Independent and self-reliant. Demanding fairness. Competitive. Self-protecting. Not backing down on principles and values. Being an intelligent consumer. Honest and direct.
These qualities and abilities are widely seen as important for success in business, and they are ones that Americans traditionally consider admirable and desirable. If you have grown up in the US, you probably believe that these are desirable qualities, even if you believe that contrasting qualities, like kindness or cooperation, are equally or more important. Part of you may act on them unconsciously, even if you consciously reject them. You are especially trained to consider these qualities important if you are male.
Unfortunately, these qualities can contribute negatively to intimate relationships. Why? Let’s look briefly at how each quality plays out in relationship.
A certain amount of independence and self-reliance is necessary for healthy relationship. But sometimes people are so focused on not seeming ‘needy’ that they deny that their partner gives them anything of importance. If you take this stance, your partner may feel unwanted and unneeded, and may wonder why you even want to be with them.
Most people consciously understand that competing against your partner isn’t a good idea, but that doesn’t stop us from getting into arguments about who is right. Those arguments, often about subjects that aren’t even very important, can nonetheless become full-on battles that you are each determined not to lose. In this state of mind, your partner may conclude that you care less about them than you do about winning, feeling superior, or not feeling inferior. And, at least in that moment, they are correct.
Often we tie these arguments to principles and values that we consider too important to compromise on. Focusing on the values that you don’t hold or express exactly the same way partner does, instead of on the values you do share, fosters dissatisfaction and distance between you.
Self-protection is another relationship toxin. When you focus on self protection, you watch your partner for signs of threat or disloyalty. Since we tend to see things that we look for, you are much more likely to start seeing your partner as a threat when you are focusing on protecting yourself.
Demanding fairness is a very seductive combination of self-protection and competition. It is seductive because almost everyone believes that fairness is good. But it is impossible to put a relationship on a balance scale. There are certain areas where you will get more than you give, and others where you will give more than you get. Focusing on perceived unfairness is usually a way of justifying what you want from your partner rather than being a main source of relationship unhappiness. If you are happy in relationship you don’t worry about whether your partner is more happy than you.
It is easy to apply your skills as an intelligent consumer to intimate relationship. Dating websites and apps look a lot like Amazon and eBay, after all. But the goal of being an intelligent consumer is to avoid being taken advantage of and to make sure you don’t give more than you get. In relationship, this mindset makes you suspicious and ungenerous.
Honesty and directness are admirable qualities, but they can be used to bring others closer or push them away. Being honest about your feelings, your fears, and your desires is vulnerable and creates closeness. Being honest about your frustrations, criticisms, and judgements about your partner is attacking and creates distance. We all choose what to say and how to say it, so just dumping criticism on your partner is inconsiderate, not honest.
So what are qualities that benefit relationship? Appreciative. Trusting. Cooperative. Generous. Vulnerable. Empathetic. Kind. If you must compete with your partner, try to be more generous, appreciative, vulnerable, and trusting than they are. Don’t view loving acts as payment or as creating obligation; instead, learn to regard loving acts as their own reward.
If you consider business or life to be a competition, then it might sound like I am telling you to set yourself up to be a sucker or loser. Intimate relationship is not a competition, and treating it like a competition is the surest way to ‘lose’. If you want to experience real intimacy with someone then you have to leave your armor at the door.
(Don’t know how to do that, or find the idea terrifying? Counseling can be good for that!)
(If you are tempted to use this article to show your partner how badly they are messing up your relationship, you might want to read this article first.)