to date someone who is, or who isn’t going to help her. If I’m going to be negligent with gluten in the kitchen or I’m going to kiss her without her double checking, it’s not going to be an easy relationship. It will be taxing. Regardless, I still have full agency. I’m not required to help, but I do it because I can. I like pasta, I like kissing her. Everyone wins.

Similarly when she goes to a restaurant, it’s her responsibility to make sure the restaurant offers gluten-free food & that they are aware of it. If it doesn’t offer gluten-free food, and one tries to get them to do so, it’s not unreasonable to expect them to screw up. If one is then mad that a restaurant not usually capable of serving gluten-free food just offered up a cross-contaminated dish, one has to wonder whether one just asked a vegan restaurant to serve up meat. If it offers gluten-free food, even then, it’s important to notify them, even when the expectations are clear that it would be okay & fine.

Emotions & Allergies

How we respond emotionally is often out of our control. Our childhood and other formative experiences usually determine quite a decent amount how we react. If we treat them like our own allergic responses (good and bad), we can better understand ourselves, better understand others and hopefully find partners that match. Reframing it makes us not take them as the truth.

The first part is the biggest hurdle: we first need to understand our own emotions and how we react. Usually, many allergic responses are pretty noticeable (one can’t exactly dismiss an anaphylactic reaction). In some circumstances though, some allergies and insensitivities are harder to pinpoint. For example, some celiacs are asymptomatic. They might go through their whole life feeling weak and not absorbing necessary nutrition, thinking it is just normal to feel weak. Sometimes it takes time to do diagnostics to discover if our body is suffering from ailments. It’s not always straightforward and thus we trust experts to help us uncover it. Some emotions have clear triggers, and are understandable. However, a lot more emotions aren’t. Like an undiagnosed allergy, our emotional response, we might ourselves regard as normal. We might not be aware to the extent that we might be reacting differently. We just FEEL, accepting that what we are feeling are what is supposed to happen and thus we act on it accordingly. If we become angry, we accept the anger and lash out. We rarely question our emotional responses and how we react to them.

So, the first part is usually to introspect on our emotions: to not just accept them. To not just heed them as the truth. We might be right, and our responses might be warranted, but that too has to be questioned, if only to arrive at the same place you started. Sometimes we look through the menu for another time to ensure that we really do want the pork tacos.

Some allergies we luckily shrug off as we grow older. Similarly, we can learn to shrug off certain emotional responses and reactions. We can learn. We can change. Some might be easier, once we shine a lot on them, whilst others might require extensive therapy. However, there are certain emotional responses, like certain allergies, that are with us for life. In that case, it is something we have to understand, and something we have to manage.

When Allergies Affect Others

Many allergies are manageable, even for those around them. However, for some there are allergies, unfortunately, that are life-threatening and requires habitual changes in people related to them.

For example, living with someone with a nut allergy is very serious. In this relationship, it will be very hard for the partner to keep eating nuts without it becoming detrimental to the relationship.

So how do you prevent a kiss reaction? Research shows that with peanuts, at least, a wait of 4½ to five hours between the non-allergic partner eating the food and kissing helps, as does that partner having another meal in between and vigorously brushing his or her teeth. [via Allergic Living [whose site is currently compromised]

This unfortunately means that because of circumstances that can’t change, the other partner unfortunately has to make a trade-off. If they love nuts a lot and find it really important part of what makes them happy & fulfilled, they have the full right to not give up their desire for nuts. In that case, however, the relationship just won’t work.

With our emotions, if there are some that we can’t change, and our partner finds it hard to deal with, then the reality is that the relationship won’t work. Forcing it either way won’t last.

In relationships, this is myriad. We respond differently to events. We weigh different moral vectors differently. A small thing for one partner, might be an emotional allergy for the other.

Dealing With Emotions In Relationships

To that end, our emotions are like allergies. It is ultimately our responsibility, because we can’t accept that others would just *know*. If we are aware of our emotions, we can in a healthy manner explain that to others.

The answer to the original question of emotional responsibility is thus: own your emotions, understand your response and then understand how it will affect others. To be human is to share. We want to share our sadness & happiness. But we can only do that effectively if we know our own emotions and how we respond. Learning and understanding what we can, and can’t or won’t change is key. Learning and understanding how to deal with a partner’s emotional allergies is equally important. That way you can keep your kitchen gluten-free for them at very little extra effort.

To put differently:

Each of us a restaurant that naturally aims to serve the dishes we grew up with & grew to love. We do not serve the dishes that made our stomachs churn. Our menus have been crafted by years of eating with others: our parents, our friends, our colleagues, our lovers. Each menu is as unique as us.

When we meet others, it is our responsibility to learn & then be forthcoming about our emotional menu. We need humility to accept the menus of others, and to help where we can. We should extend our capacity to learn about the wonderful emotional cuisines existing all over the world.

That way we can avoid triggering our own allergies and the allergies of others.

Now, I’m hungry.