Last week I spent an hour walking back and forth across the dog park with a friend while she vented about her boyfriend. For several years she helped him out while he was unemployed and in school, putting herself in debt on his behalf. He finally has a good job. What does he do? Does he cheerfully take on the credit card bills he ran up? Does he offer to whisk her away to Bimini? You guessed it, he chose Door Number Three: “I can’t do this anymore. I want out.”
You don’t know my friend, but you’ve heard some variation of this story. I’ve known people who have ruined themselves financially over love. One wasted an entire inheritance on her boyfriend. One took out a loan to buy a car for the woman he loved and is also paying insurance on this vehicle while she cheerfully drives by his house with her new boyfriend. She always waves. Meanwhile, he is eating peanut butter and Vienna sausages for lunch.
I am talking about finances because that’s the most obvious place to look for inequities in a relationship. But we could be talking about affection, attention, empathy, or even how often each person gets to choose which movie to see.
There’s a hint of this tired tale in my first book, “A Shot in the Bark.” Lia’s boyfriend Luthor is a selfish schmuck, and part of Lia’s ongoing evolution in the series is learning how to have a healthy relationship. I would not be able to write about such things if I had not at some point given too much of myself in pursuit of love. I have, more times than I care to confess. And it NEVER has a happy ending.
I want to help my friend. I offered to round up a crew to dump his stuff on the lawn and change her locks. She declined. She’s at that exquisite point where she wants to kill him, but she hasn’t given up hope yet. It’s painful to watch. I wish I could fast-forward her life to that day when it sinks in: He’s NEVER going to change.
Our conversation got me thinking. What do I know about relationships?
All adult relationships are reciprocal. If they are not reciprocal, what you have could be a parent/child relationship, even if it involves sex. If you aren’t related, it might be legal, but it’s still icky. If there is little to no sex involved and you are putting out all the energy in keeping things going, your relationship might edge over into stalking territory. If the other person is a willing party who adores you as long as you pay for everything, look in the mirror. You probably have “Patsy” tattooed on your forehead.
If your relationship is not reciprocal, you’ve got to ask yourself why you’re investing so much into it. If it’s not reciprocal there’s something important you need to understand about giving.
People give on their own terms. Everyone has rules for what and how much they give and when, and it’s based on their personality, their particular circumstances, how they were brought up and how invested they are in the relationship. You don’t get to decide how someone else gives or reciprocates. You might nag, guilt or blackmail them into giving what you want for a time, but all that does is create resentment and set up barriers to a truly healthy give-and-take. You have to decide whether or not you are happy with the way the other person responds/reciprocates to your overtures/efforts. You have to realize that “what you get is what you get.” They don’t have a closet full of goodies stashed away somewhere, just waiting for a special day when they jump up and and cry, “Surprise! I really do love you and today is the day I show it! Take your shoes off and let me rub your feet while I tell you all the marvelous things I’m going to do for you now!”
If you aren’t happy with how much/what the other person is putting into the relationship, you have two choices. You can end the relationship. Harsh, but in the event of disappearing trust funds and looming bankruptcy, this may be the only intelligent option. Or, you can dial it back. Dialing it back means reducing your efforts to match what’s coming back to you. It means redefining the relationship based on what is, rather than what you hope it will be. Out in the Ether somewhere, I hear someone screaming, “But if I did that, There would BE no relationship. To that I say, “Uh, Doh?”
The first rule of dialing it back, is do not do anything you are going to resent later. “Not fair!” That same voice screams out in the Ether. “How am I supposed to know what I’m going to resent later?” It’s not that hard. Anytime you are doing something you would not ordinarily do to please someone else, stop and take a good hard look. Notice, I did not say, don’t ever do anything nice for someone. But take a moment to imagine that they don’t notice, don’t care, don’t reciprocate. And if that thought has you feeling hurt and/or embarrassed and/or resentful, don’t do it. If you are denying your own basic needs and obligations to please someone else, don’t do it. If you are making sacrifices for someone who will not sacrifice on their own behalf, don’t do it. And if the person has a history of not taking care of their obligations, don’t do it. Lastly, if you feel that little tingle of shame inside, the one you get when you are hoping that this time your beloved is going to respond if you try just one more time, Call your best friend immediately and have them duct-tape you to your kitchen chair, well out of reach of any means of contacting your so-called beloved.
When you think about giving something (time, energy, attention, as well as actual gifts), imagine that this person is going to give back only what they have given you so far. This is important, because, as Dr. Phil says, the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. Does this outcome make you happy? If it doesn’t, then don’t do it.
Dialing it back means ending resentment. It means giving up on the idea that you are “investing” in a relationship by giving more than you receive. It means setting boundaries so that you put yourself first and never give more than you can afford (financially, physically, mentally, emotionally). It is not romantic or noble to give blood to someone who pours it on the ground and asks for more. It means that when you give, you give wholeheartedly, without a hidden agenda, and without hope or expectation of return.
It also means recognizing and appreciating what the other person has to give to the relationship. You’ve got to understand who you are dealing with through small gestures first. You’ve got to decide if that’s what you truly want. It means assessing your light-of-love’s level of reciprocity early in the relationship, BEFORE you give them the keys to your home and your ATM password.
This is not about bean counting, exactly. Playing tit-for-tat will destroy a relationship. But you have to feel secure that your relationship is not one-sided, that your partner is also invested in it, and will be there when you need them. Maybe not all the time, every day, but enough. That your relationship will feed you in some way, in return.
Every relationship is unique. It may be that you have a good job and plenty of discretionary income, and your friend is always broke. If you find your friend’s company truly worthwhile, say they are a great listener, or always cheer you up, maybe it gives you pleasure to treat your friend to things they can’t afford. If you can do so without resentment and without making your friend uncomfortable, that’s a viable option. Or you can dial it back by meeting your friend on their turf, where they can afford the price of admission. You can mix apples and oranges here. You cook meals. They fix appliances. As long as you both understand what you are getting out of the relationship and are happy with it, fine. Just don’t kid yourself. It’s okay to mix apples and oranges. Not so much if we’re talking watermelon and grapes. Unless it’s a whole lotta grapes.
Transparency is important. Can you talk with your friend/lover about what you are each getting out of the relationship? If not, that’s a red flag. Can you talk to yourself about what you are giving and getting out of your relationship? Be honest. Write it down in two columns. Take a good look at it.
There’s another side of this. When you give more than the other person can (on their terms) reciprocate, you are likely to make that person feel uncomfortable because you’ve created an obligation they can’t or aren’t willing to repay. We’re talking about normal people here, not users. This will push that person away rather than bring them closer. Someone who cares about you will not want you to overextend yourself on their behalf. They’re happy with your company without any grand gestures. On the other hand, greedy, selfish people will be happy to suck you dry. Want to find out who they are? Dial it back.