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Dealing with an Asymmetric Relationship

Does your partner take advantage of your commitment?

Many people do not feel like equals in their relationships. Sometimes this is illusory, a symptom of low self-esteem or a poor self-image, or feeling of inadequacy, which we discussed in an earlier post. But sometimes this inequality can be real, and a person's partner, lover, or spouse can take advantage of an imbalance in the relationship.

What sort of imbalance are we talking about? Let's be clear: People in a relationship are never equal in all (or any) ways. One person may be judged more attractive (by popular conventions), or may make more money. One person may smarter in one way, less smart in another. One person is more outgoing, one person is better with money, etc. Vive la différence! We look for people who complement, accent, or offset our various good and bad qualities with their own, and we value each other accordingly.

One way to describe loving someone is valuing that person immeasurably, and two people in love value each other "equally immeasurably." In the best relationships, this reciprocal valuation lasts and lasts, but in non-ideal relationships, each partner's value in the other's eyes fades, and not necessarily at the same rate. If this happens, eventually one person will value the other more than he or she is valued by the other. (Of course, the relationship may have begin at this point if one person "settled" for the other from the outset.)

Another way to understand this is that one partner values the relationship more than the other does. In the case of marriage, one partner may take a more long-term, "til death do we part" view, while the other takes a more short-term view, reassessing the marriage (and his or her options) from time to time. But this need not only occur in marriage—a person can be committed to any type of relationship, which simply means that he or she is more willing (compared to the other person) to ride out rough patches for the sake of long-term happiness.

One may say that such a relationship is doomed—and, in a way, it is, whether the relationship lasts or not. This kind of asymmetry is a crack in a couple's bond, and one that will only grow if it is not repaired, or at least acknowledged, addressed, and discussed. If not, then both persons would be better off apart: The person who values the relationship more (or is valued less by the other person) deserves someone who shares his or her commitment, and the person who values the relationship (or other person) less is holding the other person back from enjoying the kind of relationship he or she wants (or needs).

But as we've discussed before, even if they have reason to separate, a couple may not be able to, for any number of reasons: children, finances, or other life circumstances that make separation too costly, painful, or otherwise difficult.

So what are you to do if you're with someone who values the relationship (or you) less than you do, and attempts to repair the situation have failed?

The answer is obvious, but not surprising or satisfying: Suck it up and make the best out of the situation. It's tragic, but if you find it too hard to leave the relationship, and you cannot fix what's wrong with it, then you have no other option but to stick it out. In such situations, I would give the same advice that I gave regarding the person who was cheated on (which may well happen in such an asymmetric relationship): Don't dwell on the nature of your relationship, and focus on yourself (and your children, if you have them). In particular, don't feel like a sucker because you value the relationship more than your partner does—rather, it's your partner's problem that he or she doesn't value the relationship as much as you do, and that he or she doesn't appreciate you as much as you deserve.

This situation is bad enough if the lesser valuation from the other person is only apparent in thought, not action. But much worse is when your partner takes advantage of this asymmetry. The other person may threaten to leave (in body or in spirit) if you don't make some concession: move with the person to a new job; agree to buy a new house, car, or boat; give your permission to a short-term affair, and so forth. Maybe your partner says things like, "if you love me, you'll do this for me," or even more blatantly, "if you value our relationship, you'll do what it takes to keep it alive." Note the emphasis on what you have to do, not what the other person is asking you to do—the other person is effectively holding you hostage to your relationship!

I hope it is clear that this sort of manipulation is unethical, but that knowledge doesn't help the person who is at the receiving end of it with no recourse to leave. There are basically two options here: Either put up with the manipulation, while fighting back as much as you can, or else reassess the possibility of exiting the relationship. In the face of such behavior from your partner, the difficulties of leaving, as serious as they seem, must be weighed against the difficulties of staying—particularly after you realize that the manipulation will likely never stop, especially if you give in to it and your partner learns that it works.

Look at it another way: If you put up with this type of manipulation for too long, the problem may stop being how little your partner values you, and may start being how little you value yourself.

More from Mark D. White Ph.D.
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