Managing Feelings — 08 June 2007
Pleasing your partner need not be at your expense

Couples are encouraged to accommodate each other’s needs as much as possible. This sage recommendation work well when followed, however, for some people caring for the mate is equated with self-abandonment. So how does one balance pleasing the mate with maintaining his/her own emotional self-care?

Considering another person’s preferences ahead of one’s own is a skill people are taught since childhood. Youngsters have to be socialized to identify the rights and wishes of their playmates, because it is not an instinctual inclination. Deferring to others is a higher moral and decent conduct that conflicts with one’s natural self-preservation behavior for survival.

Early in love relationship consideration and caring is propelled by the temporary enmeshment couples create and by the desire to appear as a worthy mate. Once the relationship is established, the original “oneness” expands to include two distinctive individuals. Keeping the other’s needs foremost in one’s mind becomes taxing, if one’s own needs are not fully met.

Couples establish an unspoken style of need fulfillment, which they both follow. Some pairs act as though they have agreed that one person is more important and his or her wants are consistently honored first by both mates. An example of this arrangement is the stereotypical marriages of the 1950’s, where the husband was the partner whose ways prevailed. The wife commonly deferred to her husband’s decisions, usually without resentments or hurts. This model of interaction had societal support and was the accepted marital mode.

Today’s culture no longer endorses this type of relationship as the norm, but some couples still choose to practice this model in which the husband or the wife is the more consistently considered mate.

Other pairs ascribe to a caring model in which both defer their own needs to please the other both end up being frustrated, dissatisfied, or even resentful. A classical short story gives a good example of the deferring duos. It is a tale of a husband who after many years of marriage requested for just one time to have his favorite end cut of the meat. His wife surprisingly stated that she had always eaten that cut though it was her least favored part. She did so in deference to her husband who she believed also disliked it.
Clearly, this couple failed to communicate their preferences early in their relationship and both came up short. Deferring to each other without sufficient information is an unwise gesture.

Dr. Andrew Christensen and the late marriage researcher Dr. Neil Jacobson describe in their book Reconcilable Differences, the importance of caring for yourself through healthy communication: “Our genuine desire to protect our partners’ feelings may make us conceal our own…Although these loving acts of protection may insure peace in the short run, if extensive, they may create resentments in us that, ironically, generates more distress than had we not been so protective.”

Couples who communicate well avoid getting into these well intentioned yet frustrating predicaments. They negotiate, take turns, compromise and defer after both have voiced their wishes.

Being loving does not necessitate abandoning one’s needs. Please consider:

• How important to you is the issue at hand.
• You can only accommodate your partner’s preference if you do not anticipate future ill feelings.
• Remember that by agreeing you are a co-decider and you give up the right to later blame your partner if it does not turn out well.
• Any issue that evokes expected unhappiness, fear, pain, anger or even a temporary loss of self-esteem must be negotiated for the benefit of both of you.
• It is defeating to the relationship to agree to any option that benefits one mate and hurts the other, no matter how anxious you are to please your partner.
• Being agreeable does not mean being weak. Deferring or going along is an act of love provided that emotionally both partners are protected.
• Tell your partner how much you want to please him/her. If the choice is insignificant or comfortable to you honor your mate’s way. If you are uncomfortable tell your spouse your reasons and together explore new options that maximize both of your wishes.
• When you agree on your mutual decision – have each of you verbalize what you will do to make the experience a positive one.
• Do not keep score of how often you deferred or got your choice. Love relationships are not contests. Both of you get the trophy when you sensitively cooperate and accommodate each other.

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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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