Rediscovering Love

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

When Your Partner Gives More Than You Can Return

How to restore the giving/receiving balance in a relationship

Unrequited love is a common human heartache. Few of us ever escape the grief and longing when we want our partners to love us as much as we love them. The plight of the rejected, forlorn lover has been well-explored throughout history.

Few people, however, have sympathy for the partner who is loved too much. To most others they seem to have little to complain about. Though they may agree outwardly that they are indeed fortunate, they silently can feel smothered and obligated. Buried in the over-giving of their devoted partners, they don’t feel the right to complain or entitled to the sympathy of others.

“You’re so lucky to have someone love you so much.”

“You mean you never have to ask for anything? She just thinks of it before you even know you need it, right?”

“He adores you, no matter what you do?”

“She’d change any plans she has, just to be with you?”

“He’s always at your side, even when you haven’t been there for him?”

“Doesn’t she ever get angry with you? What an incredible girlfriend! You’ve got nothing to complain about.”

These typical comments continue to reinforce the guilt that over-loved partners feel, already uncomfortable in the differences of devotion, need, or commitment that exist in the relationship. Though they may be grateful for the indulgence, they feel guilty for their inability to reciprocate in kind and fearful that they are incurring an invisible, non-payable debt. If the imbalance is not rectified, those emotions can turn into obligation and resentment.  

“When the phone rings, I’d better have a good reason to not answer it immediately or they’ll be problems later on. I really love her, but there is no acceptable way to decline. I’m in emotional debt and I’ll always be behind.”

“If I don’t text him back within a few minutes, he feels like I’m clearly stating my priorities and they’re not him. Sometimes, I really do have other things to do. I don’t want to hurt him, so I just make up excuses and hope they won’t hurt him. But, then, I’m not being honest either, and that’s even worse.”

“She had a dad who was never there for her. I hurt for her when she’s so sad, but I can’t go back and make it better. She’s the most important thing in the world to me, but I’m overloaded trying to remember all the things I better not do to just to keep her from hurting.”

“It’s amazing having a guy who always wants to make love, but I wish he wouldn’t get so hurt when I’m not in the mood. It’s not personal. I really love him, but I never get to initiate intimacy because he’s always there first. I feel totally desired and completely obligated at the same time.”

These partners are in conflict because they still love the person they’re with and enjoy the love they receive. Still attached to the positives of the relationship, they feel simultaneous self-blame and discomfort. They are torn between maintaining the relationship while stealing time away from it to take care of themselves.

Their most frequent strategy is to try to over-satisfy their partners in advance so they can attend to their other priorities without incurring challenge. Unfortunately, that can backfire. The fraudulently stepped-up availability can become the baseline for new expectations.

“I feel like a goddamn drug pusher. The more I give, the more she expects. I almost have to ignore her for a while so she expects less. Then I feel like a jerk, manipulating her that way. How can I fill her up and make her feel loved enough without putting her in withdrawal when I’m AWOL?”

“Whenever I need to go, I can bet he’s going to pick a fight over nothing, just to keep me there longer. I almost have to wait it out and sort of pretend I have nothing I’d rather do until I’m sure he’s satisfied. Sometimes I stay even longer in hopes he’ll feel loved before I go. But it doesn’t work, and he just wants more the next time. I love this guy so much. I don’t know what to do.”

The imbalance of one partner’s giving more and the other’s giving less may not be a problem at the beginning of a relationship. It would be hard for any partner to turn away abundant affection, constant availability, and continuous generosity, especially if great sexual chemistry is part of the deal. That is especially true when the more giving partner seems joyful at the opportunity to care that much.  

As the relationship progresses, though, the less-giving recipient can find it harder to take so much without feeling obligated. It slowly can begin to feel like stealing even when the gifts seem freely given. Once in emotional debt, that partner may feel that the more generous partner deserves whatever he or she needs, even when it’s become too difficult to do.

Without the skills to create a better-balanced new contract, the indebted partner may begin to evade and withdraw, or rationalize the situation by devaluing what is being received. They wish they could find a way to start over with a clean slate.

“I’d love to just her know how much I love her without feeling that I need to reciprocate everything she does for me. I want to give because it feels good, not out of obligation. I don’t know how to tell her. She’ll just feel rejected or maybe even leave me. I’m heartsick for the pain I cause her, but I don’t want to be someone I’m not either.”

“Sometimes I pretend he hasn’t done anything special for me just so I don’t feel so guilty. It’s really not fair because he’s such a great guy, but I can’t constantly feel that I’m the one who’s taking too much.”

When giving becomes too imbalanced, the relationship will eventually break down. Either the over-giver becomes resentful and tries to blackmail his or her lover to reciprocate, or the recipient is crushed by the un-payable debt. The sooner the imbalance is recognized, the easier it is to heal.

If you getting more than you are giving in your relationship, you may find the answers to the following ten questions a helpful beginning to the process of rebalancing your relationship. Use the guideline paragraphs after each question to aid you. When you have completed the exercise, ask your partner if he or she is willing to hear your thoughts and feelings. If you can have an open and caring discussion, you will be on your way to healing the imbalance you have both created.

  1. When and how did you feel begin to feel you were “not enough?”

Many couples drift slowly apart because they don’t want to give up their positive feelings by uncovering problems that could upend the relationship. If you started out very willing to meet any of your partner’s needs and then realized you could not, you were not being disingenuous. Very often a new partner doesn’t recognize what the other’s needs as the relationship progresses. Sometimes the over-giving partner may not be aware of his or her own needs, be afraid to express them early on, or be unaware that they have changed over the course of the relationship.

Even when you realized that your relationship was becoming imbalanced, you might have hoped it would right itself in time and chosen to remain silent. If you did withhold your concerns at the time, it is important to tell your partner now to begin the process of healing.

If your intentions were to fully reciprocate at the beginning but, over time, you could not maintain that expectation, your partner should be willing to forgive you and to work with you. The past is only for lessons and to help both of you create a new, more successful foundation for the future. This is the time to work together to plan your new balance of giving and receiving.

  1. Can you remember situations where you began to feel overwhelmed with your partner’s needs and concerned that you could not meet them?

Recall specific instances where you could no longer reciprocate your partner’s “gifts” to you. If your partner is willing and open to your memories, then share them openly and why you were uncomfortable talking about what was happening at the time. You may even find that he or she may have not needed as much as it appeared, or ever wanted you to feel obligated.

Your partner may have also assumed that what you gave at the beginning of the relationship was as easy for you as it was for him or her. Perhaps your finding less motivation is not the problem you have thought it was. Using specific examples will help you both to think what you might have done differently.

There is always the chance that opening up the issue might initially result in a negative interaction. When you want your love to deepen, you and your partner must be willing to weather the challenges that may arise. Opening up your own vulnerability, you may find that behavior allows your partner to express his or her withheld thoughts and feelings as well. Even though those initial exchanges might be uncomfortable, they are better out in the open than gathering unexpressed resentments that can fester.

Do you remember some of the more caring things you did for your partner early in your relationship? Ask yourself if you might have given your partner the impression you would be able to continue giving at that level?

When love is new, most partners try to anticipate the other’s every need and wish. They both go out of their way to think about anything that might bring their lover enchantment and a sense of being adored. It is natural that these exaggerated gifts would be hard to maintain over time.

If you somehow gave your partner the notion that you could keep doing it forever, he or she may feel rejected now. Of, if your partner seemed to over-give effortlessly and didn’t ask or need more from you, you probably accepted that as a mutually acceptable contract and would not feel you would be expected to give more as the relationship matured.  

This is a good time to ask yourself if this pattern is new for you, or feels uncomfortably familiar. Go over past relationships to see if the imbalance of giving and receiving has occurred before for you. If you have a history of being perceived as a taker or been accused of creating disillusionment in your partners, you may inadvertently be trying to break those patterns by giving more than you can sustain at the beginning. That intention, though well meant, can plant the seeds of expectations that later entrap you. 

  1. Has your partner repeatedly told you that he or she wass feeling neglected or abandoned in your relationship?

Disappointments usually begin to be expressed as small complaints about your lack of availability, not remembering important things, or being less affectionate. Though mild at first, they tend to grow into nagging criticisms about seemingly unimportant situations. You may have given double messages by pretending to be more concerned than you were, or promised behaviors that didn’t happen the way they used to.

Most people, when confronted with obligations they cannot meet, make promises they intend to keep but end up not doing so. That doesn’t mean you were not totally honest in your early promises, and now, being unable to keep up that level of commitment, have made excuses and justifications for your lessened attentiveness.

  1. What are you feeling now about disappointing your partner or not feeling valued enough for what you do give?

Many relationship problems worsen when partners do not feel comfortable enough to share negative feelings. They may fear that bringing up potential problems will challenge the relationship’s security. Many of these early disappointments arise because of confusing expectations and unresolved misunderstandings.

The sadness is that they are often easier to solve than either partner has anticipated. If your heart is in the right place and you did not consciously intended to hurt or mislead your partner, you can tell him or her why you have pulled back, or felt began to feel obligated in what you were doing. Ask your partner what you may have done to confuse him or her with your double messages, and what you need to do now to make things better. Make sure he or she does not feel embarrassed and that you are only bringing up the past to make the future better.

  1. Do you feel your partner is asking too much of you to give more now?

When love begins, both partners are so eager to make each other happy that they cannot discern whether their requests are reasonable or too demanding. New love often is accompanied by abundant resources and the avoidance of conflict. The partners more often act as if there is nothing more important than keeping each other sated and beloved, no matter what it takes.

As relationships mature, both partners need to attend to life’s other demands that have been willingly set aside. Now they must determine how they can both keep their relationship nurtured while adding back other priorities. There are only so many sources to feed a relationship. As those resources are redirected, the imbalance of giving can escalate. It is crucial that you not blame your partner for wanting you to continue fulfilling his or her desires or to continue feeling gratitude for the gifts you are getting.

  1. Have you silently or openly blamed your partner for “wanting too much?”

This is the area that causes the most misunderstandings and eventual crises in imbalanced relationships. If you become increasingly uncomfortable in your inability to fulfill your partner, you may begin to blame him or her for unfairly asking too much of you now, and for not noticing that you were giving more than you could easily offer in order to balance the relationship.

Doing that would put the responsibility of watching over your boundaries on your partner’s shoulders. If you have promised to keep your partner fulfilled, you may run into trouble when he or she has been given the power to determine what that means. Your partner may have never told you how you were supposed to reciprocate. Letting him or her know later in the game that he or she is giving too much and making you feel obligated will not bode well for trust in the future.

  1. Have you felt increasingly martyred or resentful when your partner tells you that you are not fulfilling his or her needs? Are you now feeling that what you thought was freely given had an invisible price on it and you have no way to reciprocate?

You will naturally feel more conflicted over time if you cannot keep your partner happy no matter what you do, or if you feel embarrassed or guilty because of your current lack of enough motivation or availability. Those feelings are not part of genuine giving, and you will soon wear yourself out trying to be more generous than you feel. It is not your partner’s fault if you have not communicated your growing resentment as though everything were fine.

If your partner has not responded to your feelings no matter what you try to do, your consequent relationship crisis will be harder to resolve. No partner likes to be told later that he or she is not worth as much as before. You would expect him or her to be hurt, embarrassed, and angry when you share that you can no longer reciprocate the way you have in the past.

  1. Can you talk to your partner honestly now about what you can willingly and consistently give and what you cannot? Can you tell them that openness and a new contract will give you the motivation to right the imbalance between you?

New partners want to make their lovers feel treasured. Unfortunately, at the beginning of a relationship, both often believe that they have enough resources to make that happen. As resources dwindle or re-frame, one or both partners often tries too hard to match each other’s level of caring. One often compensates for the growing imbalance by giving more while the other pulls back to avoid what has become a forced obligation.

Think deeply about what you can give now without resentment, what caring and support you can willingly provide, and what you may need in return. As long as you remember not to blame either of you for prior, legitimate expectations, you can ask him or her to understand your current availability, and what the resources you are able to provide.

If your partner cares deeply for you, he or she will want to know what you need from the relationship, and what you no longer require. He or she may even confess that a new balance would benefit in both directions. With clearer expectations on both sides, you may find out that you can give more than you thought and enjoy the process when it hits the mark more effectively.

  1. Do you still value your partner enough to want to work this out?

The answer to this question is especially important when you are thinking of challenging your relationship. When you have been trying in vain to fulfill the needs of a lover you cannot give enough in return, you may be facing an increasing debt you are unable to pay. That partner may have also been having difficulty maintaining the gifts he or she promised and look forward to being relieved of that obligation as well.

There is always a risk when you are asking for transformation, but taking the risk for transformation always ends up better than accepting a predictable downfall. If your partner still loves and values you, you can work together to find a more predictable and mutually satisfying balance and make the relationship better than it ever was.

It takes two people to successfully transform a relationship when patterns are deeply set, especially if both partners have had similar experiences in prior relationships. Sometimes, both partners have alternated the roles of over-giver and over-receiver in different relationships, still striving for the same balance. When that is the case, each should have a greater understanding of how and when that has happened and feel more compassion for the other role.

Re-righting a giving/receiving imbalance is often very successful and a welcome change for many couples. Once both partners realize they can change their future, the relationship becomes instantly revitalized by the hope that is engendered by the process, itself.

 

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

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