Your only chance of getting – and keeping – the partner you most want to have is to be the partner you most want to be. The hard part is figuring out what kind of partner you most want to be. Here are some questions that might help.
Do I want to be driven by my ego or motivated by my deepest values?
Do I want my partner to submit to what I want or to willingly cooperate with me?
Do I want to devalue my partner or regard him or her as valuable?
Which do I want most in my relationship, power or value?
If you chose the first part of any of the above, you’re dragging a chain of resentment through life that keeps you from becoming the person, parent, and intimate partner you most want to be.
Try this experiment. List the personal qualities you would most like to develop. As a guide, think of how you want to be thought of by the people you love and what you might regret the most not doing enough of when you get older. Most of my clients write in this exercise that they want to be more compassionate, kind, appreciative, loving, supportive, and fair and that failing at these is what they would regret most near the end of their lives. And that’s consistent with on research on late-in-life regret.
Once you come up with the list of qualities you would like to develop, use it to complete the following sentence:
If I were more… (for example, compassionate, kind, loving, supportive, appreciative, and fair), I would… (cite specific behaviors, for example, try hard to understand my partner’s perspectives, express support and affection, ensure that I’m being fair, open my heart to beauty in nature and allow myself to be enhanced by the qualities of people who could enrich my life):
For the next week, do what you wrote above, every day, as often as you can, regardless of what other people do. If you behave consistently according to your deeper values, you will, no doubt, feel more authentic and appreciative at the end of the week. If you do it for six weeks, you’ll be well on your way to becoming the partner you most want to be.
The Power to Value
Exerting power is, most of the time, a Toddler brain operation. In the Adult brain, we create value. Exerting power might sound good, until you ask yourself why you want to do it. In love relationships, if not life in general, people try to exert power when they don’t feel valuable.
Here’s an example from a client. Tammy started the day before her first appointment feeling really down. She woke up that way and was unable to cheer herself out of it. In fact, the feelings worsened as the morning progressed. First her husband injured her sense of entitlement by not cheering him up. He reacted negatively to her demand that he make her breakfast; eventually he did make her breakfast, albeit with an air of resentment. She didn’t notice that her motivation to avoid the dozens of other pedestrians she passed on her walk to work made her feel worse. Once she got to the office, she wanted her coworkers to be extra nice to her, although she didn’t expect that they would be and so wasn’t very nice to them.
Some of her coworkers were probably too busy to sense that she felt blue and others, no doubt, reacted negatively to her “attitude”—she thought she overheard one of them say, “Who the hell does she think she is?” Disgusted, she gave up on all of “those insensitive bastards” and went through the entire morning and afternoon in a cold sulk. At the end of the day, she felt that all she needed was a hug and a little sympathy. Predictably, she fell deeper into depressed mood, perceiving that no one was there for her.
As Tammy described her day in our first session, she sounded very much like the victim of an uncaring environment and an insensitive husband. She thought other people were letting her down, when they were merely reacting to her entitlements and her unfriendliness. Because she felt bad, she devalued her husband as “narcissistic” and “uncaring” and her coworkers as “unreliable” and “just out for themselves” and everyone she passed on the street as “not deserving” regard. The adrenaline rush she got from blaming and devaluing made her feel more powerful for just a little while, before dropping her deeper into depression.
The problem for Tammy—and for the rest of us when we try to substitute power for value—is that we can’t feel valuable when devaluing someone else, especially loved ones.
Devaluing loved ones is the epitome of a double-edged sword. If part of your deeper values is to respect loved ones, as it is for most people, trying to feel more powerful by devaluing them is the emotional equivalent of trying to quench your thirst by eating sand. When we feel devalued, we have to do something that will make us feel more valuable, not more powerful.
Power Can Never Substitute for Love
I’m quite certain that not many people who read this fell in love with fantasies of power: “I’m going to make this sucker do whatever I want!”
People fall in love with fantasies of value, of loving and being loved. Yet most discord in love relationships rises from Toddler-brain attempts to substitute power for value. The exertion of power in love sometimes gets compliance (your lover relents and does what you want), sometimes fear, always resentment, but never value. You cannot criticize, stonewall, nag, manipulate, coerce, or threaten someone into genuinely valuing you. More important, you cannot feel valuable while exerting power over loved ones.
The secret of love relationships lies not in exerting power but in creating value, through interest, compassion, and care. You’ve probably heard the saying: “The best revenge is living well.” Living well actually means creating more value in your life. Creating more value in your life in general and in your love relationship in particular is the surest way to become the partner you most want to be.