Couples therapist Quentin Hafner explores the limits of sacrificial relationships.
Perusing the marriage help section of your local bookstore will introduce you to many authors writing about the need for being “sacrificial” in your marriage—or putting your partner first. Makes sense right?! “Marriage experts” on the Internet are generally writing the same thing too: To have a happy marriage, put your partner first.
At first glance, most of us can get behind this traditional, time-honored, and well-intended piece of advice to be sacrificial partners, but unfortunately, the simplicity of this idea leaves out critical elements of relationship dynamics that are often at the root of couples not doing well. For some, putting yourself first, above your partner, is what will positively change the course your relationship and what is often needed to have a satisfying and lasting marriage. Say what?!
In all relationships, each person falls somewhere on the Dominant/Passive continuum. As we generally reside on one side of the continuum, our partner typically falls on the opposite side of this spectrum. For me personally, I fall on the Dominant side of the spectrum, and my wife falls more on the Passive side. This is not bad. This is not good. This just is. This is our particular dynamic, and each couple has their own version of this. Where it starts leaning toward toxicity for relationships is the degree of severity of each person’s position on this continuum.
**Knowing none of us is perfectly aligned right in the middle of this spectrum, on which side of the continuum do you fall?
This might be one of the most important questions you can consider in you marriage.
For the Passive partners, what is needed for their journey of growth and a more whole and gratifying marriage is to learn how to become, in essence, more selfish, self-centered, or generally to put themselves first. I know for some reading this, it may sound absurd and counter to everything we believe we know about what makes marriage work well, because we’ve all been so conditioned to believe that “sacrificing” is the best option. But learning how to assert one’s needs and wants in the context of your marriage is for many, the trajectory of relational health.
If the Passive partner remains compliant in a less-than-assertive role in the relationship, the relationship is not equitable and the Passive partner inevitably grows increasingly resentful over time and typically begins to act passive-aggressively as a way to communicate their unhappiness. By continuing only to be “sacrificial” and denying their own needs, they end up feeling slighted in the relationship, unimportant, and can often become depressed. And in case anyone is wondering if this Dominance/Passivity dynamic is gender biased toward one side of the spectrum or the other, my answer is “No.” Women and men equally share the two roles.
Chocolate Ice Cream Versus Vanilla Ice Cream
To illustrate the Passive/Dominant continuum in marriages, I often ask couples this question: “You went to the store to buy ice cream, and you only had enough money for one flavor. Your partner wanted vanilla, and you wanted chocolate. Who wins generally? This simple and seemingly silly example will tell you a lot about your relationship. We can learn how decisions are made. We can learn more about who controls. And we can learn who is more Dominant and who is more Passive. Last week, I asked a wife I’m working with in couples therapy this question, and she responded with no uncertainty: “Without question, my husband will get HIS chocolate ice cream every time!”
And so, I ask you this: Does it makes intuitive sense that as a culture, we implicitly communicate to this wife that she needs to be more sacrificial for the betterment of her marriage? Should we be telling her to simply resign all of her wishes? Or should we telling men, “Happy wife, happy life,” meaning their needs always rank second to those of their wives? I don’t think so, and I can assure you that encouraging this type of sacrifice is a recipe for relational degradation. For my client, and for many others, the journey toward relational health is about facing her fears and learning to demand that she being heard. She shouldn’t ignore her partner’s needs, but she must not ignore her own either. I know it might sound like a tall mountain to climb—but I know you can do this! And of course the ice cream illustration isn’t really about the ice cream. It’s a metaphor to illustrate the more complicated and emotionally laden issues that surface in marriages, such as money, parenting, sex, and relationships with in-laws.
The Impact of Children
Introducing children into the relationship has a way of catapulting us toward clarity regarding the Passive/Dominant continuum. After children, we can see clearly (in case we couldn’t see before) who is more Passive and who is more Dominant. Young children, with all their unrelenting demands and needs, have a way of testing the sacrificial nature of each parent/partner. Because young children demand so much from us, the need to assert ourselves in our relationships becomes even more important, because our sanity sometimes depends on it. I know it was this way when we had our son.
If you identify with being the more Passive partner, what small changes can you make to begin asserting your needs in your relationship? Or why do you imagine this is difficult for you? If this feels like too difficult a challenge—try considering one tiny aspect of your life that you could assert your needs and “act selfishly.”
Having Needs Isn’t a Sin
Many people hold on to ideas that putting themselves first in their relationship is being unloving. And for some who are more narcissistically inclined, this is of course true. However, this article is written for those in relationships who have a hard time with putting themselves first, but at the same time feel like they’re dying inside because they don’t. It reminds me of a client I’m working with right now who told me that he didn’t have any friends. When I asked why, he stated that his wife didn’t think “good husbands” had friends and demanded he let go of all his friendships. This is Passivity mixed with toxicity—not sacrificial love. He’s awakening now to the damaging effects of being too Passive for too long and realizing he was often not really sacrificial in his relationship, but really living in fear of asserting himself.
Take a moment and consider how you may have given up your own wants and needs along the way to remain “sacrificial” in your marriage. I know that asserting your needs in relationships can feel terribly difficult sometimes because we loathe our partners reactions. I want to encourage you to contemplate how this passivity, if left unchecked over the course of time in your marriage, may lead to more dissatisfaction. It doesn’t have to be this way. Remember, you matter, too!
Originally published on QuentinHafner.com.
Photo—Boston Public Library/Flickr