Love and Power

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A Marriage Manifesto: Beyond Tit-for-Tat

The usual Golden Rule doesn't work as well for couples.

tit-for-tat see saw
If you've ever thought that if everyone followed the Golden Rule, we'd all get along better, you may want to reconsider. There are numerous versions throughout the world, but most come down to something like this: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. You’d think treating your mate according to such a rule would be ideal.

Not necessarily. Not if it means you’d be giving what you want for yourself, not what the other person wants. Think in terms of this version: Do unto your partner as your partner would like, not as you would like or as you wish he or she would like.

Even better is what I call the “Couple’s Manifesto of Love”: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” For our purposes, “needs” equals “wants” (and “his” obviously equals “her”). Avoid a tit-for-tat mentality, what psychologists call an exchange orientation, to focus on what’s good for both partners, also known as a communal orientation. Research has shown that such a cooperative attitude is far more likely to contribute to sustained satisfaction for both partners.

So rather than “you scratch my back, I scratch yours,” when tonight’s scratcher has a need, his or her partner will try to provide it.

And that’s what I found to be true in my research for Loving in Flow: How the Happiest Couples Get and Stay That Way.

PLAY FAIR, WORK FAIR

Often, both partners in struggling relationships believe they’ve done the most compromising. They’ve considered the other first when making decisions, and put their own needs on hold for the sake of pleasing the other. And each may believe the other has not done so, a common form of biased thinking.

One mid-30s man I interviewed, married 16 years with two young children, admitted to me that he “keeps score” at times, particularly when he’s tired. He told me, “Sometimes my wife will be in the kitchen and I’ll be upstairs and she’ll ask me to get her a glass of water. I’ll get the water, but it bugs me at the time. Then it just fades away.” While his wife might feel entitled to this minor bit of caretaking, he feels he’s done more than half the work already by putting in long hours.

Things tend to come out most evenly if the two of you accept each other’s subjective analyses of how much is being contributed. It took me a while to trust, for example, that the many hours my spouse spends maintaining his garden (his passion) is as valid a use of his time as is my reading of two newspapers daily. Actively supporting your partner’s view of the world is a way of showing love.

BUT I HATE DISHES

I recommend discussing how various activities exact a different amount of psychic energy from each of you. What if you discover that one of you would prefer to give a half-hour massage than untangle one garden hose? Psychologist Andrew Christensen told me in an interview that his wife hates making business phone calls, so he makes them. “If I can do a thing easily,” he explains, “then I do it. I think that’s the best system because it’s individualized.”

Once you get the hang of the Couple’s Manifesto, you won’t worry about having your turn. Reciprocation wariness, holding back in the moment from giving what might feel like more than your “half,” makes it harder to form a strong trusting bond. And then you are less likely to get what you want.

I once came across a book aimed at parents in which the author insisted: “Never give away the ice cream.” But think about how manipulative that is. You’re ensuring that every pleasant activity is connected to a desirable behavior preceding it. No. Rather, frequently give away the ice cream, especially to your mate. If you espouse a philosophy of “only give when you have already gotten,” it’s as though you’re standing there with your arms crossed, waiting for the other person to show good will. In the best relationships, good will is taken for granted.

Some therapists have suggested that the partner who makes a small change should get a payoff, so that if you talk to your mate for a half-hour as she’s been asking you to do, you get to choose a movie that week. From my own experiences and those of others, I can tell you that such tit-for-tat efforts are ineffective at creating long-term change.

Fairness ought never become a battle cry. If you’re too busy tabulating every penny spent, every minute of effort, every compromise made regarding what to eat or watch, it’s liable to slip your mind that you’re on the same side in this relationship.

[This post was adapted from Loving in Flow, and was first published in this form on my blog at  The-Brights.net.]

Copyright (2013) by Susan K. Perry

Love and Power