Is your spouse a people-pleaser?
Does she feel guilty when she says “No”? Does he take on too many commitments and then feel resentful?
It can be maddening to have a partner who does everything for everyone else, but has little time or energy for you.
John and Jill argue every year about going to spend a week with Jill’s parents over Christmas. Neither enjoys the visit, but Jill feels obligated to go. Jill’s mother is overbearing and selfish. Everything has to be about her. She guilts Jill into buying her things and doing major household projects. One year she had Jill painting the living room on Christmas Eve. John has tried to persuade Jill to stay home. One year he even proposed a trip to Hawaii instead, but Jill says she has to go to her parents. John is dreading another trip to his in-laws and he’s frustrated that Jill won’t compromise.
Don doesn’t seem to know how to say “No.” He’s heading up the church fund raising committee. He’s the Cub Scout den leader. He mows his Mom’s lawn every other Saturday and takes her to doctor appointments regularly. His wife, Melanie, is constantly on his case to delegate some of these tasks. “Can’t you ask your sister to drive your Mom this time?” “Tell the other parents they need to help plan the Cub Scout meetings,” she suggests. But Don doesn’t want to ask for help. He feels needed and important through all his volunteer work. “Let’s go out this weekend! It seems like forever since we’ve been out just the,” says Melanie. But as you can imagine, Don is always busy or just plain tired. Melanie goes out with her girlfriends instead, but she feels rejected by Don.
Your people-pleasing partner may not want your advice, but there are a few things you can do to help.
Set your own healthy boundaries
Just because your partner tries to please everyone, doesn’t mean you have to, too. Setting healthy boundaries models for your partner that it’s normal and completely acceptable to say “No” sometimes. It also reinforces the message that everyone needs to prioritize self-care and being treated with respect. Setting boundaries also helps you to be more compassionate and less resentful.
John wants to support his wife, but he’s learned that he can’t force Jill to set boundaries with her parents. He can, however, set his own boundaries. This year he decided to fly to his in-law’s on the morning of Christmas Eve and leave after dinner on Christmas. This way he can spend Christmas with his wife and minimize his time with his in-laws. Jill can stay for the rest of the week.
This was a healthy compromise for John and Jill.
Manage your own anger
It can be frustrating to have a people-pleasing partner. You probably watch him/her stuck in the same dysfunctional patterns and struggle with exhaustion and resentment. You’re tired of seeing your partner mistreated or taken advantage of.
Or maybe you’re frustrated that your partner doesn’t prioritize taking better care of him/herself, doesn’t reach his/her own goals, and doesn’t make time to spend with you. It’s understandable that you’re feeling stuck, hurt, and angry, too. Since you can’t change your partner, try focusing on how you can manage your own emotions.
Find healthy ways to express your feelings—whether it’s through direct communication with your partner, seeing a therapist, working out, or journaling. It’s important that you acknowledge your feelings and tune into what they are telling you.
Be a neutral sounding board
When you take care of your own feelings, you can be a supportive and unbiased support for your partner. Our partners usually come to us for support, not advice.
You don’t have to fix your partner’s problems. Just be a neutral sounding board that s/he can use to bounce around ideas, unload negative feelings, and feel completely accepted despite his/her struggles and mistakes.
One of the most helpful things you can do for your people-pleasing partner is to encourage him/her to develop a strong and independent sense of self. Your partner has been living for everyone else, losing him or herself in the process.
Encourage your partner to try new things and develop new friendships. You might think Don, from the example above, has plenty of interests and activities. In actuality, he has lots to do, but these aren’t really things he wants to do. They’re things he feels obligated to do or things he’s done for years and he just keeps doing without considering whether they’re still things that fit his goals and priorities.
You can help your partner schedule time for him/herself. This might mean that you take on some additional responsibilities with the house or kids in order to free up some time for your partner to take a class, go out with friends, or exercise.
You can also create a safe environment for your partner to practice expressing his/her own opinions and thoughts. Have a curious approach and ask your partner for his/her opinion about everything from politics to how to spend the weekend. And then, be sure to validate his/her unique perspective. That doesn’t mean you have to agree, just acknowledge, continue to be curious and non-judgmental.
Communicate clearly and respectfully
Communication is a key to every successful relationship. This is a skill that your partner probably struggles with, so you are again modeling ways for him/her to be more assertive and solve problems. Healthy communication is clear and respectful. “I statements” are a great way to accomplish this.
Try this approach: “I feel _____________ when you _______________ and I’d like _____________________.” John could say something like this to his wife, Jill, “I feel frustrated and sad when you spend most of your vacation time at your parents. I’d really like it if you’d shorten your trip so that we could enjoy a few days of vacation alone.”
With practice and patience and compassion, past hurts and people-pleasing patterns can be changed!
Sharon’s workbook Setting Boundaries Without Guilt is now available on her website.
Photo: Quinn Dombrowski/Flickr
This was originally published on Sharon Martin Counseling.
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