The Reverse Argument

Posted on November 14, 2015


“And it’s only the giving that makes you what you are.”[1]  Ian Anderson

“Do not repay anyone evil for evil.” Romans 12:17

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” John 13:34

“Love is not something you feel.  It is something you do.” Rev. Rob Calderhead

“Ask not what your [marriage] can do for you; ask what you can do for your [marriage]”  John F. Kennedy (with a little editing on my part)

We want our needs to be met in our relationships.  There is nothing wrong with that.  It is the human condition throughout life to want someone to whom we can turn for care, comfort, and support.  There are many ways in which modern life thwarts our efforts to get this support from our partners.

In an earlier post I postulated that there is a “self-other continuum” for each of us.  When we are in relationship, we are always somewhere on a continuum between the extremes of being completely focused on our own needs and being entirely focused on our partner’s needs.  Relationship and mental health involve staying out of the extremes.  If we completely forego our own needs all of the time, we give up our identity to the relationship.  If we focus solely on our needs, it is difficult to sustain a relationship.

Further, our position on this continuum is not fixed.  There is a tendency in times of distress or pressure to move toward the self-focused end of the spectrum.  By way of example during the marital life cycle, there is usually a drop in marital satisfaction after the birth of a child.  Though this is generally a joyous event, it makes sense that this would be so.  First, you are often both exhausted.  Sleep is disrupted.  There are a myriad of additional duties in caring for an infant.  Second, the baby can feel like a competing attachment.  I don’t get as much attention and affection from you as I did before the baby.  You may both feel that your value has been reduced to the amount of functional support you can deliver.  On top of that, you don’t get much time to focus on your relationship as a couple.

That is just one example, but there are many other stressors (e.g. work, financial pressures) that can produce a similar experience.  When you are feeling disconnected, not supported, or not seen by your partner, the normal response is protest.  However, this can feel like either criticism or another demand on your partner’s already limited energy supplies.  As you each try to get your needs met, words like “selfish” or “uncaring”[2] can start getting thrown around.

The problem is that once you both become too self-focused, there becomes a deficit of giving and nurturing in the relationship.  You both begin to feel that your partner is not there for you.

At this point if you are thinking my husband/wife needs to read this, we need to change how you are thinking about the problem.  You cannot control your partner, and your method of protesting probably has not produced the desired results.  You can only control what you do and say in the relationship.

So let’s hit the reset button on that.  If you are accustom to arguing over whose needs are not being met in the relationship, let’s try to turn that around.  Let’s approach the argument from a viewpoint of how exhausted your partner is feeling.  Instead of “I am so exhausted, could you just once let me have a break,” what if we made it “I know you have had a tiring day, let me give you a break?”

Arguments over who gets to support the other rarely result in marital distress.  People don’t come into my office and say, “He keeps getting the laundry done before I can get to it.”  “She tells me to take some time to relax while she helps the kids with the homework.”  “He booked a spa day for me.”  “She initiated sex even though she was tired.”  “He bathed and put the kids to bed even though he had a long day at work.”  “She said we should see my family for the holidays this year.”  These just aren’t the complaints I hear.

If the wife is the homemaker and the husband the breadwinner, imagine this argument.  He comes home thinking, “She has been with kids all day.  She deserves a break.  I should take her out to dinner tonight.”  Meanwhile, she is thinking, “He has been working hard all day for our family.  I should make him a nice dinner and give him a chance to relax when he gets home.”  If you picture the ensuing argument, it hardly seems the sort of experience that leaves two people feeling neither heard nor appreciated.  This is a much better argument to have.

So what would happen if you unilaterally decided to try this?  After all, you can’t control your partner.  Perhaps your partner will respond in kind.  Perhaps your partner will be more receptive to your requests for comfort and support.  Someone needs to start being the healer of the relationship.  How about you start this argument?

[1] Yes, I started my last post with the same quote.

[2] This is criticism so you want to avoid it.