Evolution of the Self

On the paradoxes of personality

Taking Your Partner for Granted: Its Pleasures—and Perils

Might it sometimes be a good thing to take your partner for granted?

Frankly, few things are more comforting than having a partner you can take for granted. On the other hand, there are potential—though generally hidden—dangers in being “blessed” with such a person: risks to the other person, the relationship, and ultimately to yourself. So what are the pros and cons of such a secure (seemingly immune) relationship?

Let’s start with the upside:

To feel assured about another person’s commitment to you can be profoundly soothing and sustaining. You might not want to admit it, either to yourself or the one so dedicated to your well-being, but having such a reliable source of support provides you with a strength or fortitude that you might not otherwise possess. Knowing that there’s always one person you can confidently depend on, who’s consistently in your corner, and who will be there for you when times are most trying, undeniably reduces the pressures in your life. Such a secure relationship makes your life less tense, more pleasant and predictable. In a word, easier. In various ways your significant other “anchors” you and offers you a stability quite possibly beyond anything you’d experienced earlier.

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Assuming that, despite whatever shortcomings your partner may have, you recognize just how much the relationship benefits you—that you truly appreciate how “special” she or he is to you—you’ll take great care to actively nurture them quite as much as they do you. In various concrete ways, you’ll take pains to show how much you value what they contribute to your welfare. Emotionally, mentally, and materially, you’ll fully “invest” in the relationship, which in turn will enhance and further strengthen the intimate, secure bond between you. Realizing their centrality in your life, you’ll demonstrate daily your love, affection, appreciation, and respect.

However illogical it may seem, as often as not this isn’t what happens. For although the many “gifts” you receive from your committed partner can inspire you to give the relationship that much more time and energy, your very conviction that you can comfortably take your partner for granted is perhaps just as likely (more likely?) to produce the opposite effect. And precisely because the relationship does feel so impregnable. In your “privileged” sense of security, you don’t fear losing it—as possibly you did during courtship when the relationship hadn’t yet become as certain, assured, or invulnerable as it seems now.

Which might explain why, back then, you felt compelled to devote greater time and attention to the other person than you may presently. Courtship, in the (mutual) effort to put a lock on what feels so promising, typically prompts a cornucopia of caring behaviors. On the contrary, marriage, where in a sense the relationship has already been sealed, typically doesn’t seem to require anything like the same effort. Our former “wooing” energy pretty much depleted, our relationship can evolve (devolve?) from the highly-valued romantic to the not-nearly-so-cherished domestic. And consequently, you may feel more motivated to invest your efforts elsewhere.

So, let’s look more closely at the downside of taking your partner for granted:

Obviously, something rather cynical about human nature is suggested by the fact that the phrase “taking for granted” is fraught with negative connotations. That’s why I purposely began this discussion by emphasizing the more favorable aspects of the expression. Unfortunately, the phenomenon is comparable to being the child of extremely wealthy parents. It’s challenging not to take for granted the fortune that, literally, you were born into. After all, how could you be expected to experience much appreciation, or gratitude, for all the advantages that circumstances have led you to accept as simply “due” you?

 Taking your partner for granted involves a similar dynamic. What enables each person to thrive in a committed union is a certain reciprocity. But getting core relational/intimacy needs met almost automatically may well incline you to become oblivious of such an obligation. So you’re less likely to acknowledge the other, through both words and behavior, for how much they enrich your life. And it’s all too easy to assume that such recognition—or reciprocation—isn’t necessary when the other person isn’t explicitly asking you to thank them, or to “return their favors” by spending more time addressing their own wants and needs.

Sadly, it may be that at some level all of us would choose to get more from our partners than we give them—that we’d actually prefer to get the best "relationship bargain” available. And this could be tied to our unconsciously striving to heal ancient wounds when, as a child, we didn’t feel unconditionally loved by our parents.

Needless to say, this empathic neglect of the other person raises some serious ethical questions. For it can be extremely tempting to take advantage of our nurturing other if they haven’t sufficiently asserted their need to feel more cared about, or at least to have their love and allegiance openly acknowledged. Still, consider that absent such recognition, the “deprived” partner is likely to get the message that we view our needs as more important, or more deserving, than theirs—even that, overall, we see them as inferior to us.

To be sure, if this is the case the self-esteem of the one taken advantage of is bound to take a hit. Regrettably, in many marriages the end result is that such a person experiences a loss of self-respect and positive self-regard generally. They may begin to view themselves as less worthy than they had prior to the relationship. And that would be the human cost of their staying (deferentially) in what finally must be judged as emotionally abusive to them. In a sense, their “bond” has become their “bind.”

Since we all need to feel appreciated for what we do for others, not receiving ample recognition can cause them distress and discouragement. They need to be assured that their words and deeds on the other’s behalf are truly meaningful—valued, and even treasured. And, of course (however secretly), they want to feel “prized” not simply for what they do but who they are.

They may not need to be “paid back” in kind, but they do need to feel that the other person is genuinely grateful for the vital role they play in their lives. And they can’t but hurt if they don’t feel listened to, taken seriously, or free to talk about whatever frustrations they themselves might harbor in the relationship. As they're considerate of their partner’s desires, they want to feel that we’re equally sensitive to theirs. In short, they need from us what, so committedly, they've given to us.

So whether or not our neglect of our partner’s needs is “benign,” its consequences are pretty much the same. Unreasonable expectations that they will do our bidding, no matter what and without any recompense, can hardly help but lead them to feel diminished. Routinely taken for granted, they’re bound to end up feeling used, exploited, cheated—even betrayed—since the tenor or tone of the relationship is hardly what they were led to expect during courtship. And their growing resentment and accompanying feelings of alienation can reach a point almost guaranteeing a break-up or divorce.

 Such a sequence of negative events is frequently shared with—or finally recognized by—the “emotional perpetrator” too late for any repair or rectification to take place. For now it’s become a matter of self-respect, personal dignity, pride, or integrity for the person taken advantage of to finally relinquish a relationship in which they’ve felt so hurt and belittled. The original courtship promise of love, compassion, and support has by this time long been broken. And their disenchanted (if not bitter) conclusion—namely, that they’ve sacrificed themselves at the alter of their partner’s ego—may no longer be reversible.

If both of you are guilty of taking the other person for granted, then obviously the two of you should take joint responsibility for not putting as much effort into nurturing each other as any good relationship demands . . . and begin—mutually—to make changes that each of you specifies would make you feel more cared about, appreciated, and respected. If the two of you have been focusing predominantly on personal needs, interests, and goals, it’s time to “re-prioritize.” Don't forget that marriage was never meant to keep you in a state of “I”—but to move you to a state of “We.”

 And, as has been said innumerable times, a strong, healthy relationship can be hard work. No matter how well matched you and your partner may be, you both need to put forth substantial effort to keep it vibrant and alive. For if you don’t, it will weaken and, over time, possibly die. Or become so de-valued to the one taken for granted that they’ll ultimately leave, realizing that the relationship has left them starved for the caring and acknowledgment that they—like all the rest of us— crave from our significant other.

To end with some suggestive quotations:

“Staying with someone who doesn’t appreciate you is like standing in quick sand, slowly sinking in sadness.” (Unknown);

“I was the one who was building you up while you were knocking me down.” (Unknown); and, saddest of all,

“Blessings brighten as they take their flight.” (Edward Young, 18th century English poet)

NOTE: Though I’ve chosen here to focus on couples, taking others for granted (with all its negative implications) can also apply to other relationships—such as employers coldheartedly exploiting their employees, an individual’s taking advantage of friends, acquaintances, and relatives, and so on.

NOTE 2: If this piece in any way “spoke” to you and you think it might to others as well, please consider sending them the link. Additionally, if you’d like to review other posts (relational and otherwise) that I’ve done for Psychology Today, click here.

© 2013 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D., who holds doctorates in English and Psychology, is a clinical psychologist and author of Paradoxical Strategies in Psychotherapy.

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