"Human beings are inherently relational and relationally dependent”
-Harville Hendrix, Foreword in Wired for Love
Valentine’s Day is just around the corner and although many brush off the holiday as a Hallmark holiday, there are also those with high expectations for this special day. The expectation might be that your partner remembers something you subtly or not so subtly hinted at six months ago or it might be that you are finally going to be treated like the royalty you really are. Whatever the expectation might be—if your focus is on your individual needs or what your partner needs to do—you are likely to be disappointed.
Murray Bowen —founder of Bowen family systems theory— notes that every relationship faces the constant push-pull of two opposing forces: individuality and togetherness. As gender equality increases, there are fewer relationships formed out of necessity. More often relationships are formed out of romance with partners hoping to support each other’s hopes and dreams. It is no longer uncommon for both partners to have their own careers and individual sets of goals. There are many benefits of the modern romantic relationship, but the one shortcoming appears to be an overemphasis of the “I” or “you” at the cost of “we.”
As adults today race from one place to the next struggling to meet the demands of work, themselves and others, it can be very difficult to balance a partner’s needs with their own. The good news is these two realms do not have to be mutually exclusive. When we shift our thinking from what is good for ourselves, or our partner, to what is good for the relationship, there is less room for criticism and feelings of inadequacy.
In long term relationships it is not uncommon to find the very personality traits and habits that used to complement each other so well now seem to compete and polarize the relationship. For example, one partner is the designated “planner.” In the beginning this is a win-win situation because Sally loves initiating plans and being in charge and Joe is always along for the ride. Years later Sally might request Joe take the reins on Valentine’s Day; a seemingly simple request for anyone but Joe. The result: an hour long wait at a restaurant Sally “would’ve never picked” and the couple eating in silence on Valentine’s Day.
In this scenario, or one similar, it is easy enough to see the flaws in our partner or feel sorry for ourselves because we feel we deserve more. However, what if instead of focusing on two individuals you focused on a team that needs a little reorganizing or re-storying? Shifting roles in a relationship is no easy task because the way we interact with our partners consists of many reinforcing behaviors creating an (at times) deeply entrenched cyclical pattern. Many of these interactions operate outside our awareness. Additionally, when our partner does not respond to our needs the way we would like we often assume it’s because he or she doesn’t care. It’s important to keep an open mind to the possibility your partner does not know how.
In the meantime, however, it might relieve some tension to recognize what you are experiencing is not an “I” or “you” problem, it is a “we” problem, and if one partner has a problem—you both do. It might also help to recognize that in times of high expectations or crisis, relationship patterns typically become more entrenched. Despite increased efforts, each partner does more of what he or she knows. In these situations, it becomes very important for both partners to recognize they are doing the best they can.
Lastly, perhaps this Valentine’s Day you and your partner collaborate to decide what the relationship needs (hint: gifts and activities do not override the need for connection). If the relationship needs more quality time, it is worth discussing how you and your partner can be most present with each other. Skip the debates on who always chooses where you eat or which movie looks better. Instead, discuss which restaurant provides a better atmosphere and which movie will lead to a more engaging discussion afterwards. As Harville Hendrix states “When you make your relationship primary and your needs secondary, you produce the paradoxical effect of getting your needs met in ways they can never be met if you make them primary.”
If you and your partner feel stuck in a negative cycle or narrative, or would like some relational tending, please consider our couples counselors for assistance.