Seeking balance in relationships
November 11, 2017 9:37 AM   Subscribe

I realize more and more that by far, the majority of my relationship have not had balance. I want to change that.

The current climate has me thinking a lot about relationship balance, and what that really means. And how the balance of POWER is such a key part. Or maybe the perception of power, is more accurate? Power in this context is not the classic definition. To me, it means "which person's situation exerts the forces that control the direction of the relationship?" If it's super-easy to answer that question, IMO there is no balance.

Balance doesn't mean every. single. thing. is equally shared. I don't expect or even want that. I love it when someone has made the effort to actually choose something- then it's up to me to say how I feel about it. The wishy-washy, "I dunno, what do YOU want to do?" person is relationship DEATH.

So it's not about wanting definition on "who does what." That's far too simplistic. It's more about having a state of equality that doesn't make either person feel like they are settling or missing out or compromising, most of the time. So if there are things I want/need/desire/expect from a relationship, and there are things you want/need/desire/expect, most of the time, if not (ideally) ALL the time, the successful relationship will provide them. I believe this state is achievable, because I see it in real life, just enough to be tantalizing. How did THEY figure it out?

One way I characterize an unsuccessful relationship is, it's one where I spend proportionately more time being upset or irritated at things that are directly traceable to a root cause of some type of imbalance.
- Whose time is more valuable?
- Whose eccentricities are more often accommodated?
- Who is exerting force (even passive-aggressively), and who is bending?
- Who says, "It's OK, I understand..." the most?
- Who, when asked for the honest truth, is most likely to say, "This is not what I want?"

Often, that awareness cannot be fully realized until enough time has passed. By then, both parties are invested, you have many shared experiences; often there are children/other family members/friends integrated as well. It's the catch-22 of, "By the time I realize I don't want this relationship, I've reached a point where it's most painful to end it." That's no way to live.

TL;DR: In my relationships, I settle for less, I feel non-empowered, I am subject to too many factors that other people control, almost every time. This has been the script of my life for so many years and it rankles to find myself here yet again. I am so tired of making choices that ultimately lead me to a realization that once again, I have settled. My instinct is to reject it all and run, licking my wounds and wallowing in yet another pit of misery brought on by yet another failure of my own making.

But- what more could be done? I want to try. What can I change about myself to stop ending up in this type of relationship? What am I doing to self-sabotage? How do I figure all that out?

What conversations can I have with relationship partners and friends (that won't be confrontational and accusing) to perhaps salvage something, and lead to an improved dynamic? I don't want to ever cast blame or assign responsibility. I have gotten myself where I am, and I own that. But surely there are ways to talk about this in a safe, reassuring way. I hope so, at least.
posted by I_Love_Bananas to Human Relations (5 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Sometimes asking people about how their parents interacted and negotiated can give some insight as to what feels normal to them. (One person's normal can easily be someone else's eccentricity.) As a child my mother hated it when her parents fought, she said, so in her marriage she bit her tongue a lot because she valued 'peace' even if it was kind of fake. They got divorced after 15 years. Seems like they never understood each other, but my dad is a riddle wrapped in an enigma.

Also, if you attracted to people who are direct, forceful, decisive or blunt because you like that kind of strength or speed, well, some of those people are super assertive and will often try to get 100% satisfaction for themselves before passing out leftover satisfaction to their partner.

I think discussing Ask vs. Guess culture with partners is a gentle way to start having a meta discussion about styles of negotiation. There are also books about negotiation, but I haven't finished reading any of them.
posted by puddledork at 9:53 AM on November 11, 2017 [3 favorites]

Best answer: This is really good self-analysis.

Are you clear on what you actually want?

I ask because, with some friends, I observe that their desires seem a bit foggy to them, or what they say they want/value is different than what their actions would suggest they truly want/value. It might help for you to make a clear list of what you value in a relationship, being as specific and granular as possible.

"I want communication" is too vague. Instead:
"I want a partner who will notice if I am sad- without me telling them- and gently ask what's wrong, listen to my answer, and then ask me questions to help me figure out what I need."

"I want a partner who is good with conflict" is too vague. Instead:
"I feel anxious and unloved when my partner raises their voice, shrugs off my touch, moves far away from me, withdraws, ignores, or exits during an argument. Instead, I want a partner who makes loving eye contact and initiates closeness and gentle touch with me during conflicts, so that conflict is de-escalated, love is emphasized, and I feel safe enough to be honest."

"I want kindness" is too vague. Instead:
"I want a partner who will notice when I am hungry and make me a healthy snack."
"I want a partner who would drive to my house to comfort me if I called them crying at 2am."

I think if you can be really clear on the aspects of your current relationships that aren't working for you, and write out sample ways those issues could instead be solved to your satisfaction, you will be in a better position to re-shape your current relationships.

I will say that if you hope your friends will start to compromise more... that might not work out well. Lovers tend to compromise more readily, especially if monogamous, because only a lover can provide certain things. But with friends... people are too busy to work super hard with their friends- friendships are expected to be pleasurable and not require too much work or compromise. So if your friends don't meet your needs, you might just do better by adding in some new friends.

I know what my friends enjoy, and typically try to call the right friend for the right job. Ideally they give me what I need... and it is FUN for them to do so. At different times, my emotional "friendship needs" include: a safe place to vent, reassurance, analysis, action plans, laughter, advice, sympathy, etc. But I don't expect to get that all from one person (it would be exhausting for them, and certainly nobody is good at all of those things anyway).

So I have about 8 close friends who I will call for different purposes, and each of them is good at- and ENJOYS- a specific kind of interaction. One friend LOVES giving short bursts of practical, action-oriented advice, but she couldn't care less about soothing me if my feelings are hurt, or having long relaxed conversations. So I only call her when I have a need or idea that will be pleasurable for her. The other day I actually made the mistake of calling her when I had hurt feelings and she was brutal- it's just not her thing to comfort people. It doesn't mean she's a bad friend, though. Last night she spent hours helping me compare contractor quotes for a job, and she was energized and grinning the whole time- just a joy, and I was so grateful for her help. I just have to call her at the right moments.

Similarly, I love giving advice, but I hate going dancing. My friends have figured this out. So they call me with conundrums, and helping them solve things is actually a joy to me, whereas going dancing would make me miserable and I'd be a soggy annoying wet blanket.

As you figure out what you need, you may realize that some people in your life actually don't provide ANYTHING. If this is a longstanding pattern, changing them will be very difficult. You may actually end up facing the realization that some formerly-important people are sucking you dry and making you smaller. This is painful but valuable information. If this happens, really your best bet is to get an exit plan in place. It hurts to leave, but sometimes, honestly, it's also hurting you to stay.
Good luck to you!
posted by pseudostrabismus at 10:05 AM on November 11, 2017 [33 favorites]

I don't wear my stress the same way my wife does. This causes undue conflict.

This is the same conflict as between 'the front of the house' and 'the back of the house' , or 'prep shift' and 'night shift' in restaurants. In office work, this is like - not recognizing that other departments have other goals - not just yours and finding out that they can't work on your project as fast as you want them too.

Basically it comes down to everyone having a different experience and perspective. My wife runs her own business. That makes her a business owner, her accountant, her finance department, her scheduling assistant, her marketing department, her analytics, and every other job function that she needs when she needs it. It is straight triage. She has dependencies on another business, which means she also has responsibilities on the exchange between that business. We have two kids, and her bimodal schedule means that she has responsibilities with the kids that I don't have (and vice versa.)

I have a 9-5 job which taxes my brain and I'm middle management, strategy and implementation all at the same time. I am the catchall to solve problems because - well - that's what I do. Work is a political minefield at this point - not in a bad way - just I have to be cognizant of a host of who knows what, who makes what decisions, who is capable of doing what I need, how do I work with vendors, what are the long term strategies, etc... And my work doesn't stop at 5:00... When I get home - there's an information exchange, a kid tradeoff, and I go from being on-point at work with no downtime to on point at home taking care of two off meds kids with no downtime (I also start my day that way, but generally my wife is there for a portion of the process which puts us on a man to man defense instead of just me on zone like the evenings...)

I play soccer mom on the weekends with scouting activities, and birthday parties - because she has work. Thank god they don't actually do soccer right now. But, that means our lawn is sort of a wreck, there are a host of projects undone, and things pile up. I don't get time to unpack or unplug myself. As I hopefully indicated earlier, neither does my wife. And - I would add - they are playing field hockey right now - which my wife actually takes them to on her one night she doesn't work... (before I get home)... so... its not like she's not taking care of them either.

But, we can both see what remains to be done. I can feel resentment that walking into the door that there is no food even thawed for me to cook for the kids - let alone dinner. And I can get angry. And that means I likely missed the fact that she had to go to the pediatricians office to pick up their prescriptions and then to the pharmacy, only to find out that the prescription was written wrong. Which instead of taking 45 minute, now took a whopping 2.5+ hours AND she still had to do everything with prepping her work.

Likewise, she can get home, and - I can have a dirty kitchen table, two kids in bed, and I can be playing a damn game or writing an email with a sink full of dishes... because I have been driven to the point of 'Go the F**K to Sleep' by two kids with severe ADHD, worn off meds, and anxiety issues... with every intent of getting shit squared away but just needing a moment - a fucking moment - to decompress for the first time all day.

So we can fight about it. We can be resentful. We can say mean things.

Or, we can try empathy - which is way harder sometimes - when you are already fried and all you want to do is curl up into a ball of 'holy fuck, adulting sucks.' Probably you actually want to curl up with the one you love who is experiencing her own share of 'adulting sucks' but now the two of you have pissed each other off again because - well... that's the nature of adulting...

So anyways... empathy. And, if my wife ever reads this - I'm sorry that the dishes are not done sometimes and the house is a wreck. I am working on it - seriously.
posted by Nanukthedog at 10:25 AM on November 11, 2017 [7 favorites]

Best answer: You're doing a great job of thinking about your needs, and the posters above (especially pseudostrabismus and puddledork ) have given great responses.

There are two people in each relationship. You need to know yourself deeply, being willing to examine why another person's behaviour affects you in a particular way. Work on putting this into words for yourself and others. Because you will continuously need to ask for what you need (hi! I'm firmly in ask culture). Then you need to hunt down relationship partners who are fairly aligned with your needs, warm, and flexible. You both need to talk, hear, and be willing to change to accommodate each other.

As you reach a chafing point with a partner, there are three choices you have: 1) adapt to the issue, 2) ask for change, or 3) walk away from the partnership. If you pick the first option, you have to be genuinely prepared to live with the behaviour/issue (though you can revisit your choice). If you ask for change, you have be prepared to either adapt to the issue or walk away if your partner won't change.

Early in my current relationship, I made several option 1 choices; these were key-to-me issues that I abandoned (things relating to perfectionism and soothing my anxieties), because asking my partner to maintain unobtainable standards wasn't fair (or, it turns out, even necessary!). There were important times I asked for change, knowing that refusal on my partner's part would be the end of the relationship. Luckily for our relationship, these issues were option 1 for him. He adapted to my requests, and we puttered along nicely.

Here is the thing: finding a good relationship starts with knowing and honouring yourself, while working on being a warm and adaptable partner. Then you need to actively look for a partner that will balance you in the relationship. This balance will take work and effort, and it is only possible with a person who is moving in the same direction as you and is able to be an equal partner. Look for someone who is relaxed, but works hard. Because relationships are work.
posted by Sauter Vaguely at 1:00 PM on November 11, 2017 [7 favorites]

You've made out a nice list of things that you can identify in past situations as having been out of balance. The next step would be to recognize these in the moment: when you find that you are the person accommodating eccentricities, saying "it's ok, I understand", etc, can you realize that while it's happening instead of realizing "crap it happened again!" while you're falling asleep that night.

Then you start brainstorming ways to respond differently. Instead of "it's ok, I understand" you say "I understand that it's difficult for you (to stop working at 5pm and get to dinner on time). I'm not sure you know that I feel (less important than your reputation) when that happens. What would help me is if you ___ (could tell me at 2pm as soon as you realize your workload is too big and you're likely to be late)." It's perfectly possible to understand a situation without accepting it as being "ok".

When you realize that another person is getting their way all the time, or just that the other person's desires are taking priority, the first step is to make sure that they know what your desires are. Then you can start saying things like "oh, we did your favorite last time, now let's (what I want)".

If you want to have a conversation explicitly about power dynamics and who's driving the relationship, you can do that, and it would probably be beneficial, but it might be interesting to see which of the people in your life respond well to you stepping up your responses as above, and which freak out and say you're being too demanding.
posted by aimedwander at 7:16 AM on November 13, 2017 [3 favorites]

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