Giving Too Much
When You’re Giving Too Much: Helping Women Regain Equality in Their Relationship
Relationships mean sacrifice, compromise and negotiation. We all want our partners to be happy, and sometimes that means choosing their happiness over our own. Occasionally this entails making some life-altering decisions: do we move somewhere to follow his job or mine, do we stop working to raise the kids, do we raise the children as members of my religion or his, whose family members will we name in our will? However, for most of us, the day-to-day sacrifices in our relationship are much smaller. Maybe you agree to go along to a movie that you really don’t want to see. Maybe you give in and have what your partner wants for dinner, even if you hate chicken and dumplings. Maybe you don’t mention the papers your partner has left on the table and just pick them up yourself. What is the difference between compromise and giving too much.
Because you and your partner can’t always agree on everything, compromising, sacrificing and negotiating is going to be part of life. It’s something everyone does — the two of you do what you want one day and what he wants the next — it’s the kind of give-and-take that is normal within a healthy relationship. But what happens when you’re doing most of the give, and your partner is doing too much of the take? Sometimes one person in a relationship ends of making a lot more of those little sacrifices than the other, and those little sacrifices add up to become a serious power imbalance within the relationship. It’s an easy trap to fall into, because the decisions are so small that many of us hardly notice them, and the pattern of imbalance takes shape very gradually. In many cases, even the partner who ends up with all the clout in the relationship doesn’t realize that he is taking advantage of a loved one. However, as the imbalance becomes more and more pronounced, it becomes extremely emotionally detrimental to the partner who lacks control and can cause behavior changes in both partners. When the balance of your relationship is starting to go in just one person’s direction, it’s important to recognize the signs of giving too much and catch it early.
Signs and Symptoms of Giving Too Much
The biggest sign is that you feel uncomfortable or resentful. This is often the first hint that you have over-given. You have given more than you really can. Maybe you have offered to cook dinner when what you really needed to do was go to the gym and take care of yourself. Often you simply have that feeling of resentment, but you can’t quite figure out why because any “normal”, giving spouse would do the behavior.
Other times the signs and symptoms are more obvious, like a power imbalance often emerges in relationships over time. This in part happens as peoples roles become more defined within the relationship. This does not mean that your partner is being overly demanding or abusive! When a relationship goes from balanced to imbalanced, it is rarely because one partner is actively seeking dominance over the other, and the imbalance generally occurs as a result of the actions of both people. The problem is usually subtle, at least in the early stages, and it is quite possible that neither of you will recognize what is going on. However, while it is important not to blame your partner, this is a serious situation which can have devastating effects on your self-esteem and self-image, and it needs to be corrected as soon as possible. In order to start fixing the problem, you must be able to recognize the symptoms. Start by asking yourself these basic questions:
- How often do we do what I want when we go out? What my partner wants?
- Am I able to articulate my needs and desires? And when I do, does my partner respond to them?
- Do I feel that I get stuck with most of the bad chores? Can we switch the chores up? Or are we each happy with our assigned chores?
- Does my partner seem to regularly leave messes (dirty laundry, used dishes) lying around, under the assumption that I will clean them up? Do I? In what way do each of us put energy into the daily maintence of our relationship?
- How often do we spend time with my friends? With my partner’s friends? Alone?
- Does my partner ask questions to get input on what I want or want to do? Does he seem interested in my feedback to find out whether or not I enjoyed an activity? How open am I do actually sharing my real thoughts?
- Does my partner seem willing to hear about my interests and activities in an open-minded, understanding way? Does he seem to realize that my interests are every bit as important to me as his interests are to him, and treat them accordingly?
- Does my partner ignore me when I ask him to do things? Do I ignore his behavioral requests? What does communication look like?
- Does my partner sometimes poke fun at me in a way that he treats as joking, but I feel is genuinely hurtful? Does he do this in front of others? How do I respect his feelings?
- Does my partner automatically assume that his goals will take precedence over mine, without discussing it with me? What happens when I have a different perspective? How are issues resolved?
- When I have a problem, does my partner take me seriously? Does he address my problems in an understanding way, or see these problems as an intrusion on his life/free time? Do I take his issues seriously? How do I assert my needs, desires and wants?
- Have I spoken to my partner about the equality within our relationship? Do I find the thought of doing so to be difficult or uncomfortable? Has my partner shared his desires, dreams and wants with me? In what ways have we each compromised?
- When I bring up concerns about our relationship, does my partner accuse me of getting too worked up or overreacting? Does change occur? Are we actually responding to each other?
- Do we as a couple clearly devote more time and energy to my partner than myself? How do each of us balance our individual needs versus our need as a couple?
These are just a few sample questions you can ask yourself to determine if you give too much. Every relationship has a different dynamic, and some couples are comfortable in different types of ways. But if the answers to the above questions bother you or just don’t feel right, you owe it to yourself to do some self reflection. Remember that your partner is not trying to hurt you, he may just not know how you feel. Most partners are willing to work on the problem with you once they are aware of it, and this is often a very fixable situation. Keep in mind that once problems begin, the relationship will become steadily more unbalanced if left unchecked, so it is important to tackle this problem as soon as you notice it.
A Step in the Right Direction
Depending on the severity of giving too much, and your partner’s level of willingness to work with you, you may want to seek help from a relationship counselor. As an impartial third party, this person can help you discover and address not only how to develop a stronger voice, but also how you lost your voice. Fortunately, there are also steps you can take on your own to begin regaining a voice. Using these steps, you can make your partner aware of the problem and open up the lines of communication about the issue, so you can both tackle the problem together. The following are three of the earliest and easiest steps you can take to start moving in the right direction. These steps are SPEAK, act, and RESPOND:
SPEAK — Talk to your partner! This is the first and most important step because it both addresses the problem and establishes your desire to be heard and have your perspective valued. By saying “I have a problem with the way things are going right now, and I want us to change it together,” you assert yourself. You make it clear that you feel that your thoughts and emotions are valid and deserve your partner’s full attention and effort, and addressing your partner as an equal makes it much easier for him to start thinking of you as an equal. Remember that your partner may not be aware that you are unhappy, so avoid making any accusations or placing the blame, but it is equally important that you be firm and make sure he understands that this is something which needs to be addressed. Hopefully the first conversation will allow you to both explain how you see the situation, and start recognizing imbalances by comparing your impressions.
act — Do not validate your partner’s expectations of that you view the world the way he does. When there is an imbalance of power, often the person with less control unknowingly encourages it through their words and actions. If you clean up after your partner day after day and don’t say anything, it is only natural that he will start to assume you don’t have problem with this pattern. Be honest and say what you really think. Say things like, “I am not in the mood for chinese food. I’d really like to eat Indian food.” or, “You know that dirty dishes go in the dishwasher, please put them there.” You are not an employee trying to please a boss, you are an equal who has an important perspective. You should make it clear to your partner that you are happy to meet in the middle, but that he has to come halfway. Remember that this only does any good after step one, so that your partner knows how you feel. Don’t be pushy, but be firm and clear about what you want, and that you are serious about being treated as an equal.
RESPOND — When your partner says or does something that makes you feel submissive or inferior, note it right away. Sometimes the issue is you, and being afraid to use your voice. Other times it’s him, and his inability to hear another perspective. Like all bad habits, a pattern of giving too much is much easier to stop if acknowledge it as it is happening. By reacting to a specific incident, you make you and your partner more aware of what is happening. This could mean saying something like, “I have a different opinion” or “I am uncomfortable with the solution you are suggestiong” or, “When you ignore what I’m saying and brush me off, you’re saying that I am not as important in this relationship as you are — when you have a problem, I give you my complete attention, and I would expect you to do the same.” Again, this will only be effective after you have talked to your partner. And don’t forget that the reverse of this rule is true as well! When your partner does something considerate or respectful, make sure to let him know right away. Positive reinforcement is important if you want to create positive change, and this will help your partner recognize what you want.
SPEAK, act, and RESPOND are the three simplest steps that you can make in correcting your relationship, and when practiced daily they can make a big difference. SPEAK to your partner — maintain open channels of communication and use them regularly, so he knows where you stand and how you feel. The old adage goes that people will treat you the way you let them, so act like an equal and break negative patterns. And when your partner does something wrong, or something right, make sure to RESPOND immediately to help stop or reinforce that particular behavior. By having a clear goal for your relationship and using these steps to foster positive change, you and your partner can work together for a more balanced, and ultimately more mutually satisfying, relationship.