“I Shouldn’t Have To”

This week I worked with a number of couples’ issues, but two stand out. The first, Couple A, has been less than happy in their marriage for several years. The husband, Logan (pseudonym), came in for an individual session with me, frustrated by several things: the unwillingness of his beautiful wife, Barbara (also a pseudonym) to invest more heavily in her education (she is foreign born and speaks English poorly), her lack of monetary contribution to the relationship (she has a low-level job), and the infrequency of sex. As I questioned him, it became apparent that the wife was making efforts in all three of these areas, but Logan felt they were insignificant and certainly less than he expected (Logan is a handsome, successful executive, also foreign born but well-educated and with an excellent command of English). When I asked him whether he had complimented Barbara on the efforts she had been making, he replied that, no, he hadn’t done much of that because: “I shouldn’t have to. I’ve made it clear to her over and over again how important these things are to me, and yet she still doesn’t get it. To give you an example, she hasn’t signed up for another English class, even though the one she was in ended months ago.”

Couple B, Kevin and Pamela (again, pseudonyms) came in yesterday in crisis. As is so often the case nowadays, by looking on the computer the wife had discovered some secret illicit online activities in which her husband was engaged. It turns out that neither partner had been very happy in the marriage for quite some time, but neither had fully acknowledged their level of dissatisfaction. In the ensuing session, after a thorough airing of the transgression (and a less than ideal acceptance of responsibility by the transgressor, which unfortunately is also often the case in these situations) I asked the “innocent” party what she might be able to do to improve the marriage. To paraphrase her response: “It’s not up to me to change. He’s the one who’s actions are wrong, and he’s the one who has to make up for the hurt he’s inflicted. I shouldn’t have to.”

Investing in Your Relationship

There can be many reasons why a relationship goes off track. The most frequent causes are money, sex, differences in parenting styles, a perceived or actual imbalance of power, in-laws and other extended family issues, loss of trust, the tension between a partner who wants closeness and one who wants autonomy, and unreasonable jealousy. (Why, you may ask, isn’t communication on the list? Because in my experience it’s foundational to all of the previous issues, and so too broad a category to be very useful). If both people in the relationship want it to survive, the concept of “I shouldn’t have to (because I’m not the one who’s the primary problem, the other half of the couple is) needs to be thrown out the window. Trying to assess which person is more responsible for relationship problems, and therefore who is the one who needs to change the most, is tempting but ultimately impossible. Relationship dynamics are far too complex for an accurate determination of causality, and thus blame. Blame is at the root of “I shouldn’t have to,” because if I’m not to blame why should I have to do anything? There’s a simple reason: expecting / waiting for someone else to change is an inherently powerless and therefore frustrating position to be in. We can only change ourselves. And chances are that if we make some kind of positive change there will be a shift in the dynamic of the relationship towards the positive.

Of course, blame and the resulting “I shouldn’t have to” is not an easy construct to avoid. That’s why I recommend overlaying it with the idea of investing in your relationship. Whether or not you are responsible for a relationship going off track, if you want to fix it it’s clearly something worth investing in*. So even if the investment feels like it should be coming from your partner, that doesn’t mean it’s foolish for you to invest. After all, you’ll get to enjoy the payoff at least as much as the one who’s REALLY to blame!

*There does come a point at which it’s time to stop investing. This is particularly true in any kind of abusive or substance-distorted relationship, where investment becomes simply another term for enabling. The line between the two will be the subject of a future post.