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To Give or to Get?

I’ve been a counselor for over fifteen years and whether I’m in session with someone young looking for a partner, or seeing a couple with many years of marriage behind them, more often than not, people speak about what they want from the other person and the relationship. Couples spar back and forth about their partner not doing enough, being enough or giving enough. The single man or woman spends time talking about what qualities they hope that other special someone has they want to meet. While it’s good to have a firm grasp on your needs and have appropriate boundaries, one of the consistent weaknesses I encounter is people being too focused on what they want to get and not what they have to give. The question I often ask is, “While you have a very good grasp on who Mr. or Ms. Right is, are you going to be the right person in turn they are looking for?” Many spend a great deal of time focusing on who and what they want to find without considering whether they will be a good match when found.

The question What Do I Get on a note posted on a notice boardMuch of the division I see in relationships originates through an intense self-focus. Often this focus of self stems from fear, sometimes it’s entitlement and sometimes it’s anger. Regardless the origin, it leads to an inability to listen, have compassion or compromise. A rigid concentration on self makes it very difficult to respond with care and vulnerability. Vulnerability requires trust and when someone is defending their own needs, they cannot simultaneously bring into consideration the needs of another. Vulnerability necessitates openness and the ability to temporarily suspend one’s own needs in order to hear the desires, feelings and experience of another person. What usually happens with couples is that each person finds their position, labels it as “right” or “correct” and rigidly defends it. So, instead of two people negotiating, hearing, caring and expanding, two people end up debating, defending, arguing and contracting while being closed off to the experience of each other.

Disagreeing in a healthy manner is usually counter-intuitive to how we are prone to react. Most of us didn’t grow up communicating well, and it’s like learning a whole new language. It entails the relationship first having mutual trust. If you don’t believe your partner, or think they will lie or deceive you, not only will you have poor communication, but you can’t have a healthy relationship. But, when you trust your partner, you don’t have to defend yourself against them. When you disagree, get disappointed or feel treated unfairly, you can express your feelings in a vulnerable manner when trust is infused in the relationship. You can be vulnerable because you know he or she has your best interest at heart. And, this comes from a mutual exchange of having the well-being of each other as the primary focus. When a person is more concerned about their partner rather than their self, they don’t have to worry about self-defense. You don’t have to worry about being intentionally hurt. You don’t have to worry about being lied to. This is not being a doormat because at this stage two people have already negotiated the relationship through boundaries, exploration of values, basic compatibility, etc. This type of connection goes way beyond chemistry and far outruns relationships whose foundation is based upon sexual attraction. Once you know there is compatibility, and secondly you build trust, then a response of tending to your partner’s needs before your own can begin developing, and likewise, they develop that response towards you. At this point, an amazing exchange of vulnerability and care can emerge and disagreements will not look like a boxing ring or a courtroom. The quality and character of the relationship begins to change.

I encourage those in relationships to discuss this together and ask each other if your communication dynamic mirrors the above. If not, talk to each other about whether that is something you would like to have. Ask yourselves if you have the basic components of compatibility and trust. Then ask yourself if you’re usually more fixated on what you didn’t get and what you want, or whether you are focused on the needs and well-being of your partner. If you’re single and looking for that perfect person I encourage you to ask yourself if you are that person that the perfect person would be looking for as well. Are you thinking about what you can give? Or are you only thinking about what you hope to get? Instead of focusing so much on who that other person will be, consider growing yourself into that person you need to be!

Sylvia Flanagan, MFT is a San Diego therapist with a private practice in Mission Valley. For more information about San Diego Counseling, feel free to call or email her.  Office hours are Monday through Thursday 10:00 am through 6:00 pm. and every other Friday from 10 through 3pm.