Suppose your partner came downstairs one morning and with a broad proud smile, said “I’ve got a very big present for you!” and handed you your old shoes and then waited earnestly for you to express gratitude for the gift. That would be weird wouldn’t it? They’re your shoes. It’s not a gift at all. Obviously there’s something wrong with your partner’s sense of give and take.
Or suppose that one day just as you’re getting ready to drive to work, you realize that your partner took your car without asking. When confronted about it, your partner is surprised, acting entitled to take your car anytime. You would sense your partner was unclear on the concept of give and take. I mean what part of give and take does your partner not understand?
Not the give and take actually, but rather the line across which the give and take occurs. You can’t tell who is being generous or appreciated, indulgent or accommodated without there being some basic sense of where the line is between your and their rights and property. Give and take is always relative to a norm, a convention about who owns what.
Think of how this plays out formally in pre-nuptial agreements, which establish the border between two partner’s contributions. They can be diverged from through give and take. One partner can decide to give the other partner something that is rightfully theirs to give, but the norm is established up front.
But realistically you can’t establish all the norms up front. Even couples with pre-nups end up negotiating norms about who will take out the garbage or whether the toilet seat gets left down or up. We build and adjust the lines as we go.
And how do we build and adjust the lines? Through the give and take itself. We rarely establish pre-nups, the equivalent of statutory law. Instead we use the common law approach, drawing the lines based on precedent. If each morning your partner makes a gift of your shoes to you and you say a delighted thank you, pretty soon the norm regarding your shoes will have shifted to where if you just reach in the closet and grab them without the grand presentation, your partner will feel as though you crossed a boundary. Likewise, if your partner takes your car one morning and you don’t raise a fuss over it, and so your partner does it again and again, pretty soon the boundary will have shifted toward the car being joint property.
Do you see the chicken and egg (or expectation) logic of this? Give and take is always in reference to a boundary that is established by the give and take. It’s expectation management where the expectations are being negotiated even while they are being relied upon as the standards. This sets up an inherent ambiguity: Was that trespass simply attributable to everyday give and take, or is my partner trying to shift the norm?
The question can make us anxious. After all, if it’s just give and take, you need to cultivate a let-it-slide attitude, but if it’s really an attempt to shift the boundary, you need to cultivate alertness. It’s hard to cultivate both an “attend” and “ignore” attitude at once. It’s taxing to have to keep on guessing which is the appropriate response. Taxing though it is, each of us is sometimes tempted to keep our partner guessing. If I’m not happy with where the boundary is drawn I might not want to be clear about whether I left the toilet seat up because I forgot my pledge to leave it down or because I’m really still vying for a standard whereby leaving it up is acceptable behavior. Still, keeping our partners guessing is going to erode their trust. They’ll come to see us as the source of anxiety.
In most relationships, most of the time this is not a problem. But you probably remember a time when you or your partner entered into a campaign to shift the norm and it became ambiguous whether the gestures involved were to be interpreted as the usual give and take or as fundamentally line-shifting. Even if you don’t remember a time like that in partnership, you probably remember it from your path to adulthood, where inevitably the line shifts, or else your mom would still be bringing you your shoes in the morning and tying them too.
Stable relationships are those in which the norms are fairly settled. You can tell because the give and take feels equal enough to both parties that they can attend to them minimally. The balance of reciprocal gives and takes actually stabilize and affirm the norms.
Unstable relationships are those in which you have got to stay on alert, debating and defending your opinion about whose shoes they are to give and whose car it is to take. The home starts to feel like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with the borders never settling down.
Good fences make good neighbors--free neighbors, free to relax, knowing where they’re free to roam. Think of how much freer you wield a crayon when you’re coloring in a stencil. It’s like that but with it also being OK to color over the line a little in each direction. After all, partnership puts you in a lot of contact. It’s not like going on one date. On one date you can be perfect. But sharing a bathroom every day for years, probably not.
I’m currently in a relationship where the lines have taken an unusually long time to settle down. It’s taxing to both of us, for reasons I’ve described in a couple of articles (Fungibility and Offanonda Yoga). Some will argue that the key is for me to exhibit greater generosity. There’s something to it, but I’m banking more on greater clarity. My partner and I are trying something I’ll call Post-nup inventorying. We’re disciplining ourselves to be more explicit about what we’ve agreed upon and what we haven’t. Like all couples, we’re building the boundaries as we go. Our post-nup agreements are a living document built by precedent accumulated day by day. But since ours have taken a while to settle, by now it’s worth getting explicit closure on certain persistent boundary questions. Did I just pledge to keep the toilet seat down? If I declare that I did, thereby adding this pledge to our post-nup agreement inventory, she’ll know without anxiety how to interpret the seat being down. It’s not up because I want to have permission to keep it up but because I forgot to put it down again. It’s part of the usual give and take. She is therefore free to remind me without having to re-launch the whole campaign to establish the boundary. I’m spared the whole campaign, and can give a quick give-and-take-appropriate apology, and move on. And both of us are spared the anxiety.
Knowing the constraints is very freeing.
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