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Mar 09 2011

“Is there something wrong with me for wanting what I want?”

Published by at 12:58 pm under Knowing Relationships BLOG

Sometimes people want too much in a romance and just as often they don’t want enough.

It helps if you know what you want and what you are willing to do to get it. Often dating at midlife teaches you this.  At the same time, if you’ve had a string of unsatisfactory relationships, which is not unusual in dating at midlife, you will be a bit unsure about what you can reasonably expect.
A little pessimism is forgivable, especially if you’ve been burned in the past, but still, it is better to know what you want and to be able to say so clearly, at least to yourself.

In the last 20 years psychological research has systematically investigated the psychology of successful romantic relationships…and rediscovered what many folks simply knew all along. But still, there are a lot of opinions out there and it’s good to know what some folks have found out with rigorous thinking.

A good relationship contains three main elements – technically they are called “behavioral systems.” The term means that our brains are set up to create three different, somewhat independent kinds of relationship conditions. Relationships that live and flourish tend to contain all three.

There is the physical loving, the sexual connection.

There is how you take care of your partner.

There is how your partner takes care of you.

We are basically moral animals and we evaluate relationships on the basis of what’s fair. Instinctively we keep score, we notice whether what we give is relatively equal to what we get.
Important qualifier: I mean relatively equal over time. In a good relationship sometimes the ratio is 50/50, sometimes it’s 80/20, sometimes it’s 20/80 or some variation on this theme. But over time, in most good relationships people feel they are getting far more than they are receiving. In a good relationship, the emotional wealth appreciates.
You will inevitably notice the balance in these three areas and when any one of them feels a bit too out of balance, you’ll start asking for more, even it’s silently, and you might wonder “Is there something wrong with me, or my partner, for asking so much.”
How do you evaluate this?
Let’s focus on the emotional components and set aside the erotic piece for a different posting. (You might want to check this one out in the meantime.)

The emotional connection has two parts.

1. Trust
2. Support.

What Trust looks like in a romantic relationship.

Trust is the matter of safety, kindness and compassion.  The more there is; the more comfortable and vulnerable you can be.  When you are cherished in a way you trust, by someone you trust, you relax and open your heart.
People who are cherished feel less stress and handle stress better. Their long term emotional well being improves.
Here are some things that must happen for a relationship to be one with strong mutual trust.

1. Open communication of thoughts and feelings.

You can say difficult things to each other and be heard and understood. Partners are sensitive to each other’s vulnerabilities.

2. Partners listen to each other and are genuinely interested in each other’s concerns.

3. Partners don’t dismiss, brush aside or belittle each others’ problems.

4. Partners are steadily willing to provide instrumental assistance.

They can count on each other for, not just emotional support, but also information, advice, problem solving, task assistance.  They also have a sense of proportion about how much, and when to give help. They don’t get upset when their advice or help is rejected.

5. They are willing to take steps to provide protection or remove sources of danger and threats.

They can and to give each other a steady, calm presence. They trust that the other will not put up a wall, cut off communication, or refuse to deal.
The technical term for this kind of trust is to say that a relationship becomes a “safe haven.”
Someone else said that their marriage was “a fortress for well-being.” In one of the interviews with successful couples – part of a special project with my colleague, Marilyn Bronstein, (to be released soon) – one man’s happy wife in a 25 year marriage said, gesturing to the space between her and her husband, “This is home.” You want your relationship to feel that way.

What “Support” looks like in a romantic relationship.

The other principle, and somewhat separate way of dealing with each other involves a very different set of actions. There are two technical terms for it.  In one set of literature it’s called “providing a secure base.”  In another set of  literature  it’s called “self-expansion.”
The relationship makes you a bigger,  more alive, more complex, more courageous person that would be if you were completely alone.  Support involves appreciating and encouraging each other.
If you ask people to describe themselves when they are single and then later, when they are in a good relationship, they will name more qualities.  They experience themselves as more complex, interesting, and competent people.  As a result, they have more confidence and belief in what they can accomplish. Also, after a break up this feeling of expansiveness goes away and sometimes they feel smaller.
If Kindness and Cherishing is an absence of bad stuff, Appreciating and Encouraging is a presence of good stuff. People who are appreciated believe in themselves and they feel that there is someone “at home,” who also believes in them and supports their efforts.

Here are some things that happen for a relationship to be a source of mutual support.

1. Partners believe in and encourage each other to accept personal challenges and try new things.

2. Partners have genuine interest and appreciate for each others’ personal goals.

3. Partners take pleasure in knowing about each others’ lives beyond the boundaries of their relationship

4. Partners provide instrumental assistance, like information, advice and assistance in removing obstacles.

5. Partners don’t interfere with, demean or intrude on each other’s explorations.

6. Partners celebrate each others’ successes and responding sensitively and supportively to each others’ failures.

You’ll want both Support and Trust in any relationship you stay in.
If the relationship isn’t trustworthy and safe, one or both partners will feel neglected and taken advantage of, or even abused. Then it won’t matter how expanding, exciting or fun the relationship is.
The reverse is also true. If the relationship is safe for you but without appreciation one or both partner will feel that it’s dull and boring.
There is a New Yorked cartoon by Eric Titleman. The husband is sitting at his chair and reading and says to his wife, “If something is bothering you about our relationship, just spell it out.” The wife is writing huge words in black paint on the wall: “Nothing ever happens.”  In a relationship without appreciation you’ll feel restless and want, even ache, for more.  One woman in such a relationships said, “I love him but my bucket is empty.”
The lack of appreciation from a partner is often a powerful motive for an affair. The old joke, the line said by a married man to his mistress, “my wife doesn’t understand me,” is an example. This is true even if it’s only an emotional affair and not a sexual one.
A lot of this stuff is visible quite early in a relationship. This list will help you be more clear-headed as you head into an intimate relationship. As John Lennon once said, “There’s nothing to be seen that isn’t shown.”  People who are forced to think deeply about relationship disappointments can often remember early signs.
(Footnote: The material here is drawn from resent research in academic psychology about the the nature of romantic relationship.  Since the 90’s psychology has been studying successful relationships using interviews, surveys and various tests.  The disciple is built from a series of models developed in the 1960’s and 70’s about the nature of the relationship between parents and children.  We’ve demonstrated that those relationship can predict an individual’s style of creating relationships in adulthood. Out of that we’ve come up with some core features of a successful romantic relationship. The core of the list is drawn from an article by Nancy L. Collins, AnaMarie C Guidchard, Maire B Ford, and Brooke C Feeney called “Responding to Need in Intimate Relationships.”)

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