How often have we been told that if we want to improve our relationships all we need to do is figure out what we need and ask for it? This seems to be some of the most common advice around, whether it comes from self-help books, therapists, or couples’ counselors. Improving our relationship is possible if only we clearly communicate what it is that we want and need.
While knowing our own needs and having the self-confidence to voice them is undoubtedly a part a healthy relationship, what happens when it doesn’t work? When our partners can’t give us what we need? Change takes time no matter how much we want it, and sometimes, making the changes needed to improve our relationships can take decades or even a lifetime. Especially when changing ourselves brings up repressed fear, shame, anxiety or resentment that is too much for us to tackle.
What if there was a different strategy for improving our relationships that provides fast (sometimes immediate) results and requires no effort from the other person? There is. We can feel better ourselves by focusing on supporting the needs of our partners rather than on expecting them to fulfill our own.
I began experimenting with this idea in my relationship with my husband, and the experience left me more fulfilled, happier and more secure in our marriage.
I had long wanted to feel more supported by husband, in my professional, personal and home pursuits, but instead of asking him to meet my wants and needs I made a commitment to try to be supportive in ways that I thought would be important to him. I made a commitment to:
- Support him as a father
- Support him in his work
- Explore increased intimacy
Supporting my husband in his capacity as father to our children means that I try not to intervene when he responds to our kids, even when I might do things differently. It means I’ll respect his decisions and make an effort to respect the way that he parents, and I’ll try to provide empathy when he gets frustrated with the kids instead of offering my own solutions. I’ll also accept his mishaps. Parents are humans too and make mistakes, especially when being parents.
Work was for many years a particular source of tension between my husband and I. He works in the non-profit sector, with long periods of travel and lower wages than I would like, in a job he is passionate about. We have had to learn to live on less and we have learned to juggle our schedules creatively to meet all of our work and family related needs. When I decided to support my husband in his work, this meant I would give up all attempts to convince him to change fields and stop making him feel guilty about his periods of travel. Supporting him in this way meant an inner resolution on my part, to stop resenting his professional choices and understand that he both loves his job and is not willing to make the significant shift needed to change it. It also means accepting my own part of the equation, which is that despite the limitations of his job, I benefit from it, as it helps support our family.
Finally, I decided to be more supportive of my husband by exploring our intimacy. I recognized that my husband needed more intimacy than I had the energy to give him, and I resolved to give more attention to this aspect of our relationship, to try honor one of the ways in which he feels loved by me. Instead of seeing intimacy as a chore to check off my to-do list, I try to see it as an opportunity to show love.
Supporting my husband rather than asking that he fulfill my own needs has improved our relationship, and interestingly, I am the most immediate beneficiary (though he has noticed my efforts). By letting go of resistance to his job, I am able to more fully appreciate the amazing work that he facilitates in the world. It also allows him the space to consider his own needs for balance between family and work life, without pressure from me. By supporting him as a father, I have been able to let go of wanting to control the relationship between the children and adults in our family, which is a big weight off my shoulders. Setting aside more times for intimacy and couple time has helped me enjoy this aspect of our relationship more fully, and my husband, in recognizing the change, has also responded by being more supportive in other areas of our life together.
It’s funny how in letting go of my needs, they automatically started to be fulfilled. This is because we receive what we give. When we provide love, we feel it ourselves; when we say “yes” to someone, we experience the power of that “yes”. When we look at what is good and true in our relationship, we begin to see clearly what is good and true; when we respect the limitations and humanness of others we also accept (and feel better about) our own.
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