I always thought that in a romantic relationship, you were supposed to make your partner happy. But that belief did not seem to work out particularly well for me. It created tons of pressure, which compelled me to put their needs before mine. While this may seem like a good trait, it actually meant that I was defining myself based on my ability to make my partner happy.
Years ago, I was in a relationship with a girlfriend who struggled with depression. I pulled out all the stops to help her: finding a psychiatrist who took her insurance, giving her self-help books, buying her a gym membership. But nothing really worked. I felt a sense of powerlessness, the opposite of how I normally perceived myself. I was angry at her for “making” me feel that way but it seemed wrong to blame a person who is suffering. While play-acting the caring boyfriend, I started to emotionally withdraw, though she barely noticed, being consumed with her own problems. I shared my distress with a female coworker who was very compassionate and supportive. I need not say more about where this led.
After several failed relationships, it dawned on me (duh!) that I must be the one with issues. One word kept pinballing in my head: should. I should be making my partner happy. I should feel caring. I should put her well-being before mine. I should not feel angry at her for not meeting my needs. Where were all these “shoulds” coming from? They seemed so natural, like automatic thoughts, virtually unquestioned and unexamined.
After a while, I found a therapist who could tolerate my endless whining without blowing his brains out. Over the years, we covered a lot of ground: my dad’s relationship with my mom in which he catered to her needs, some reasonable, some not so much; their knock-down-drag-out fights over trivial things like bussing the table after dinner; being the oldest child and having no choice but to put my needs aside in order to take care of my two younger sibs; and the cultural expectation that men were supposed to be the practical, problem-solvers. It was no mystery where the “shoulds” came from.
Understanding the etiology of my “should” beliefs did not totally rob them of their power. They hung around, making their presence known when least expected. I needed a way to counter them given their seeming power and impenetrability but that was easier said than done. Since “should” is a command word, essentially a moral imperative, I tried replacing it with a volitional word such as like, want, or need. This way, it would be me talking and not the “shoulds.”
All this so-called, self-knowledge paid off in my engagement to Stephanie, my current spouse. She has no problem expressing her needs and preferences while my style is more to the introverted side. Our wedding planning was riddled with conflict. She had particular ideas about the guest list and decorations and I, from a more modest background, was uncomfortable with the grander plans. I still felt that I should be making her happy, since she wanted to spend her life with me. However, now the “should” stuck out like a sore thumb. I recognized my past tendencies and stopped them in their tracks. Rather than agreeing, promising to do something and forgetting or not doing it right, I caught myself!
My thinking had changed, away from the dreaded “should” to: I want to make her happy but not at all costs. I established that my need for less elaborate arrangements was important, but I also understood where she was coming from. Through a number of difficult conversations, we wound up compromising on our divergent needs. I could see that Stephanie was less than thrilled, but not feeling responsible for her happiness allowed me to be OK with it.
Even now, years later, I am still burning into my brain that I cannot be responsible for that which I cannot control. I have no power to produce an emotional outcome in my partner, that depends on her personality and issues. So, what do I have control over? My actions, of course. Nothing more, nothing less.