People who come to our offices for couples therapy generally enter the room for the first time with a list of things they want and need from their partners. The items on their lists vary, obviously, but a few themes stand out — more connection, more collaboration, more honesty, more support. Struggling couples come to therapy because they have realized and been willing to say out loud that something about their partnership doesn’t feel right, and they need some help fixing it — they need some help learning again how to communicate with each other effectively, both in expressing their own needs and wants and in being receptive to those of the other partner. One of the things my regular clients will hear me say when we discuss how to get needs met in a relationship is, “the best way to get what you want from your partner is to ask for it, clearly and kindly.” Today’s post is not to refute that principle, but rather to offer another pathway for change in your relationship
First, let me be clear about a few things. Unmet needs are, to some extent, normal in a relationship, and if you recognize that you have some of these it’s not an indication that there is something wrong with your partnership or with your partner (or with you!). Where this crosses into problematic territory is when the same needs remain unmet over long periods of time, often creating resentment and distance and indicating deeper problems related to communication skills, trust, desire, etc. I also think it’s important to state that healthy relationships are NOT characterized by a guiding principle that each partner must unquestioningly jump to meet whatever needs exist for the other. Rather, in healthy relationships, each partner’s needs are valued and considered by the other, and partners work together to create a mutually satisfying and responsive couple dynamic–while recognizing that it is normal and even good for some needs to be met outside the relationship, too. Finally, I am not suggesting that the method I will describe is a fix-all, or that it is an appropriate way to address every unmet need in a relationship, or that it can tackle deep wounds like betrayal, trauma, and abuse. Rather, it is an often effective way to bring about gradual progress on normative couple problems.
Now that I’ve winnowed down the universe of relevant needs a bit, let’s talk about the “give what you want” method. What I’m suggesting is that an effective way to encourage your partner to give in a way that works for you is to start giving in that very way to them. For example, if you find yourself feeling distanced because you are struggling to get your partner’s full attention when you’re talking to them, the “give what you want” method would be to focus on giving your partner your undivided attention when they are talking. If you are struggling in a relationship with less physical affection than you prefer, the “give what you want” method would be to look for opportunities to be affectionate with your partner (and take them). When your partner has the experience of being cared for in these ways, it will likely help them notice the ways in which that dynamic operates more broadly, and consider what they could do differently on their side of the equation.
Why does this work? Well, there are a couple reasons, with the primary one being that positive behaviors and interactions in a relationship operate cyclically — for good and for bad. We are more likely to give and be loving when our partners are giving and being loving with us; and we are more likely to withhold and be distant when we perceive our partners as withholding and being distant with us. I’ve seen more couples than I can count get stuck in standoffs, in which each partner is fully aware of what the other one wants or needs, and choosing (either consciously or unconsciously) not to give it unless or until the other one gives first. Spoiler alert: that never works! These couples often end up in stalemates that last years and spread to more and more areas of their relationships.
The other important reason that “give what you want” is effective is that in all likelihood, if you’re missing something in your partnership, your partner is missing it too. It may be bothering you more, and you may even perceive that your partner is unaffected. But I promise you, even if that is true (which it isn’t!), you are not going to hurt anything by choosing some positive, generous behaviors, and you will almost certainly make things better.
And here’s another great thing about “give what you want” — it works in non-couple relationships, too. For example, if you’ve ever struggled with a lack of respect from your adolescent, you can no doubt attest that lecturing, pleading, punishing, etc. don’t work. But, if you can find ways to show appropriate respect to your teen, I think you might find that it comes back to you. I’m certainly not suggesting that you kowtow to your kid; rather, I am suggesting that giving your teen control where you can, letting her or him make choices when possible, and letting them know that you value their thoughts, feelings, ideas, and perspectives will raise the tide of respect in the relationship and help your teen feel more willing to choose respectful ways of speaking to you.
“Give what you want” doesn’t work in every situation. But I think if you start to apply it, you’ll notice yourself feeling good about your actions, you’ll notice the other person’s positive response, and you’ll notice some of that good stuff coming back to you. Give it a try, and let us know how it works!
Lindsey Hoskins, PhD, LMFT provides couple, family, and individual therapy in both the downtown Bethesda, MD and Sterling, VA offices. Call or email today to set up your first appointment or a complimentary telephone consultation.