Attention — 28 November 2004
Is being social a problem in your relationship?

“Why do you always need so many other people, and frequently invite friends to join us for dinner, or plan the next party before this one is over?” he asked. “I am a friendly person and enjoy being with other people” she answered. “But what about us? We hardly spend anytime alone with just the two of us,” he lamented.

This couple represents two different views about social connection, safety, comfort and intimacy. She is social, he is interested in individual attention. Neither is right or wrong. Both perspectives are equally valid and must be mutually honored in relationships.

Many couples struggle with this (and other) social preferences.
What one partner sees as a measure of friendship, hospitality and inclusiveness may be viewed with dread by the other mate. Why are some of us so delighted to be social and others find it less than a desirable option?

Being social and spending a great amount of time with other people is probably an innate preference. Some spouses feel most comfortable in large groups, while others prefer a more intimate individual connection. It is about emotional safety, recognition and validation from the outside. This choice is related to your level of comfort with yourself, your social skills, your level of introversion/extroversion and your ease with high level stimulation, among other given personality traits.

The proclivity to be with several or many people may also be reinforced by early childhood experiences. For example, if you were raised in a large, close knit family, where you felt loved and secure, your natural inclination would be to try and recreate this experience later in life. Conversely, an unpleasant early experience with groups may modify the intensity of your desire for the company of others.

Likewise, if you had a close connection with one person in childhood that felt safe, you may grow to seek it in your relationship as well. Conversely, if your early connection with a parent was unsatisfactory, your natural desire may be hindered by this experience.

Most couples learn to accommodate each other’s need for personal attention and connection with other people by allocating time for both. For some couples it becomes a source of ongoing frustration and resentments.

Take for example, Suzanna and Robert.

Suzanna is a bubbly, verbal, outgoing and very social woman. She loves to entertain family and friends and prefers to have a crowd at their home every weekend. She also invites friends for dinner during the week and their home is a teenage hub for their children’s friends. Robert is a quiet, studious type who would prefer to spend most of his free time with Suzanna alone. He wants to please her and honor her needs for others, but finds the tumult overwhelming and displeasing. He yearns for more intimate time with his wife.

This couple struggles with their conflicting needs for privacy vs. community, quiet vs. noisy sounds, being happy in a crowd vs. being alone together. Though they understand each other’s desire for emotional comfort, their own needs feel extremely compromised by accepting the other partner’s choice.

Suzanna is also very spontaneous, ready to join friends at a moment’s notice. Robert prefers to be informed, well in advance, of social plans and is not receptive to joining any unplanned activities. Needless to say, Suzanna is frustrated at having her options curtailed and Robert feels slighted by his wife’s energy extended to others rather than to him.

When this couple sought help, they already knew how great their differences were in this area. What they needed to accept was that their preferences were not indicative of their love for each other. They also understood that neither was “right” or “wrong,” only different. They also knew that the compromises they had to make to stay together were going to be hard for both of them at times.

This couple did work out a plan in which he received more time alone with her, while she reduced her social intensity and sometimes had parties, which did not include him. This compromise honored both of their needs and kept their relationship intact. What helped them was their unquestioned devotion to each other and mutual determination to modify their behavior in deference to the needs of the other.

This is only one example in one area of differences between mates that was worked out with dignity and caring. Most conflicts can and should be dealt with in a similar manner toward a positive outcome for both partners.

If you are very different from your partner in your desire for social connection or any other trait, please consider:

•The differences in and of themselves, even to the extremes, are not a reason for ending a love relationship.
•Your priority has to be your connection with your partner, not the maximum fulfillment of your personal need.
•You selected your partner, in part, because he or she is unlike you and has certain qualities that you want to emulate.
•There is almost always a formula for compromise that honors both of your needs.
•The desire for individual connection and for relationships with others, are both present to varying degrees, in all people.
•You can bridge your differences by testing how far you can go to accommodate your beloved. He or she should act likewise.
•If you are profoundly unhappy after reaching and practicing the compromise, try negotiating another alternative. Explore several other options until you find a resolution that satisfies and enriches both of you.

November 28, 2004

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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