Would You Give Your All to Support Your Partner?

Research shows what you can lose when you give 100% to your partner.

Posted Oct 31, 2020

The vows that partners give to each other in marriage typically include a lifetime of willingness to have and to hold. Committed relationships in general may not involve such open-ended promises but still imply that the members of a couple will value the well-being of the other partner as much as they do their own.

Your relationship may be based on a different formula, however. Perhaps it is you who would give your all to your partner and your partner who seems to be more withholding when it comes to prioritizing your happiness and personal fulfillment. According to the University of Toronto’s Rebecca Horne and colleagues (2020), “Caring about the welfare and needs of others is a defining feature of close, satisfying relationships” (p. 653). However, the authors raise the question of what happens in those close relationships when you fail to balance your own needs with those of your partner. Their study begs the question: Just how much are you willing to sacrifice your own goals to help your partner achieve his or hers?

Perhaps COVID-19 has forced you to make a plan with your partner in which you agree to work fewer hours at the job you love so that your partner can put in the extra time at a higher pay grade. Originally, this might have seemed like a “temporary” agreement, but as the months wear on, you’re beginning to think there will be no going back again. If childcare is part of the equation, perhaps it’s you who does most of the remote learning with the kids or takes on the lion's share of adapting to whatever school schedule they happen to be on at the moment.

The issue of personal sacrifice might not even be that significant, however. When it comes to who makes the everyday decisions that form so much of a couple’s time together, do you always allow your partner to be the one to change the TV channel, select where to go for a weekend afternoon’s stroll, or pick the week’s dinner menus? Have you automatically stopped even considering your own preferences and desires?

If all of these couple-wide decisions tend to go in your partner's favor, it’s possible that you’ve now gone to the extreme end of the caring continuum referred to by the U of Toronto team as “unmitigated communion.” Defined as “an overfocus on meeting the needs of a partner while excluding one’s own needs in the process” (p. 653), the state of unmitigated communion can ultimately erode your own well-being and high levels of psychological distress.

Previous research that Horne and her collaborators cite suggests that paradoxically, your relationship satisfaction could actually be quite high when you're the one who's making all the sacrifices. However, that previous research tended to study people at one point in time. That correlation does not equal causation problem so familiar to social scientists could very well be driving that apparent result.

To correct this problem and help determine the role of unmitigated communion in the longer-term course of relationship satisfaction, the Canadian authors took advantage of data from a 7-year study of over 1,400 German couples who were in a relationship for an average of nearly 10 years. Two-thirds of the sample averaged 36 years of age and the rest were in their 20s. About two-thirds were married, and two-thirds had children.

The study’s longitudinal design made it possible for the authors to test what they called a “Relational Developmental Systems (RDS)” perspective. In other words, you as an individual affect your partner and vice versa, but as an additional element, both of you affect and are affected by the relationship as a whole.

You can probably attest to the RDS in your own life if you think about all the ways you’ve been changed by your partner. Perhaps you always hated classical music but your symphony-loving partner introduced you to a Mozart sonata that you actually enjoyed. Now you’ve started down your own path of musical exploration. At a deeper level, similarly, perhaps your partner tended to view life from a cynical perspective but you, with your greater faith in humanity, have helped your partner take on a more charitable worldview.

Returning to the question of unmitigated communion, from an RDS standpoint, Horne and her fellow researchers sought to tease apart the ways that relationship satisfaction within the partners of the couples in their samples would relate to changes in the extent to which each prioritized the needs of the others.

You can test how you would perform on their measure of unmitigated communion by rating yourself on this item: “Often, I leave everything else aside in order to support my partner.” This item related, according to the authors, with measures of more general unmitigated communion (e.g. Fritz & Helgeson, 1998) that has items such as “I always place the needs of others above my own,” and “For me to be happy, I need others to be happy.”

The relationship study included other factors as well, most notably gender, with the idea that women would be more likely to put their partners’ needs above their own. Additionally, length of relationship became factored into the analyses, with the assumption built into the RDS model that relationships change over time in their balance between partners.

After conducting a complex statistical modeling of the communion-satisfaction relationship over time, the authors concluded that, as they predicted, there was a reciprocal or mutually complementary pattern of scores over time. Those partners who declined in unmitigated communion over time also declined in relationship satisfaction. Across genders, the relationship satisfaction of men predicted the unmitigated communion of their female partners.

Looking into the causes of these joint sets of changes, the authors suggested two possibilities. In one, and most consistent with the RDS perspective, the longer you’re in a relationship, the more you see your needs in terms of your partner. Romantic relationships are, as Horne et al. note, likely to become more interdependent with time. Doing something for your partner becomes the equivalent, in this view, to doing something for yourself.

On the other hand, the authors note an upper limit or boundary condition to this relationship-communion pattern of interactions. Adopting too many of your partner’s needs as your own can, as the earlier COVID-19 example suggests, put too much strain on you. As the authors observe: “the link between unmitigated communion and both partners’ relationship satisfaction might be different in the context of acute or chronic illness versus in environments with fewer uncontrollable stressors” (p. 660).

The second danger of overcommitment relates to the issue of which partner tends to take priority over the other. If you’re the lower person on the power totem pole, the constant tendency to give in to your partner’s needs could leave you becoming overly neglectful of yourself. Such a scenario could help account for the gender effects the authors observed.

Men’s unmitigated communion, as the authors suggest, “may therefore be less responsive to their female partners’ levels of satisfaction in the relationship and more readily influenced by their own autonomous goals and decisions, one of which could be taking on the role of an involved care provider” (p. 661). When men become the over-carers, then, this may be so that they can reinforce their own identities as great guys, not so they can meet the actual needs of their partners.

To sum up, wanting what’s best for your partner is certainly an important criterion for a satisfying relationship. Caring for your partner may seem like caring for you, but just as important to your well-being is maintaining your own independent path to fulfillment.

Facebook image: GaudiLab/Shutterstock

References

Fritz, H. L., & Helgeson, V. S. (1998). Distinctions of unmitigated communion from communion: Self-neglect and overinvolvement with others. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75(1), 121–140. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.75.1.121

Horne, R. M., Impett, E. A., & Johnson, M. D. (2020). Exclude me, enjoy us? Unmitigated communion and relationship satisfaction across 7 years. Journal of Family Psychology, 34(6), 653–663. doi: 10.1037/fam0000620.supp (Supplemental)