Should your partner always be your priority?
December 15, 2006 6:28 AM   Subscribe

In a relationship, should your priority always be towards your partner?

During an argument a long time ago, I pointed out to my gf that occasionally she would not be my number 1 priority, that sometimes my family, friends or work would come first.

This has come up again recently, and it still stings and hurts her deeply. But try as I might, I can't understand quite what her problem is. I don't expect me to be her priority 24-7, so why should she expect to be mine?

Am I being unreasonable?
posted by aprivateperson to Human Relations (38 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Partner, perhaps not. Spouse, most definitely yes.
posted by konolia at 6:29 AM on December 15, 2006

I was answering the main question, not the "am I being unreasonable" one. I meant that if you are married, your spouse comes before friends, family, etc but if you are just boyfriend/girlfriend, not necessarily.
posted by konolia at 6:31 AM on December 15, 2006

In my view of things, you're not being unreasonable, there's a reason girlfriends are girlfriends and not wives, but you are in an unbalanced relationship. She's more committed to you than vice-versa, which is a recipe for disaster.

Considering you "can't quite understand what her problem is." I would think if you care about someone you should be able to see how giving them a laundry list of the things more important than them is going to hurt. Or at least be able to see that as a possibility. It doesn't matter who your talking to or what's on the list you give them, even if they take the high road and don't say anything about it, it will still hurt.

In this situation you need to assess what this relationship is worth to you and either step up to her level or move on. That way you're not wasting your time or hers.
posted by wmeredith at 6:38 AM on December 15, 2006

This is a weird question. Of course your lover should be a top tier priority in any serious grown-up relationship. But a person is a pretty abstract priority. Is she trying to say you shouldn't work? Or that you should talk to her instead of talking to your mom? ...always?

I think most of the time top priorities, especially when they're as general as "my lover" and "my job," shouldn't conflict with each other.
posted by thirteenkiller at 6:39 AM on December 15, 2006

Do you have more context or a specific example? This seems like a very strange thing to discuss with a partner. FWIW, I would be very hurt if my husband would tell me "sorry, but my work is more important to me than you are, at the moment".
posted by davar at 6:41 AM on December 15, 2006

"Being my number one priority" is such an empty commitment though. What does it really mean?

If I have to work over a weekend, that means my girlfriend won't get to see me. So I'm giving priority to my work over her. But maybe I'm working overtime to earn extra money to put down a deposit on a place so we can move in with each other soon. So actually I'm putting her first.

See? It's so vague. You can weigh up almost anything in various ways depending on what long-term and short-term meanings and goals you take into account. So this promise that she wants of 'always being the top priority' is meaningless.
posted by chrismear at 6:42 AM on December 15, 2006

Oh yeah, but I'm talking about super committed long term relationships. Maybe you're not ready for that or something so this girl isn't the center of your world.
posted by thirteenkiller at 6:43 AM on December 15, 2006

If she expects you to always drop whatever you're doing to attend to her, she needs to rethink the universe and how she is not the center of it. Different matters matter differently. Pressing work deadlines must be met if it means keeping and succeeding in your job. Family needs generally come before girlfriend whims. Guys who lose all of their friends and independence for the sake of one grasping girlfriend become sad, insane boyfriends.

Has she no friends or family or work of her own? Is she that dependent on you? Is she a little moon whirling in an eccentric orbit round Planet Boyfriend?
posted by pracowity at 6:50 AM on December 15, 2006 [1 favorite]

It all depends upon what you mean by number one priority. If you are making a commitment to her, she has to become the most important person in your life. That does not mean that her needs will always take precedence over others. Sometimes the needs of another person may be more compelling than your SO's needs. For instance, if a parent were in the hospital with a potentially fatal illness, and your SO was having her birthday, I think you know where you need to be. I think this is probably what you meant with your gf, and that you have merely gotten yourself into a semantic mess. Time for a clean-up.
posted by caddis at 6:51 AM on December 15, 2006

Best answer: "Being my number one priority" is such an empty commitment though. What does it really mean?

It's an important commitment to me, and it's pretty easy for me to define what it means: If my wife needs me, her needs come first.

By "needs" I mean NEEDS. I don't mean that if I'm in the middle of an key business meeting, and my wife wants me to call her, I have to leave the meeting and call her immediately. But I do mean that if I'm in said meeting and my wife is ill or deeply upset, then I DO leave immediately. Obviously, this is a judgment call. But I know her well enough to know when she really needs me.

I remember the day when I was sure I really loved her: I knew that (a) in a horrible situation, like if my wife and dad both got into car crashes and were dying, I'd stay by my wife's bed; (b) if my wife became a quadriplegic, I would still stay with her and be faithful to her. That stuff is not fun to think about, but it is what I mean by "number one priority."

I think if you make someone feel that you'll always be with them when they really need you, they're more likely to cut you slack at other times. If someone is your life is always bugging you for attention, it may be because they fear that they may lose you. My wife knows she's never going to lose me.

I don't think "wife" is an important word. I felt this way about my wife when she was my girlfriend. I'm not saying that all people should feel this way about their boyfriend/girlfriend. They shouldn't. This isn't appropriate in a casual relationship. But it's key to a long-term committed relationship. I wish that more people -- before they got married and had kids -- would do their some soul searching and ask themselves if their partner is really their number one priority.
posted by grumblebee at 7:19 AM on December 15, 2006 [11 favorites]

I think you're thinking about this all wrong, aprivateperson. You're asking us if we can justify a nasty thing you said to your gf during an argument. We can certainly justify the idea behind it (of course there wil be minutes and hours in your life where you'll be thinking about work and not her), but to say it? That's just dumb. And mean. And I hope you know that already. If I were you, I would do my best to salvage this situation. You need to explain to her that even if you have other things going on in your life, of course she'll always be important to you, and you'll always love her, and she'll always be a priority in your life. But the fact that you know that you said something that hurt her feelings, and now you're posting trying to justify it, isn't encouraging. Try to focus less on being right and more on supporting your partner.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 7:24 AM on December 15, 2006 [5 favorites]

What grumblebee said. And also what TPS said. You're not being "unreasonable," but love isn't about reason. You're being, if not mean, then uncomprehending. I suspect this is not a permanent relationship for you. If you're lucky enough to meet the right partner, you won't sit around thinking that "sometimes my family, friends or work ... come first." You'll know your partner comes first. If you never find that partner, then enjoy the ones you have and try not to hurt them unnecessarily.
posted by languagehat at 7:31 AM on December 15, 2006 [1 favorite]

Your partner may sometimes take a back seat to other parts of your life, but it's usually not a good idea to tell them that. Not all truths need to be aired.
posted by scratch at 7:34 AM on December 15, 2006

ThePink beat me to it. In my eyes the real problem is that you told her that she isn't always important to you. This may not be the meaning you intended to convey but it's what she understood you to be saying.

Further, there may be a semantic mix-up muddying the waters. Being the top priority does not mean that you will consider her needs and attend to her all day long every day to the exclusion of all other ends. That's just silly. It does mean that when problems or desires of equal weight arise you'll give hers priority over anyone else's. For example my wife got to plan our wedding and any relative that didn't like the arrangements was told to take a flying leap. Her taste in colors, flowers, etc. took priority over everyone else's. On the other hand my dad needed me to visit him a few months ago and I simply packed up and left. Her desire to see a movie simply wasn't enough to preempt my father's need to see me. In both cases she was, and is, my top priority, but the situations called for different actions.
posted by oddman at 7:40 AM on December 15, 2006 [1 favorite]

Maybe your girlfriend's ties to her own family aren't as close as your ties to your family, so she doesn't understand why they rank so highly on your priority list.

I don't expect me to be her priority 24-7, so why should she expect to be mine?

This reminds me of an important qualification of Ye Olde Golden Rule. Remember the old "treat others the way you want to be treated" adage? It's great for teaching empathy to five-year-olds, but it's inappropriate when it comes to adults. Adults are generally expected to understand that different people like different things.

This applies to your situation in that your priorities are different than your girlfriend's, and neither of you should expect change from the other. Now, it is possible that your priorities WILL change, a la grumblebee's example, above. In the meantime, you are going to have to accept that you two have different priorities.

It always hurts to hear bad news, like that we aren't the most important person in someone's life, even if it makes sense rationally. I suggest you find a kinder way of making your priorities known to her next time it comes up. Or maybe avoid a subject that so obviously hurts her.

All of that said, it's also possible that there's an imbalance in your relationship, and the reason this topic keeps coming up is because she's insecure because she knows she's more involved in the relationship than you are. That's a big warning sign, like wmeredith mentions.

You'll probably get more targeted advice if you follow up with
- your age bracket
- how long you've been with this woman
- whether you live together
posted by Sprout the Vulgarian at 7:49 AM on December 15, 2006

But try as I might, I can't understand quite what her problem is.

She's hurt and thinks you don't lover her as much she loves you. That's the real issue.

You don't give any details or specifics, so it's hard to judge where she was being unreasonable or you were or ya'll are miscommunicating. But the core issue is that she feels ike a fool for loving you as much as she does, 'cause you don't care about her as much as she cares about you, at least in her mind.

If this continues, she'll find someone who DOES make her feel good.

I don't expect me to be her priority 24-7, so why should she expect to be mine?

You two clearly need to talk about exactly what you mean here. DO THAT. Clear your calendar for a night, ask her to clear hers and hash this out as quickly as possible, 'cause longterm this could kill the relationship.

As to the main question:
In a relationship, should your priority always be towards your partner?

No, of course not, you need to take care of yourself also, and sometimes first.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:57 AM on December 15, 2006

ThePinkSuperhero nails it. This isn't about the plain facts of what's more important when. This is about support, and the perception of support.

During a time when something else is more important than my partner, instead of TELLING him that, I would say, "Hey, I'm going through something intense right now (insert details here) and I don't want to drag you into it until it's all taken care of. If I seem distant this (month/week/semester), that's all it is. And if you really need attention from me, be sure to speak up because I don't want you to feel neglected. Thanks for understanding. I love you."

My real advice: send flowers. NOW.
posted by hermitosis at 8:11 AM on December 15, 2006 [2 favorites]

I agree with ThePinkSuperhero - what you said and what she heard are very different things. What she heard was "You don't care about me." and that's never a good thing to hear. I know that's not what you said, but for better or worse the question wasn't "am I more important than other things?" it was "do you care about me?"

You can try to argue logically by saying a priority depends on the circumstances. If, say, your mom was in a car accident and she needed a ride to her job and you told her that you'd go see your mom in the hospital, you're still implying that you don't care about her. If instead you tell her that you'd go see you mom in the hospital but would be thinking about her and worrying about her job - ah - that communicates something totally different.
posted by plinth at 8:11 AM on December 15, 2006

In my little warped view of the world there are only two people that take priority and everything is about achieving a balance that satisfies both of those. My wife, and myself.

Sometimes work, family, friends are what I need to satisfy myself, or a means to an ends, but to what degree depends on how much attention I need to devote to my wife. (it sounds strange to say it like that but the emotion behind it is less complicated than the language)
I certainly care about people outside of the two, but on a basic level the two is the fundamental base.

The degree to which you feel like this is a serious relationship affects the ratio of self/other.

i imagine if you add kids to the mix the focus shifts dramatically
posted by edgeways at 8:19 AM on December 15, 2006

The PinkSuperhero has it. You're dumb.

"I told my mother that her cooking wasn't necessarily the best I had had, depending on how you define best."

"I told my prospective employer in the interview, that nooo, I can't say I'm going to give 110% every day -- I mean, I'll probably have a bad day sometime, right?"

"I told my boyfriend that he's not always going to be the sexiest guy in the room -- what if we were in a gym? Some of those guys are perfect! And the tight pants they wear -- you can see exactly what they have to offer. I wasn't complaining -- I told him that! It's just, obviously, some guys are going to have bigger dicks than his, you know, statistically."

Roses. Heart-shaped box of chocolate. Groveling. Or alternately, you're just not that into her, and cut the passive-aggressive crap and admit it to yourself.
posted by Methylviolet at 8:21 AM on December 15, 2006 [4 favorites]

Frankly, I hope I'm never in a relationship where somebody feels they have to lie to me to make me feel better. There's nothing worse than fake "that was really good" when you know it wasn't.
posted by chrismear at 8:32 AM on December 15, 2006

Quite truthfully I don't think I would be hurt by this assertion. It's just true. Being priority number one every hour every day isn't even desirable to me, and I wouldn't want it expected of me.

There may be context to this that we're missing in the post, but at face value I think she is being dramatic. And I think sending flowers and candy perpetuates the problem.
posted by loiseau at 9:12 AM on December 15, 2006

Family - friends - work. If you'd give up your gf for any of these, the she has a right to be upset and eventually ditch you.

If not, then there's a communication problem - you will always give her needs relative priority, not absolute priority.

If she has a health emergency, for example, that takes relative priority over all other things. But if she wants to have dinner together every night, and your Family - friends - work needs to go to the hospital, then she looses.
posted by ewkpates at 9:39 AM on December 15, 2006 [1 favorite]

Frankly, I hope I'm never in a relationship where somebody feels they have to lie to me to make me feel better. There's nothing worse than fake "that was really good" when you know it wasn't.

How old are you?

I bet you'll feel differently when you're 40, 50, 60, 70... Bodies begin to fail, sex-lives become harder to keep fresh, you've heard the same stories 100 times. At some point, kindness and nurturing become more important than harsh truths.

Yes, I want my wife to be honest with me.

No, if I get into a horrible, disfiguring accident, I don't want her to say, "Honey, I have to be honest with you. You're really ugly."

Is that a contradiction? I guess. But navigating it is part of being in a mature relationship. And if you love someone, it's not all that hard.
posted by grumblebee at 10:01 AM on December 15, 2006

I've never found broad statements about priorities to be helpful in relationships. In fact, the only time they seem to come up is when either person wants to hide behind some supposed general rule instead of actually owning a decision they've made.

As such, I find a general question about priorites to be generally unanswerable.

As for not understanding why she's upset...ThePinkSuperhero is dead on.
posted by tkolar at 10:52 AM on December 15, 2006

You're not being unreasonable, in terms of practice. However, if you two are cuddling on the couch, and she's like "You're the most important thing in the world to me," and you're like, "Well, sometimes my job is more important," then you're an insensitive clod.

Also, she has reason to worry. Plenty of guys live in a world where men and women are different species who can never understand each other. These guys will inevitably get dumped when their girlfriend gets tired of being treated like an alien and ends up latching onto the first male who treats her like a human being.
posted by dagnyscott at 10:52 AM on December 15, 2006

How old are you?

Yeah, I'm young and naive. But I'm old enough to know that truths can be truths without having to be harsh. And I do aspire to continue to be someone for whom receiving honesty is always more important than reassurance. I'm not claiming that that's necessarily a better way to approach life; it's just mine, that's all.

If you're still kicking around whatever we have for an internet in a couple of decades' time, friend, I'll let you know how it's going.
posted by chrismear at 11:16 AM on December 15, 2006

It's admirable, chrismear. I worry less about what you're doing to yourself than your effect on others. Doling out absolute honesty, all the time, even to people who say they want it, can cause tremendous pain.

But when I was "young and naive", I felt exactly the way you do. And NOTHING would have convinced me otherwise. This is probably something that -- even if I'm right -- people need to learn for themselves.
posted by grumblebee at 11:50 AM on December 15, 2006

Oh, and some truths CAN'T be true without being harsh. There's really no way to dampen "you have terminal cancer."
posted by grumblebee at 11:51 AM on December 15, 2006

Doling out absolute honesty, all the time, even to people who say they want it, can cause tremendous pain.

Oh, believe me, I learned early on that blurting out every ounce of God's Honest Truth is not a quick route to making friends.
posted by chrismear at 12:07 PM on December 15, 2006

It was kind of not nice to say that, but on the other hand you are correct: Sometimes you will have to work late, or there will be a familial or friend emergency.

But how often since this argument have you had to cancel plans with her because of one of the other things? Has it been an awful lot? Have you made a concerted effort to find - or create - free time to spend with her and try to make up for it?

Is this coming up again because something lately is making her feel like she doesn't matter as much to you as pretty much everything else in life? This is something that would need addressing and correcting, if you're aiming for long term with her.

It isn't that she has to always be number one, because out of necessity she won't be. But she deserves her time, too. If you're interrupting or canceling your time together a lot, and not rescheduling later, then I can see where she'd start to feel the sting of your words.

It seems so cliched, but actions really do speak so much louder than words. Try to determine if you are sending conflicting messages. It's distressing when your words tell someone that you love them, but aren't backed up by actions, i.e. spending time with them, doing little things for them, being there when they need you.
posted by angeline at 12:16 PM on December 15, 2006 [1 favorite]

Have you made a concerted effort to find - or create - free time to spend with her

This is key. We crave attention from our loved ones. If I was angry, I might say to my wife, "I'm clearly not the most important person in your life!" But what I would mean by this is really, "I feel neglected." I wouldn't want her to explain how actually I was the most important person. I'd want her to hold me and make me feel loved; I'd want her to do special things for me that she doesn't do for other people; I'd want her to tell me she loves me often, spontaneously, without me having to ask her.

In a longterm relationship, it's so easy to get busy and take the other person for granted. I'd bet a lot of money that if you put aside time every day to show your gf how much you love her, this problem will go away. If you're busy, it doesn't even have to be a lot of time. Put secret notes in her purse that she'll find when she's at work; send her emails, telling her you're thinking about her; be creative; have fun!
posted by grumblebee at 12:25 PM on December 15, 2006 [2 favorites]

different people have different values and priorities. it sounds like, to her, her partner is her top priority. you clearly feel differently, in that you qualify that statement based upon circumstances.

obviously there are times when logically other things take priority: when you're driving to work focusing on the road takes priority; when your mom calls and needs help she's the priority.

but for a very partner-centric person, this momentary shift of focus required for existence has nothing to do with the underlying concept that 'my partner is the main component of my life and takes precedence over friends and family'. that is why your qualifications hurt your partner's feelings - because it's clear by your statements that you don't feel the same way on this topic that she does, and that is a pretty significant incompatibility.
posted by jjsonp at 1:19 PM on December 15, 2006 [1 favorite]

Just my point of view: yes, you're being unreasonable. That is, you're simplifying. Some things change, some don't.

Look, people have partnerships for lots of reasons, but we stay in relationships because we believe it's good for us. If you call this person your girlfriend, it's because you think she's a benefit to you. You seem to believe that you're a benefit to you, too, because you're not asking us how to get a new girlfriend once you've used this one up.

You are no good to her unless you are sane and happy. That means that sometimes you'll need your own space. The same is true of her. But to say that that means that your priorities change is either to misspeak, to be a bad partner, or to be in a partnership that probably isn't worth your time.

You're right to calculate carefully here. But I have a feeling that you're getting very confused in your attempt to appear to be calculating carefully.
posted by koeselitz at 1:21 PM on December 15, 2006

One of the things I learned when negotiating my prenup is the concept of "community," which is the interests of the partnership/family created by two individuals who get hitched. I like it a lot. Clearly there's times when my wife is not my first priority or at the top of my mind, and the same applies to her. However, my long term priority and goal is promoting the well-being of the community, i.e. our marriage. There's times when I need to compromise my own happiness for the community, and there's times when my wife needs to compromise hers. That's just life, but what we do consistently prioritize is the well-being and happiness of the community, which is the both of us.

There's me, there's her, and then there's the thing that we've created together, and the collective good of the two of us together is the important thing.
posted by stet at 3:49 PM on December 15, 2006 [1 favorite]

What grumblebee said. I'm currently going through something similar, having realised after being with someone for about six years that whilst she is my first, top priority, I am not necessarily hers.

Clearly, priority is computed on a long-term basis (i.e. do work now instead of hanging out with her so that we can sustain our lifestyle into the foreseeable future).... however, there is the sense that the time we have left to spend together is an absolute, fixed amount, and that if you sacrifice too much time in the present for the sake of the 'long term'... you end up eroding the long term itself.

I like stet's idea of the community as well. And right now I just can't get my head around the idea that my girlfriend will suggest something that involves a sacrifice of a significant amount of time together (like a year overseas) -not- for the sake of the community, but for her own interests.

So whilst its likely that the OP's problem stems from miscommunication and semantics, it is also possible that there is a deeper, more fundamental inconsistency of expectations operating in the relationship.
posted by nihraguk at 3:14 PM on December 17, 2006 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: For clarification purposes, she's my partner. Been togehter for nearly two years, I moved up to live with her 6 months ago, both of us in our early 30s.

And the argument was more over Christmas - she maintains that my family forced me to spend Christmas with them. Whereas we spent Christmas with her parents last year, so I was thinking about suggesting that we spend it with my family (she's not comfortable around strangers or anyone not from her local area) when she unilaterally (in my eyes) declared that she was spending it with her family and that was that. Christmas is so important to her that she loves films like Deck The Halls, but doesn't see my fascination with It's A Wonderful Life.

FWIW, I can't see myself being with anyone else. For all our incompatabilities in mind and outlook, our hearts and souls are intertwined.

Thank you for your thoughts. Boy, this transition from eternally single batchelor to coupledom is a lot harder than I thought. There should be an FAQ.
posted by aprivateperson at 1:36 AM on December 18, 2006

Response by poster: Oh, and for the last six months, my life has been pretty much exclusively focussed on her. Not found a job or made my own friends up here yet, hardly seen my friends/family for various reasons...
posted by aprivateperson at 1:37 AM on December 18, 2006

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