Rediscovering Love

How to identify behaviors that undermine love—and how to avoid drifting apart

"Yes" Doesn't Count If You Can't Say "No"

Risking open communication about differences in needs

Most people think of an ideal romantic relationship as a union of two inseparable beings forged into one heart, one mind, and one dream. If either partner has a conflicting desire, he or she too often does not express it. They consciously or unconsciously choose to protect the fantasy of perfect compatibility, but may not realize the limitations that are wedded to that decision.

Eventual conflicts are not as noticeable early when relationships are new. The joy of new discovery and lustful connection often eclipse any disagreements that might arise. Newly-in-love partners too often do not want to know anything about each other that could threaten the perfection they cherish. Both may choose to leave well enough alone even if the result is incomplete or inauthentic communication. In the void of unexpressed conflicts, the partners often want to maintain the illusion of a perfect match.

“He finishes my sentences before I even know what I’m going to say.”

“She anticipates what I want before I tell her.”

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“We agree on everything. It’s amazing.”

“It’s so easy to be together. We love all the same things.”

Sadly, those constructed realities of perfect compatibility cannot sustain over time. People cannot feel genuinely loved if their partners are not aware of the other’s core feelings and desires. They can only keep renewing their love if they can face their conflicts openly and work through them.

That requires that both partners are willing to follow these six principles:

  1. They are able to say what they need from their partners
  2. They know what they are able to offer
  3. They honestly share those thoughts and feelings
  4. They listen to their partner’s needs without becoming defensive
  5. They have or are willing to learn the skills to negotiate their differences
  6. They respect each other’s conflicting desires

To make these principles work, partners must be clear from the beginning of their relationship to set clear boundaries that they both agree to honor. Boundaries are like the borders between countries. They can be barriers to communication and cooperation, or viable interfaces for exchanging ideas and resources.

When beautifully used in intimate relationships, they are symbolic lines of demarcation that help partners understand their differences while they seek whatever ways are necessary to authentically connect. Only the acceptance of those known similarities and differences can keep partners truly validating their mutual needs.

Healthy boundaries should be fluid and openly susceptible to changes by either partner during any time in their relationship. They hopefully know or are willing to learn what is personally important to them and make every effort to share those thoughts with each other. By working together over time, they learn to quickly recognize when they are in agreement, when they need to negotiate, and when they must turn down a request that could destroy their personal integrity.  

What are Boundary Violations?

Whenever you give up what is most important to you in order to either get what you need, avoid abuse, or keep the peace, you are allowing your boundaries to be violated. Your partner may or may not know you are suppressing important desires, and may innocently believe that you are okay with things as they are. Or, your partner may be aware of the sacrifice, but prefer to think of it as your choice. That may be especially true if they cannot give you what you need, but are unwillingly to give up what they are getting.

You cannot hold your partner responsible for your cumulative resentment if you are not clear about who you are and what you want. If you have done your best to communicate clearly and your partner is still unwilling to compromise, you are putting your credibility on the line if you back down. To maintain your self-respect, you must be willing to hold your boundaries once you have made your stand.

It is only fair to also ask yourself if you knowingly or unknowingly violate your partner’s boundaries by taking advantage of a lack of clarity on his or her part. Some partners have a strong attachment to peace-at-any-price and will seemingly give in even when they feel internally ripped off by the deal. If so, you will likely end up paying the consequent emotional debt. Any behavior which results in a partner’s giving up sacred rights, or giving up the opportunity to negotiate, will backfire in time.

How to Set Your Own Boundaries

Recall your most important past relationships, including those from your childhood. Ask yourself which of those required you to compromise your personal integrity, and those in which you felt your boundaries were honored. Most of those relationships will have elements of both and knowing those variables will help you to choose better in the future.

Here are some exercises that will help:

Exercise #1

Make three lists. The first should include those relationships in which you felt self-respect, were honest, and still felt beloved. The second should include those in which you gave away some of your self-respect but still felt the relationship had merit. The third should include those relationships in which you compromised some important values for another’s approval, and deeply regretted those choices when those relationships ended.

After making all three lists, ask yourself if you would have done the relationship differently knowing then what you know now about yourself. Do not judge yourself negatively about past decisions. They are only for lessons. Unresolved remorse or self-castigation will only hurt you more.

It is human to compromise in the face of emotional attachments, or fear of losing what you depend upon. Compromise in itself is not the problem. It is when that choice is correlated with self-blackmail, martyrdom, or cumulative resentment that you are likely to hurt yourself, your partner, or the relationship.  

Exercise #2

Make three new lists with two columns next to each other on each one. The first list will have examples of behaviors that you simply cannot tolerate in your partner. The second will be examples of behaviors you can tolerate but want to negotiate for something in return. The last will be examples of what you can give your partner without any resentment. The more items you remember, the clearer your boundaries will be.

In the second column on each list, write down where you observed this behavior, and how it has affected your past relationships. For example, poor boundary relationships may have been modeled for you in childhood where one of your parents was perceived as getting everything he or she demanded, and the other gave in with resentment. If you have internalized one of these roles, you may play one of them out in your current relationships. If that particular example resonates, you might expand on it by asking yourself more explicit questions such as:

With which parent did you identify most often?

Have you been unconsciously attracted to boundary violators who are not interested in keeping caring reciprocal?

Have you withheld your own needs for fear you would lose the relationship if you expressed them?

Repeat the same pattern with other examples that affect you similarly.

Resetting Your Boundaries

You may find it difficult to change long-lasting patterns with your current partner, but he or she may actually welcome your efforts to become more authentic. Remember that your partner may not be aware of violating your boundaries. Outside of boundary violators who know what they are doing, most partners are likely unaware that they have been taking advantage of you. When you finally decide to be honest, they may feel embarrassed or angry that you had not been up front with them.

Some long-term partners already are aware that you have not been totally honest, but they may have been guilty of the same self-blackmail in other areas of your relationship and may be uncomfortable to broach the potentially difficult interaction. Though that may be the case, those partners may welcome bringing those behaviors to light if you are courageous enough to begin the process.

Unfortunately, some partners are not comfortable and may be unable to voice their own dishonesty and blame you for your past martyrdom. It’s important not to give up. If you can get past the initial barriers, the new honesty is the foundation for a much more successful long-term relationship and most partners will come around if they feel your sincerity.  

If you have made the decision to ask for authentic communication, the following steps may help:

1)      Tell your partner that you’ve been compromising your values to get what you’ve needed in the relationship, and haven’t trusted that you would be able to get what you want otherwise. Ask for his or her compassion and for the same honesty in return. This is not an easy task and will take time and mutual support, but If you both are willing to be accountable, it will be easier to learn true authenticity together. You must also both believe that the trust that comes from genuine openness will create a new kind of trust and will significantly enrich your relationship.

2)      Show your partner your lists: The behaviors you can no longer do, those that are negotiable, and those that you do not mind. Tell him or her where you learned to give up your own needs in the past and how you chose to do it again. Share about how your previous relationships were affected by those choices. Tell him or her that you will welcome reciprocal lists and are committed to offer the same openness and compassion in return.

3)      Tell your partner how sincere you are now in wanting to be a more authentic person in the relationship. Let him or her know that in the future you will only say “yes” when you mean it and will clarify what you need in return.  

4)      Ask your partner if he or she has felt that you have violated their boundaries and, if so, that you want to know when and how. That way you can both begin to trust the honest connections you still have and the ones you are going to create.

5)      Agree that both of you will watch for visible signs of slipping back into old behaviors. Help each other to stay authentic. Expedite the process of permanent change through working together, and do not allow rituals from the past to define your new future.

6)      As much as you’re able, especially if your partner is initially defensive, to hold on to being open and compassionate through this process, and ask your partner for the same in return if he or she begins to pull away. These are hard changes to make because each of you is likely to have new and sometimes distressing reactions to them. Keep in mind that the partners in withholding relationships that are based on incomplete truths or martyred acquiesces suffer silently, and do not usually stay in love over time.

Sometimes relationship partners do the opposite. They say “no” when they really want to say “yes.” They may be consciously or unconscious pushing their partners to put out more energy to prove that they care. This can be a dangerous risk because the other partner may not be aware that the turn-down is not serious, or feel too insecure to take the risk of rejection. Some people just don’t want to work that hard at breaking through, especially if the behavior is consistently practiced. Unless this behavior is part of a teasing that both understand and embrace, this kind of pretense is a game that is better not played.

The art of intimate diplomacy can be tricky, and always runs the risk of misunderstandings. It is difficult enough for love partners to know and understand each other when they are real and authentic. Trust comes from believing that what a partner says is what they mean, and that they are not holding back crucial information. Even if it is uncomfortable, intimate partners do better when they are connected through well-intentioned honesty.

Evaluating your Authenticity:

Here is a simple ten-item test that will help you decide whether you are honest with your partner about what you need, what you can give, and if you are building silent resentments. If you are not currently with a committed partner, score it for yourself while thinking of any important past relationship in which you behaved this way. There are many questions you could ask yourself in addition to these, but these will help you begin the journey.

 Score the test in the following way:

All of the time = 5

Often = 4

Occasionally = 3

Rarely = 2

Not ever = 1

When you desire something your partner will not want, might resent you for, or could feel distanced by, do you choose to stay silent? _____

Do you find yourself giving in to your partner desires even when you would rather not satisfy them? _____

When you do something for your partner that you would rather not, do you harbor resentment? _____

Do you feel comfortable telling your partner “no” if you think he or she will be disappointed or angry? _____

Are you aware of your sell-out as you are giving in, or do you deny your feelings until a later time? _____

Are you secure enough in your partner’s love that you are willing to openly share your conflicts with him or her? _____

Do you know of any areas in which your partner compromises his or her own integrity to please you? ____

Are you aware of why you are still saying “yes” when you really want to say “no?” _____

Do you feel that you get even with your partner in other ways after the fact? _____

Can you compromise your own integrity to maintain your attachments without blaming your partner? _____

Add up your scores.

Zero to Ten

This score range means you are already on your way to living in authenticity. You and your partner are lucky enough to know each other’s needs, negotiate them when necessary, and not coerce one another to do anything that will cost the relationship long-term

Eleven to Twenty

This score range means you are communicating authentically most of the time but should talk to each other about what areas may need work. You only have to discuss issues that are important to either one of you. You may have to talk them over to make sure you have covered all the bases and are in agreement.

Twenty-one to Thirty

This score range means you both may be hovering around what is to be shared and what is not. You may be making decisions in your own mind that would be best made between you. This position is okay to rest in if there are terrible pressures on the relationship from outside, but not a place you should stay.

Thirty-one to Forty

This score range means you are spending way too much time trying to solve your internal conflicts without your partner’s knowledge or cooperation. You may have accepted an unequal relationship based upon the fear that you could lose your partner if you were up front. If you have been withholding crucial information for a long time, your partner may have come to believe that you are comfortable. You may also be a person who was taught from early childhood to compromise rather than stand up for what you need. Ask yourself if you are feeling known and deeply cared for, or live in fear of being exposed and potentially exiled.

Forty-one to Fifty

This score range can mean that your relationship is based on significant fear of losing what you have, or not getting what you need, that you have essentially wiped yourself out to keep the peace. If you are good at your deceit, your partner may not even know how much you have given up. 

If you really are too afraid to challenge your relationship, then you must be certain you are not building deep resentments that can backfire on you or your partner later. Relationship partners who have no knowledge of your continuing sacrifice can become innocently exploitive or worse if they know what they are doing. In any case, if you feel you cannot change what you have created, please take better care of yourself in other relationships where you can be more honest.

Saying “yes” when you mean “no” can feel like the best decision in some situations, and is not always wrong. It is when it creates a long-term relationship of personal sacrifice that begets self-destructive resentment. That is not fair to you or your partners.

Seriously consider if these behaviors are a pattern for you, and what you would need to do to change it. Authenticity may be hard at first to learn, and it is certainly not an excuse for truth as a sword, but, done beautifully, is a part of every successful, long-term relationship.

Randi Gunther, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and marriage counselor practicing in Southern California.

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