When, paradoxically, selfishness meets selflessness.
Initially, you might get what you most crave from your relationship by aggressively championing your needs ahead of your partner’s. Longer-term, though, regularly prioritizing your preferences is virtually guaranteed to backfire.
Adopting such an egoistic, ultimately self-sabotaging mindset—despite it rarely being that conscious—results in both you and your partner ending up frustrated and unfulfilled. Ultimately, the only way for both you and your relationship to triumph over its challenges is to value equally both your wants and needs and those of your partner.
And the irony here is that doing so, while it might seem like compromising or giving in, is what will best gratify your personal interests. This is why I’ve adopted the phrase “having it both ways.”
If you grew up with parents who were regularly critical of or emotionally unavailable to you, you likely experienced your attachment bond to them as tenuous. And that prompted you to develop a worrisome sense of insecurity. Consequently, you felt obliged to do whatever you could to decrease your discomfiting feelings of anxiety.
One common adaptation is to administer to their needs while suppressing your own. For only when you did things for them or responded sympathetically when (inappropriately) they confided in you their relational frustrations with their spouse (your other parent) did they offer you favorable attention.
In short, you could only feel safely connected to them when it was you who took care of them.
But once the practice of setting aside your needs to focus on your caretakers’ becomes firmly established, this self-sacrificial pattern tends to overgeneralize and can last a lifetime.
And such a demeaning habit can leave you feeling sorely deprived, though having for so long neglected your fundamental interpersonal needs, you may not even be able to identify the empty ache lurking deep inside you.
Yet whether you’re routinely deferring to the wants and needs of others or actively devoting yourself to pleasing them—that is, taking responsibility for their happiness as you neglect your own—that’s what was once adaptive for you.
So, without any later-day reassessment and remediation, whether on your own or with a skilled therapist, you’ll remain, however unconsciously, convinced that the safest way to operate in the world is to put yourself second. That, at least, will render you conditionally secure.
Nonetheless, for the adult you presently are, continuing to live this way is clearly maladaptive. A healthy relationship—one that’s not just (minimally) secure but harmonious, fun, and adventurous—necessitates your recognizing what’s vital to your fulfillment and being comfortable enough to request (vs. order) your partner to recognize this as well.
And unless you’ve settled for a particularly abhorrent mate (i.e., one “chosen” by your childish, survival-based, unconscious defenses), it’s probable that once you develop more advanced, compassionate communication skills, your partner will take your quite legitimate requests seriously, agreeable to offering you what your parents (given their own regrettably unmet childhood needs) never could.
At the other extreme is the partner whose childhood wants and needs were so well taken care of—or, frankly, over-indulged—that their patience never developed normally, such that they never learned how to adapt to the frustrations we’re all subject to.
As opposed to deferring to their partner’s desires, they demand their partner defer to theirs. They don’t serve their partner but dictatorially demand their partner serve them.
This exploitative pattern—and several other ultimately self-defeating ones—won’t be detailed here. Rather, let it simply be said that the partner getting the short end of the relational stick will eventually experience depression, resentment, anger, withdrawal, and alienation, leading to the non-nurturing death of whatever feelings of love and intimacy might otherwise have developed.
The rest of this post will describe what all relationships require if they’re to grow into a deeply caring union that’s—mutually—as close to ideal as our imperfect human nature allows.
Terrence Real’s Us: Getting Past You & Me to Build a More Loving Relationship (2022) has greatly influenced my thinking on how couples can (with or without counseling) co-create their most rewarding bond.
Earlier facets of this series of posts, parts 1 and 2, sought to expound on that seminal work’s chief points. This post will center on just what can be achieved by following Real’s steps for couples to effectively approach their differences—differences they’d just about given up on resolving.
And it all begins with the courage to be more vulnerable. For instead of safeguarding your vulnerability by projecting blame onto your partner for what you’re missing in the relationship, you’re admitting intensely personal needs that, should they fail to respond positively, will doubtless give them lopsided power over you. After all, you’re “exposing” yourself to them like never before.
What you hope, of course, is that in sharing your unmet needs and desires, they’ll better understand and feel greater sympathy for you—that they’ll see you in a more deserving, favorable light.
Here you’re not revealing your frustrations harshly through accusations, demands, anger, and hostility. Instead, you’re addressing them candidly, graciously, tactfully, and politely—absent any negative evaluations either of their behavior or character.
Plus, you’re respecting their boundaries and, perhaps spontaneously, offering them an affectional touch (or hug), expressing curiosity in—and, most important, validating—any differing viewpoint they may have. You’re not letting the unavoidable disparities between you get in the way of advancing your relational harmony. (See Part 2, which elaborates on these points much more fully.)
Sharing your concerns in this mild manner optimizes the chances that your partner will be receptive. Additionally, when you emphasize that you don’t see your needs as any more important than theirs and, too, later invite them to assert what they might like to get (or get more of) from you, you’re offering them the opportunity to share themselves at a level with which they previously may not have felt comfortable enough.
We end up here with an odd sort of interpersonal selfishness. Attending respectfully, lovingly, and wholeheartedly to your partner’s interests best serves your own. Such relational give-and-take actually enables you to take more, not less. And at the same time, it grants you—and probably your partner as well—the coveted relational security never accessible in your earlier family relationship.
If that’s not the greatest, most victorious win-win for any relationship, I can’t imagine what would be.
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