Monogamy’s Double-Edged Sword

Committed relationships offer many benefits, but complacency shouldn’t be one of them. Once the wedding thank-you notes have long ago been sent, it takes more work to be good to each other. The early days are easy because everyone tends to be polite and considerate, but not necessarily entirely truthful. (“Umm, no, that’s OK if you smoke.”) Because the relationship is not solidified, we worry about scaring off this new partner by being too honest with them. We also worry about scaring off ourselves by being too honest with ourselves. (“He will manage his money better once we move in and he settles down.”)

A committed relationship can take the pressure off of trying to impress each other. All the many emotional, financial, and family entanglements that come with marriage offer us security that our partner will remain there for us. Leaving is difficult and messy, so people tend to stick around.

The question is, are you and your partner happy about being together? Not all couples are. Perhaps more to the point, are you bringing your best to the relationship? It’s easy to complain about the ways that our partner isn’t meeting our needs, but we too often look at the disappointment from only one side. In what ways could you be doing a better job of meeting your partner’s needs?

Because nothing in a relationship happens in a vacuum, what one partner does influences what the other does and vice versa. Often couples wind up in interlocked struggles. For example, one partner would like more sex in order to feel more connected which then makes them more affectionate in nonsexual ways. Meanwhile, the other partner would like more affection and kindness before they will feel like having sex. Each partner needs to stretch and give more of what doesn’t come the most naturally. This is that work part of relationships.

I see way too many clients in my office who feel like their partner has given up and won’t do that stretching to try to make things better in the relationship. This doesn’t mean that the partner is necessarily happy about the current state of affairs, since they may be just as unhappy or even more so. Given that they went to the trouble to come to my office, my client is certainly not happy. This is a situation where both partners expect the other to do the necessary things to make them happy, but they aren’t doing the necessary things to make the other happy—and thereby generous. Both of them undoubtedly feel justified in what they are and aren’t doing because they each feel like they are giving more in the relationship. Of course, mathematically that doesn’t add up since they can’t both be giving more than the other.

The problem is that, however much each partner is giving, it isn’t what the other person wants or needs most. Both partners feel denied, neglected, rejected, and like they are getting the short end of the stick. Unless one partner is clearly withdrawn or cutting corners, it isn’t a problem of not enough effort, but rather of not the right kind of effort. When a problem has become entrenched, it’s easy to rigidly focus on why what you’re doing should be enough and that your partner should be the one to give more.

The way out of this locked down pattern is to step back and look at your relationship from a broader perspective. As my colleague Martha Kauppi, LMFT, CST brilliantly summed it up, it becomes a matter of each partner asking themselves, “What am I doing that makes it difficult for my partner to give me what I want? Is it worth my while to then do some of those things differently?”

If you’re feeling stuck in your relationship, spend some time on these questions—in your own head and then with your partner. Even if your partner doesn’t want to go there, you still have the power to shift both sides of the relationship dynamics if you understand how they are interconnected. Once you understand this, you are in a better position to reap the benefits of a committed relationship without getting bogged down in its pitfalls.

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