How to support your partner when you don’t agree with them one bit

<span>If Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck can do it, so can you.</span><span>Photograph: bymuratdeniz/Getty Images</span>
If Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck can do it, so can you.Photograph: bymuratdeniz/Getty Images
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How do you support your partner when you don’t agree with what they’re doing?

It’s a question I pondered while watching The Greatest Love Story Never Told, a documentary Jennifer Lopez released earlier this year. The film is a behind-the-scenes look at the making of This Is Me … Now: A Love Story, a visual album chronicling Lopez’s romantic history and her reunion with now husband Ben Affleck.

People in Lopez’s orbit – from her agent to former Monster-in-Law co-star Jane Fonda – discourage her from pursuing this expensive, self-funded passion project.

“It feels too much like you’re trying to prove something instead of just living it,” Fonda says.

Affleck expresses his own misgivings about the work he inspired. (The documentary’s title comes from a book of the couple’s emails and letters that Affleck compiled for Lopez as a Christmas present and had never intended to be made public.)

“Jen was really inspired by this experience, which is how artists do their work. I know as a writer and director, I certainly do those things,” he says in the film. “But things that are private, I’d always felt were sacred and special. Because, in part, they’re private. So that was a bit of an adjustment for me.”

Still, Affleck is by Lopez’s side throughout the film. He reviews scripts with her. He’s with her on set. He reassures her when she doubts herself.

Supporting your partner even though you disagree with them isn’t just for A-list celebrities. My partner, for instance, supported my doing something he didn’t like – watching this documentary – by going into the other room and putting on noise-canceling headphones.

But if you’re worried your partner is doing something especially risky or, in your view, misguided, what do you do?

I turned to couples therapists for some answers.

“Sometimes, we just need to put what the other person needs first,” says Nancy Lumb, a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist in California, adding that this should not come at the expense of one’s safety or wellbeing.

“When I’m working with couples, I call it ‘the three Cs,’” Lumb says. “Communication, compromise and championing.”


Address your concerns upfront

If your partner is doing something you don’t think is a good idea – like taking on more work when they’re already overburdened, or self-financing a $20m film – it’s important to be upfront, says Dr B Janet Hibbs, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Philadelphia.

If you let your concerns simmer, she warns, “you’re going to have resentment that builds”.

Hibbs recommends thinking through your concerns and labeling them clearly for your partner. Phrases like “I’m concerned for you – have you considered this?” and “My worry about this is that I may not meet your expectations” can help, she says.

Respectful communication is key, even when emotions run high, says Dr Caroline Daravi, a licensed clinical psychologist in California who is board-certified in couples and family psychology. “Using ‘I’ statements to express feelings and needs, actively listening to your partner’s perspective, and avoiding blaming or criticizing language” can help, she says.

Reflect on your beliefs

Lumb suggests asking yourself where your concerns are coming from.

“We have unconscious core beliefs about how things should be, or what’s safe for people, or how people will be perceived,” she says.

We have unconscious core beliefs about how things should be

Nancy Lumb

Consider whether your misgivings come from worry for your partner, or whether your partner’s actions are challenging your unconscious beliefs and expectations.

Once you’ve identified these beliefs, you can communicate them to your partner. But keep in mind that they may not feel the same way.

“Rather than trying to get the other person to change, we need to do our own work to be comfortable with something having an outcome that’s not great,” she says. “We have to respect the autonomy of that person, even though we’re a couple.”


Identify what you need in order to support your partner

Supporting someone doesn’t mean totally relinquishing your own needs. In fact, Hibbs says, it’s vital people consider what those might be.

For example, if your partner is taking on a new job that will require a lot more travel, consider what will make you feel better about seeing them less. Is it scheduling daily phone calls? More frequent date nights?

“Offer them help on your terms,” she says. “Have a clear understanding of what it’s going to take for both of you to feel OK about this project.”

Remember that relationships aren’t always 50/50

“Marriage is rarely equitable,” says Hibbs. Timing, personalities, preferences and fluctuating demands all make it so that one partner will have to sacrifice more than the other from time to time.

This isn’t a bad thing, Hibbs says, as long as both partners understand that this care will be reciprocated in the long run.

“There is a delicate and shifting balance of give and take that takes place within a relationship,” Hibbs says. “When it’s not fair and people feel exploited, used or taken for granted, it’s an opportunity to say: ‘We have to rebalance things.’”

Championing: learn about your partner’s dreams

Ultimately, partners can be each other’s greatest champions. But in order to do this, they must figure out what they’re trying to achieve, as individuals and as a couple.

According to the Gottman Institute, a research and training organization for couples therapy, research has shown that much relationship conflict comes from “unfulfilled dreams”.

You may not be able to directly help your partner achieve these dreams, and you may not share the dream yourself. But you can offer curiosity, empathy, emotional support and logistical support where possible.

In some cases, you just need to remember it’s not about you (even if “it” is an album, musical film and documentary based on you).

“Sometimes we just need to be there for them and take ourselves out of the equation for the moment,” says Lumb.