Relationship Reboot

Letting relationships proceed on autopilot may ultimately dissolve feelings of intimacy. Instead, be conscientious about nourishing, tending, and renewing your connection.

Giving to Get vs. Griping to Get

What’s the single best way to deal with frustrations in your relationship?

 It’s really baffling how many of us act as though we believe that deprecating our partner will help us get what we want from them. Why? Because venting frustration by grumbling or growling will probably be experienced by them as an attack on their character. And their almost knee-jerk reaction to such miffed fault-finding will either be to defend against—or counter-criticize—their perceived “assailant.”

I call such non-productive complaining “griping to get.” And even if it works, odds are that over time it will sour just about any relationship. I can hardly over-emphasize that almost all disgruntled criticism is felt by its recipient—viscerally—as a threat: a veritable physical assault. And, to employ a deservedly well-known aphorism, “You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.”

So why are so many of us apt to turn on our partner when they fail to meet our expectations? Simply because when we’re frustrated, it’s instinctively our “first line of attack” (and I use that term advisedly). Since our initial reaction to disappointment is annoyance, our first impulse is to directly express disapproval toward them. In the moment, we’re not thinking strategically (i.e., how best to get them to respond more positively to us), nor are we thinking empathically. Rather, our dissatisfaction leads to a self-righteous indignation that, in turn, hinders any efforts at productive problem-solving.

It should be obvious that such adverse “emotional thinking” could hardly be more poorly devised to assist us in achieving our relational objectives. For communicating critically to our partner doesn’t at all increase the possibility that they’ll be more inclined to respond to us favorably. Far from it. Yet the impulse to “kick up a fuss” (and note the aggressiveness embedded in this idiomatic expression) can be almost irresistible in situations where our needs and desires aren’t being adequately addressed—as, so adamantly, we believe they ought to be.

On the other hand, “giving to get” operates in a totally different fashion. At first, this option may sound manipulative—as in, “making a deal” with our partner. And in fact bargaining with them to feel more cared about is not a particularly effective way of insuring that they’ll be more receptive to our wishes, or endeavor to make the relationship more fulfilling for us. The “this for that” approach doesn’t begin to address the many non-concrete, non-measurable aspects of what makes for a truly nurturing relationship. Which is to say one in which we feel genuinely loved by our intimate other—safe and secure, free to express all our feelings, close, trusted, appreciated, supported, validated, and so on

It’s crucial that we never forgot that intimate relationships are essentially different from purely pragmatic (or businesslike) ones. All of us need to feel wanted and loved not just for what we’re able to do for the other person—but for who we are. And, deep down, we intuit that being able to feel this way in a relationship has very little to do with “barter.” Such utilitarian exchanges can work well in the marketplace but not in marriage, where both partners’ deepest desire is to be cared for and valued unconditionally—that is, with no demands or obligatory strings attached.

All the same, it’s unrealistic (and maybe unethical, too) to try to convince our partner to sacrifice their personal wants to cater to our own—without, that is, troubling ourselves to offer them what they most covet.

In my own work counseling couples, I find myself regularly challenging both parties to “come from” their noblest self. To actively aspire to their loftiest relational ideals, so they’re ready and willing to give to their partner what their partner has already made clear they most need. And, more importantly, for them to do so not to immediately get anything in return, but as a more wide-ranging commitment to the relationship: To improve its functioning (its “welfare,” as it were) for their mutual sakes—not simply their own.

And activating such idealism can have its own rewards for each of them, though initially these gratifications may be more internal than external. Transcending one’s ever self-centered ego by successfully acting from the noblest part of one’s being can certainly enhance one’s self-regard. Still, at the same time, bringing one’s best self to the relationship—for the good of the relationship—can only help in moving the union closer to its unrealized potential. And both partners’ actively “conspiring” to make each other happier is unquestionably about as low-risk a proposition as any that might be proposed (!).

Of course, both parties can’t help but wish that their selfless efforts will be reciprocated. That with such a benevolent attitudinal shift, the warm-hearted mutuality till now missing—or lost—from the relationship will begin to blossom. And doubtless, being presented with such a challenge definitely puts to the test just how committed each of them really is to the other. Moreover, behaving at one’s best for the good of the relationship independent of how much, or little, the other partner presently is able to reciprocate takes real patience, maturity, and, well, character. But the mind set required to engage in unconditional giving is perhaps the truest barometer of how adult we can act, even when we’re frustrated by our partner’s seeming lack of sensitivity to, or caring about, our needs.

And once more, I’d emphasize that the nature of this “giving to get” has far more to do with intangible “gifts” for our partner (with nothing expected back) than concrete ones. It’s not focused on gestures like purchasing flowers or greeting cards, or inundating the other with love notes (though it could certainly include these things). Rather, it encompasses all the different ways we can show our partner attention, affection, appreciation, gratitude, understanding, and respect. Or grant them more privacy, or autonomy; or display more kindness and compassion toward them; or welcome their presence so they feel more closely connected to us; and so on, and so on.

Ultimately, what we’re doing is giving them—offering them—our best possible self. And this can only increase the likelihood that we’ll get their best self in return.

Note: If you found this post useful and think others might as well, please consider sending them the link. In addition, if you’d like to check out other posts I’ve written for Psychology Today (on relationships and otherwise), please click here.

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

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Relationship Reboot