The Asymmetrical Relationship
Possible solutions when one partner feels unfairly treated.
Posted April 9, 2021 | Reviewed by Davia Sills
- Almost every relationship has a little asymmetry where one partner is kinder or messier or spends more than the other.
- If it's clear the partner isn't going to change, ignoring the asymmetry is one way to live with it.
- Other viable approaches to addressing relationship asymmetry include analyzing its root causes, offering a trade, or demanding a change.
Every relationship has some measure of asymmetry. For example, one partner is
- Kinder: more likely to look for the good in you and not to exert excessive retribution in response to your mistakes.
- Thriftier: careful to spend cost-effectively and to splurge only rarely.
- More responsible: prioritizing what’s important.
- Lower-maintenance: judicious in deciding when to let an annoyance slide and when it’s worth complaining and/or asking for support or help.
- Addiction-resistant: not prone to excess.
- More ethical: in most circumstances, doing the right thing, even to his or her detriment.
Approaches to addressing relationship asymmetry
What might you do when an asymmetry troubles you, but you don’t want to exit the relationship? Here are some options.
You might decide that trying to reduce the asymmetry is unlikely to work well enough and would unduly strain the relationship. For example, let’s say your partner is more laid-back than you are and so doesn’t get as much done as you would like. You could decide that this person is unlikely to change significantly, so you decide to accept that asymmetry as one of the relationship’s liabilities. Every relationship has them.
Before jumping to solutions, sometimes it's wise to look for what's causing the problem. For example, let's say your live-in partner is messy. It might be worth asking your partner something like, "Why do you think you're more comfortable with the house being less neat than I am?" The answer could vary from "Appearance just isn't that important" to "My parents are neat freaks and tried to turn me into one." Your partner's answer could improve your understanding of the problem or subtly encourage your partner to decide to change.
Propose a trade.
To take the previous example, “I know we both want the relationship to improve, so perhaps each of us might take a baby step: You wish I were cleaner around the house, and I wish you were less of a spender. So, what do you think of our trying a little experiment: For the next day, I’ll try to be as careful as you’d like me to be about keeping the house clean, and you’ll take a look at our credit card bill to see if there’s a way to cut spending that you could live with?”
Sometimes, people are motivated by a clear, direct message, even one that is accompanied by a threat. For example, “I'm having a really hard time with your substance abuse. I’ve tried to be supportive, even occasionally joined you in it, but that’s not serving me, and I deeply believe isn't serving you. You’ve tried cutting down but that hasn’t worked; you’re using as much as ever. I can’t take it anymore. Either you stop now or, although I love you, I have to leave.”
Sometimes, a troubling relationship asymmetry is best addressed with a professional counselor or trusted friend. But a number of my clients and friends and, OK, I myself have found that the aforementioned self-help tactics work well enough.