A friend of mine bought his wife a bobcat for her birthday. Yes, those things you see on building sites that look like a miniature bulldozer. True story. Had she asked for it? No. Was she into earth moving? Not that way! Why would someone do that you might ask? Good question.
Fortunately, she had a sense of humour and he wanted a bobcat. Buying bobcats for one’s partner, or a version of it, is a surprisingly common relationship practice.
Before I explain, we need to go back a step. Last article I elaborated on the power struggle that typically follows the honeymoon phase. Here I want to talk about how to manage it, but first a quick recap.
In the honeymoon phase the illusory effortlessness of thoughtfully meeting each other’s needs is fuelled by the two unspoken, conjoined promises ‘I will make you happy’ and ‘I will heal your wounds’. These two promises are highly seductive – indeed the very basis of seduction – and at some point we all want to take delivery.
The power struggle is triggered as one person starts to sit back and collect on the promises. This in turn aggravates their partner who typically responds in kind – and so the tit for tat begins.
‘Till death do us part’ has unfortunately sent the message that ‘I don’t have to work at this and he/she will put up with my bad behaviour … forever!’ If we do not understand and manage it, for many couples the power struggle can become a way of life.
So, what to do?
In short, each partner needs to give the other precisely what makes them feel that they are loved and cared about. The key words here are ‘give’ and ‘precisely’.
First, the power struggle needs to be recognised for the natural evolution it is. The best way to bring this up is to talk about it as the normal phase that it is, rather than blaming the other person. Normalizing it with words like, ‘it looks like we’re in the power struggle phase that all relationships go through’ is a good place to start. Making sure each partner understands how it works, and what it is all about, avoids the blaming that will otherwise hijack this process. (My last article was written to help couples do just this.)
We need to appreciate the opportunity that now sits before us. Partners can heal each other’s wounds even better than therapists can (and they can hurt each other better too!)
To heal your partner’s wound, you need to know precisely what makes them feel loved. Some people can articulate this better than others. Each partner must take responsibility for working out what they most want to feel loved and then communicate this. Then, when you or your partner next feels inclined to be loving, they will put the energy into doing precisely what will actually make a difference.
The tragedy here is that when a partner has the energy and wants to put in the effort to make their loved one feel just that, loved, their efforts can be completely wasted.
Too often we are buying bobcats for our partners. This is because we naturally slip into thinking our partner wants what we want. When it comes to gift buying, most of us realise our partner’s desires are different from our own (and bypass the bobcat auction!) but when it comes to the things we do for our partners, we tend to slip back into our own love language. We are doing what would make us feel loved, not recognising that we are wasting our valuable effort.
The complementary nature of mate selection means that typically our partner’s preferred love languages are different from ours.
Sometimes what we want is not so clear even to ourselves, or we can be reluctant to ask in case it is ignored (or used against us). A good starting point is for both partners to familiarise themselves with the Gary Chapman’s five languages of love. (Go to his website – www.5lovelanguages.com – and do the test.)
The second step is to give first. I recently asked my 83-year-old mother what the secret was to her happy marriage? Her response was simple: three things, to give, give and give.
To only act after your partner has acted, is the essence of the power struggle. Whether you are being mean or nice, only being so after they have, is to give your partner too much control.
To be clear here, I am not talking about meeting each other’s every need or avoiding points of conflict. The research shows that successful couples will have conflict. The issue is how much loving is happening around conflict that buffers the damage caused by day-to-day conflict.
Which brings us to what to do when it is one-sided over time? When, maybe, you are doing all the loving?
The first question I ask is, ‘How clearly does your partner understand what makes you feel loved?’ Too often this has not been articulated clearly enough. Indeed, a little anger (spoken not acted out) is the key to getting the message across. Remember anger is a healthy, important human emotion, aggression is the problem.
If you have clearly articulated what makes you feel loved, and over the following weeks you see no sign of it, then it is time to raise it again (cut your partner some slack if they are stressed or ill). If that still does not make an impact, you need to have a discussion about what is a relationship showstopper for you.
In the end, if the giving is not being reciprocated it is time to move on, or get couple therapy (especially if there are children involved).
Remember, you do not have the right to demand your partner changes. You do, however, have a responsibility to yourself and your relationship to make it clear (repeatedly) to your partner what will make you feel loved.
At the same time you want to be finding out and enacting what makes your partner feel loved. This is why healthy relationships are built not found.
‘Till death do us part’ comes with some fine print – and you have just read it!
[This article is reprinted from an article I wrote for the Brisbane Circle]