From Me-First to We-First

Beyond Relationship Conflict

How Being Entitled to Our Way - Gets in the Way

An unrecognized couples communication trap

 

It’s inevitable that individual differences lead to relationship disagreements. Ralph likes the dishes washed immediately after dinner; Alice prefers to leave them in order to be with the kids. By nature, two partners can’t help but approach things differently. 

In most societal interactions, disagreements are resolved by whoever has the recognized power in the relationship. Parents make the final call with their children. Bosses have the prerogative with employees. It’s the same between teachers and students, coaches and players, officers and members, etc.  

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However, romantic relationships aren’t like that. They have no inherent pecking order. So if neither partner has greater authority, what happens when they don’t see eye to eye? 

In our better moments, we treat our partner’s opinion as equal in importance to our own and negotiate collaboratively. But too often that’s not what happens. Instead, we claim we’re entitled to our preference, i.e. we should get our way, even without our partner’s buy-in, because our justification has greater weight and relevance. When Ralph and Alice disagree whether the dishes should get cleaned without delay, Ralph argues that a neat environment is the appropriate manner to keep house. Alice says family time is paramount. In one breath, each has made a case why their inclination has more merit. 

Why we feel entitled

Why do we feel entitled to our way? It’s not because we’re selfish or lack a principle of fairness. Entitlement is a natural expression of fundamental drives. Whenever something physiological or emotional goes off kilter, we spring into action. If blood-sugar levels drop, our system releases hormones that stimulate eating. Likewise, when we’re upset or stressed, our brain motivates us to act to restore safety and calm. These reflexes “feel right” to us. 

We not only know in our gut what to do, we believe we’re upholding time-honored standards of conduct. These include reciprocity (we’re owed in return for our effort), propriety (our way adheres to social norms) and efficiency (our way is effective). We’re convinced that what we prefer is indisputably correct. Something we want morphs into something we have a right to. We’re entitled.

Therein lies the relationship rub. When stressed or anxious, our mind prioritizes our perspective. But in asserting that our position is warranted, we invalidate our partner’s experience and undermine the very thing we most desire -- a respectful, loving bond.   

Here are the 15 most common entitlements we all claim in disagreements, though without necessarily realizing it. Learning about the entitlement process – and alternative strategies – can significantly diminish conflict and improve connection.

Entitlements based on being owed in return for our effort, sacrifice or generosity

When we give, we anticipate receiving something back in return. This principle of reciprocity is thought to have deep evolutionary roots. Ancestral human groups had sophisticated systems of sharing food and labor.

In contemporary relationships, reciprocity is a cornerstone of closeness, but it can also be the cause of strain, depending on how it’s used. When invoked as an entitlement, it’s troublesome. That occurs when we believe we’ve given more than our spouse, and then pronounce this disparity to indebt him/her to comply with our wishes.

There are three entitlements based on feeling owed:  

1.     “Because I have sacrificed.”  We keep track of our accumulated sacrifice and selectively mention it to extract a specific repayment. For example, “I gave up my career to raise the children, so you have to consent to my dream vacation.” We even contend that if we don’t get it, we’re being taken advantage of. 

A related version is “because I do more.” This entitlement is illustrated in the following dual-career marriage when they run out of milk. The husband states, “Since I work longer hours than you do, you should go to the market to get it.” The wife believes, “Since I work and also do the cooking, you should go.” Each has his/her own arbitrary tally system.  

2.     “Because I don’t ask for much.” This entitlement comes from deeming our self to be the more generous and accommodating partner. “I go along with your way most of the time, so when I ask for something, you should grant it.”   

3.     “Because I did something nice.” Expressing appreciation and doing favors can be unencumbered gifts or may come with strings attached. If the latter, we expect our partner to respond in kind. “I said ‘I love you’ twice this week. You have to do the same for me.”

Entitlements based on an issue being emotionally important                                                                      

Turning to our spouse for support when we feel anxious or stressed is foundational for relationships, but it too can become thorny if enacted as an entitlement. That’s the case when we declare that our feelings have top priority.

Entitlements 4 through 6 are based on having emotions our partner is obliged to accommodate in the manner we indicate.

4.     “Because I’m upset.” We assume that feeling upset or disgusted is grounds for our partner to consent to our plea. For example, “I’m scared about Whisker’s health, so you have to take her to the vet today.” If our partner is the source of our unease, we feel even more entitled to insist that they comply, as in “You know I get frightened if I don’t know where you are, so you must call me regularly.”

Sometimes we justify this stance because we’ve had some historical adversity and expect to be handled with special care, e.g. “You should never criticize me because my mother was so punitive.” 

5.     “Because I ‘need’ it.” Rephrasing a desire, even a pressing one, as a “need” is an expression of entitlement. After sleep and food, there’s not much that’s mandatory. Nevertheless, we voice the “need” word freely. For example, we may assert we “need sex three times weekly.”

6.     “Because I feel strongly.” Entitlement is claimed on how emphatically we feel, as in “This really matters to me!” or “We have to talk right now!” Those expressions, though, mean that our partner is supposed to assent, regardless of his/her own desires. 

Entitlements based on adhering to social standards

We are social creatures hardwired to follow societal and family customs. Conforming provides a sense of belonging.  

While adherence to cultural guidelines is a natural drive, it can aggravate conflict when presented as an entitlement. We fall into that trap when we allege that conventional norms are the final arbiters of disagreements. By asserting that abiding by social expectations trumps all, what’s uniquely important to each spouse gets ignored. And frankly, we selectively use that rationale when it suits us; no one obeys every mainstream standard. 

Entitlements 7 through 11 are based on the appeal to social norms.

7.     “Because of my gender.” Society encourages men and women to do things in certain ways, and our masculinity/ femininity can get rattled if not enacted. As such, we cite long-established sex-roles as entitlements for what we want. “I’m the man of the house so I should have the last word,” or “As a woman, I make better decisions about decor and social interactions.”  

8.      “Because I contribute more income.” Historically, being the breadwinner was a justification for husbands to wield control. Even in modern dual-income families, money still is used to gain the upper hand. “Since I make more money (or had more when we got together), then I have more say about our financial decisions.”

9.     “Because this is what people are supposed to do.” Whenever social acceptance feels at stake, we not only want to fit in, we want our spouse to conform as well. We lean on him/her to follow, “What I am doing is what anyone would do, and you should too.” 

10.  “Because of my heritage.” We loyally uphold our family’s customs in order to feel attached in the world. “My parents had elaborate holiday dinners, so we have to continue the tradition.”    

11.  “Because I was first.” One of the implicit social contracts is that being first has prerogatives. Teenagers famously assert a privilege to sit up front by being the earliest to shout, “I have shotgun.” In stores and restaurants, first come, first served. If we initiate planning our child’s birthday before our partner joins in, we claim the opportunity to finish it in our vision.

Entitlements based on being more knowledgeable, reasonable or effective

Marriage is a two-person team striving to stay on top of the demands of a family and household. It makes sense to have a spouse take the lead in tasks that they have more relevant knowledge and skill. But there needs to be agreement about this. Declaring the right to assume command because we “know what’s best” is merely a self-serving strategy. 

The last four entitlements are based on the contention that being more knowledgeable or reasonable gives greater weight to our viewpoint.

12.  “Because I’m more knowledgeable about this issue.” For example, “I spend more time raising our kids, so I know what action to take.” While such statements may contain an element of truth, they are founded on the entitlement that experience settles disputes.

13.   “Because my way is more efficient.” Being tidier or faster is avowed as an undeniably better position. “We should drive the freeway; your route through the countryside takes longer.”

14.  “Because I’m being more rational.” Having a rational reason is cited as superior to one based on emotion or personality quirks. For example, “Spending less money is the only practical choice.”

15.   “Because what I’m proposing is fair.” On our own, we weigh the two sides and decide what is equitable, e.g. “You should straighten up because I’m more bothered living in a messy house than you are in a neat one.” We allege that we are “being fair” and “that’s not too much to ask.”

Beyond entitlement: Reaching mutual agreements

Don’t get the wrong idea about personal preferences. Desires are important and fulfilling them is how we naturally ease distress and gain pleasure. However, wanting our way is not the same as being entitled to our way. Though we may feel a strong imperative how something should go, we must ensure that our spouse has equal input. If we impose our position, we deny the legitimacy of our partner’s experience and encroach upon his/her autonomy.

This is the crucial distinction between entitlements and agreements. Entitlements are unilateral. We award them to ourselves. By contrast, agreements are jointly consented, arrived at together. Researchers have confirmed that marriages flourish when both parties feel they have a voice in decisions. Faced with a choice of direction, it doesn’t matter whether they go left or right, as long as both partners concur in the selection.

In mutually valuing what both partners want, trust and security take root. Control is replaced with consideration. Self-focused responding is transformed into caring for one another.

Regrettably, our society’s mixed messages on the subject aren’t much help. Capitalism reveres self-interest as the ticket to success. Feminist philosophy exalts self-assertion. But when our own gratification (e.g. “I have a right to…”) is elevated above our partner’s, the lifeblood of the shared union gets drained.

So what can we do, once we resolve to be collaborative? Here are the keys:

·       Learn to tolerate frustration. The normal reaction when we don’t get our way is discomfort. Sitting with that feeling, rather than immediately acting to end it, enables us to connect with our partner.   

·       Make a request instead of demanding compliance. Ask once; if we get “no” for an answer, modify the request.

·       Remember that what we want is a personal preference – not a right. Inquire about our spouse’s wishes and put them on par with our own.

·       Be flexible and strive for compromises that are amenable to both parties.

Relationship conflicts don’t arise because our partner’s interests vary from our own; they stem from how we handle those dissimilarities. If we choose my-way, tensions will ensue. But if we take the bi-way, we build mutual respect and closeness. 

    

 

 

Russell B. Lemle, Ph.D., is an Associate Clinical Professor in psychiatry at UC San Francisco; Chief Psychologist San Francisco VA Medical Center; and Director, Couples Center of San Francisco.

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