Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Selfishness & Selflessness - Take 2

Two years ago I wrote a blog post called Selfishness & Selflessness, Marriage & Children. On Christmas Eve this year, I received the following comment:

I found this to be a very interesting and encouraging article. I find one of the tougher things in relationships is finding a good place to call the line. "It's a circle. It's not an exchange. Nobody is keeping track. Sometimes you give a lot and sometimes you need a lot. And as long as the balance doesn't tip too heavily in one direction for too long, it nourishes the relationship to carry on this way."

I am not sure if the author still visits these posts, but what are your thoughts when the balance tips a long way in one direction for a long time and stays there. How can you salvage it without making the relationship an exchange?

Even bringing up the problem is inherently somewhat selfish (though not in my opinion in a bad way) because it is communicating your needs. I can't find a great solution here. If you withhold from your partner until they become giving, it benefits neither of you, but in some cases just asking doesn't do the trick.
I mulled it over, and Mango & I had some long conversation about it, and this is my response...

The first and easiest is answer is the one you gave yourself. You need to talk about it. This is the kind of selfishness I was talking about in a positive way - being willing to say what you want. If you won't say what you want, how can you expect your partner to know what you need? If you asked Vespera or Novio what my number one piece of marriage advice is, I think they both could recite it in their sleep: Don't expect the other person to know what you want. You have to say what you want in order to get it. You grew up in different families with different communication styles, and your hints and non-verbals will not communicate adequately what it is you want. AND, it doesn't make your partners actions any less valuable that you had to ask. In fact, it is an act of true love for someone to do what you've asked, even though it is unfamiliar to them. Have I said it in enough ways yet? You MUST say what you want in order to get it. If you're unwilling to say, your relationship may die without your partner ever knowing WHY.

I must also say that just because you've asked for it before doesn't mean your partner will remember. I am guilty of this myself. Mango really, really needs me to use my words and TELL him how much I love and appreciate him. He soaks up words of affirmation like a sponge. I, myself, am not so good at saying how I really feel OUT LOUD in words. I talk a lot, but it's hard for me to get really personal in my talking. Sometimes I'm brought up short when Mango asks me a simple question about how I feel about something or another, and I realize I haven't even told him how much I appreciate something, though I've thought of it (and perhaps even bragged about him to my friends). I need reminders to express my love and care and appreciation to him in words. I promise you that it doesn't mean I love him less. I love him more than all my words put together could ever say. I just need to be reminded of how to love him best.

So, start by telling your partner what it is you want them to give. They may not know.

Several other things came to mind in response to your comment, though. First, I wonder if you feel like you're giving a lot and not getting a whole lot in return because you're not really speaking your partner's love language. If you're not familiar with the concept of love languages, you can begin reading here. It's possible that you're doing the dishes and making exceptional dinners when what your partner really needs in order to feel loved is a nice backrub. Or, it's possible that you're kissing and hugging when what they really need is practical help. Maybe their love language is words of affirmation, but you're not so good at speaking those words. Maybe you're better at touch or quality time or acts of service. It's entirely possible for two people to be loving each other in ways that don't really fill the other person's needs and desires for love. Have you asked what they want and desire? If you haven't, you may need to begin there. It's so much easier for your partner to give back to you and DESIRE to give back to you when they feel loved by you. I hear you asking about what happens when one person does all the giving, and I would first respond that it's important to make sure that it's the kind of giving your partner really needs. You see, it's natural for us to speak the love language that we, personally, desire the most. In fact, we can't imagine how the things we're doing wouldn't be the right things to make our partners feel loved, but, in fact, it's entirely possible that the language you're speaking is the one you want for you but not the one your partner needs for them.

Next, I'd ask whether the partner who appears to not be doing any giving is, in fact, incapable of giving at the present time. This is a tough one. Sometimes our partners are in a place where they have emotional healing to do, and they aren't capable of loving in the way we want to be loved. The biggest question here is whether or not healing is in process. If it's in process, then you need to let it be. As married people, we promise to love our spouses in sickness and in health. This is a time of sickness, and you've promised to love. It's really that simple...and that difficult.

The circumstance that specifically comes to mind for me is when a person has been abused sexually and is finding healing within the marriage relationship. A person needs to be in a relationship where they can say no but don't need to. In other words, a woman who has been sexually abused needs to say "no" sometimes and find that she will still be loved and respected. She needs the reassurance that she will not be forced and, in fact, her partner will still love and cherish, honor and respect her, though she cannot give sexually at this particular time. Once a person feels safe in this, they will be able to heal and to give. It's her partner's position to be steadfast and loving, willing to set aside his own needs to help heal those painful wounds. Walter Wangerin says in his book As For Me and My House, "You are married. Healing is not a profession but a way of life. Your spouse is not your patient but your flesh. Healing, then, is a task for your heart as well as your head and your hand. " Marriage is a beautiful place for healing. It isn't easy, but it is well worth the effort.

Of course, when the balance is tipped in the direction of one person's healing for a long time, a marriage can become unhealthy. The above paragraph assumes a steady trajectory toward healing and a balanced relationship. It also assumes that the partner who needs healing is actively working on it, and, typically, this means that they ARE giving to the relationship in some way. If healing isn't happening, it seems to me that the healthy partner needs some boundaries to protect themselves. They need to say exactly what they are and are not willing to give AND they need to find a support system for themselves...friends, family, churches, counselors, whatever to have a network of social outlets and people who listen and care for them.

What if your partner does not respond to your requests, you are speaking their love language, and they are able to give but are refusing? Well, it's like this: You promised to love this person. You didn't just promise to be nice or to tolerate. You promised to love, and loving means giving of yourself, even when you don't get what you want. Except in cases where there has been abuse or unfaithfulness, I believe it's your job to stick with it. This is radical and counter-cultural. Now, I don't think it's anyone's job to be a doormat, and I DO believe in setting good boundaries, as I've already stated.

I believe that unconditional love is powerful and has a certain irresistible draw. If you keep loving your partner unconditionally, regardless of everything...well, very few people refuse to be drawn into that. It's hard not to be swept away by unconditional love, if it's truly unconditional. I'm talking about a love that gives generously and without resentment, that seeks out what your partner really need and meets them where they need it most. Unfortunately, we humans are not capable of this kind of love. And, yes, I'm about to talk about God. I believe that we need something bigger than ourselves to have the power to really love another human being unconditionally. We humans are finite, fragile, broken, imperfect, and we cannot love perfectly without some help. We must be connected to the source of all love, to the God who is Love, in order to offer any kind of unconditional love to another human being. When we find ourselves drained or angry or overwhelmed or resentful, we can only keep loving by drawing on the one Source of infinite love, by calling out for help, by letting God fill our cup until it runs over once more.

It's hard to write about questions like these without a lot of caveats. It's hard to respond without knowing a particular situation. I want you to know that I really, really don't recommend that anyone hang around and be a doormat for their spouse. I don't advocate for one-way relationships. I think they're unhealthy, unbalanced. At the same time, I think there are times when we really need to hang in there while our partners find their own balance and healing. And I think we were put on this earth to love. So, I believe in loving as long and as much as possible...with good boundaries...in the absence of abuse or unfaithfulness. You see how difficult this is to balance or define? I can speak better to specific situations. I define abuse broadly, and, especially if a couple has children, I think protecting one's emotions is just as important as protecting one's physical body. So, it's difficult.

Above all, I believe honesty is the place to begin...honestly speaking your thoughts and needs to your spouse. This is the very first, most common, place where people stumble. If you find yourself living in unbalance ask your partner if you're really giving what they want and be willing to say what you want. Begin there, and you will most likely find your answer.

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