- An entitlement in a relationship is when a partner decides that what they want is important enough to outweigh what their partner wants.
- People may justify entitlements because of their sacrifices, uncomfortable emotions, or superior knowledge.
- Becoming aware of entitlements can help partners shift toward awareness and collaborative negotiation.
What Is an Entitlement in a Relationship?
An entitlement in a relationship is when you decide (consciously or subconsciously) that what you want is so important to you that it outweighs what your partner may want. It is so important to you that it bypasses any effort to negotiate what you want with your partner.
We can fall back on the pop psychology notion that what we want or, better still, prefer to have, is really a “need” that must be catered to. The pop psychology literature on relationships is filled with the idea that relationships are about fulfilling each other’s needs—needs that are entitlements—we are owed.
What Entitlements Look Like in a Relationship
Psychiatrist Russell Lemle identifies four general ways in which you might be falling back on an “entitlement” to get what you want from your partner.
- You are owed because of your sacrifice or generosity in the relationship.
- You are owed because you are feeling so emotional—so stressed, etc.—that your partner must support what you want.
- You are owned because this is what people in a relationship are supposed to do.
- You are owed because you are more experienced, more knowledgeable than your partner.
Which ones are you likely to use?
You are Owed Because of Your Effort, Sacrifice or Generosity.
- Because I have sacrificed.
“I gave up my career to raise our children. You can at least let me redecorate the living room.” The counterpart for men is sometimes, “I work so hard, the least you can do is be more interested in sex with me.”
This is point-counterpoint and never ending. You both made choices, perhaps, unwittingly. If so, negotiate changes in your situation that honor both of your contributions.
- Because I do more.
“Since I work longer hours, you should pick up the kids from soccer practice.” “Listen, I’ve been home all day cooking and cleaning, you go, I went last time.”
Who has sacrificed more? Each partner is keeping personal tabs on who has done what. Of course. each one experiences themselves as doing more.
- Because I don’t ask for much.
“I go along with you most of the time, so you—fill in the blank.”
You view yourself as the more generous and accommodating partner, therefore, you should get what you want. Another variation, you are owed because you usually ask for so little.
- Because I did something nice.
“I work so hard to be nice to you, how can you be so mean to me.” “I tell you ‘I love’ you all the time; you don’t ever say it to me.”
Falling back on “tit-for-tat” in getting and receiving affection is doomed to create issues in the relationship.
You Are Owed Because You are Feeling an Uncomfortable Emotion.
- Because you are upset.
“I get frightened when I’m here alone. You have to call me when you are going to be late.”
Feeling an emotion can be used powerfully to get what you want regardless of your partner’s situation. Emotional blackmail?
- Because you feel strongly about something.
“Having my own quiet time in the evening is vital to me; I don’t understand why you can’t go along with this.”
You claim entitlement when something “really matters to you” requiring your partner to agree, no matter what they want.
You Are Owed Because It’s Socially or Culturally the “Right Thing” to Do.
- Because of your gender.
“Look, as head of the household, you should listen to me about ___________(fill in the blank).” “I am the mother of these children, I know what is best for them.”
While gender has historically been the fallback approach to how to get what you want, it no longer is a useful way to manage the different things you want in your relationship.
- Because I make more money.
“I’ve earned the right to have time to play golf.” “It’s my money, and I will spend it however I want to.”
This can be used even in dual-earning couple relationships. Falling back on commercializing your relationship—because you are owed.
- Because this is what people are “supposed” to do.
“I want a neat house; you have to be better at leaving papers and drinking glasses around the living room.” “Don’t touch my tools; I have them exactly how I want them.”
You are likely to have inherited a lot of ideas about how housework, childcare, etc. “should be” done. Without thinking, you may insist that your way is the “right” way to do things.
You Are Owed Because You Are More Knowledgeable, More Reasonable, etc.
- Because I know more about X.
If you have more experience, more training, or more education than your spouse in a given area, you are susceptible to using this as an argument to get what you want rather than to negotiate.
- Because it’s more efficient this way.
Your way is always going to feel better to you. Using the efficiency argument is just another way to be entitled to what you want.
- Because it’s the rational way to do things.
This is a frequent fallback for men to use to get what they want in their relationships with women.
Entitlements as Needs
As noted earlier, the biggest entitlement strategy is to identify wants and preferences as “needs.” Of course, current pop psychology tells you that everything you want can be considered a “need.” As Lemle  says, “…we voice the “need” word freely.” For example, being in a relationship does not entitle you to sex even though you say, “I need sex three times a week.”
A little history about the psychological concept of “needs.” This idea became popular in psychology in the middle of the 20th century, which comes from the general idea that we are all primarily motivated by self-interest. This view of human nature has been dominant in psychology and in much of Western thought for decades. What better way to be entitled to what we want or prefer than to identify it as a “need.”
We have come to believe that our “self-identified individual needs” (to which we are entitled) must be fulfilled and we must fulfill our partners’ “needs” in return. To fulfill a partner’s need is to create a debt that is owed to us….to which we are entitled a fair, and equal return of something we need.
A marriage based on indebtedness builds anger and resentment, as John Gottman notes. In the end, either person may end up feeling that “I could have struck a better deal.”
How Entitlements Get in the Way
Acting as if what you want, what you prefer to have happen, is an entitlement using the strategies described prevents you from achieving a mutual agreement with your partner. Entitlements are unilateral—you get what you want because you rigged the game.
Negotiating differences in wants and preferences not only results in a mutually agreed upon outcome, but it also enhances the quality of the relationship. Entitlements are likely to diminish the quality of the relationship while enhancing your self-interest.
How to Break the “Entitlement” Habit
Self-reflection is the first and the best way to break the entitlement habit. Reading this post and other writings  about entitlements brings into your awareness what it means to feel entitled. Here is a post that talks about the importance of self-awareness for men that can also apply to women.
Pay attention during the next week to how many times you may use one or more of the several entitlement strategies described above. If you do this, you will be much less likely to use them. This will take willingness and effort.
Take the time to learn about how to negotiate collaboratively to express what you want, achieve what you want, and enhance your relationship. In my practice working with couples, I focused on how to do this. Here are a few posts that describe negotiating collaboratively with your partner.
- The Right Way to Negotiate with Your Partner
- Interact, Don’t Transact with Your Partner
- How Partners Negotiate Sex in Their Relationship
Try it. You may end up feeling better about yourself and your partner and creating a great relationship. Warning: It is hard work!
1. Lemle, Russell B. “How Being Entitled to Our Way–Gets in the Way”. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/me-first-we-first/201108/how-be….
2. Gottman, John. The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. New York> Crown Publishers, 1999.
3. Fiffer, Thomas. “Let’s End Relationship Entitlement Now”. The Good Men Project. https://goodmenproject.com/ethics-values/lets-end-relationship-entitlem…
Previously Published on Psychology Today and is republished on Medium.