A friend asked a good question on social media a few weeks back and I have been chewing on it ever since. She was musing about give and take in intimate relationships and from her original query, I have derived a few clarifying questions of my own. My attempts at answering these questions are by no means prescriptive, just my own thoughts on how to achieve balance in long term relationships whether friendships, family relationships, or spousal relationships. In this four-part series, we’ll explore questions of needs and rights, power and control, communication, and setting boundaries.
How do we balance the needs of each individual with the rights of the other?
It is only human nature to want our own way. Ask anyone over the age of 2 and they will tell you the response to not getting their way is pretty much the same, at least on the inside. Not all of us throw ourselves on the floor to kick and scream, but whether we are conscious of it or not feeling deprived (and avoiding that feeling) fuels many of our interactions with those around us.
Here is the problem with balance: it requires us to intentionally experience deprivation on behalf of someone else. We can’t always do that cheerfully. I’m not sure it is necessary to embrace it cheerfully. What is necessary is making that choice to set aside our desire to get what we want and avoid feeling deprived so that the other can feel fulfilled. In order for balance to be achieved, all parties must be actively engaged in this practice.
Here is a second problem with balance: you can only control your own actions. It is impossible to require someone to sacrifice for you, no matter how small. You can only choose to engage the practice of self-denial yourself. Which means it is risky. Which means it is scary. Which means we don’t often want to be the first one to give.
Our most vital right as human beings is to make our own decisions. No one can force something upon another without violating that right, whether the method is physical force or psychological manipulation. This is the right that must be balanced with the need of the other in a relationship. If you or your partner sacrifice without making the choice freely, that right is violated.
Sacrifice can be a beautiful thing, but only if it comes from a place of love and care. Forced sacrifice only damages relationships. It leads to bitterness in the least and hatred at the most extreme. This is why the key to finding balance is open, honest communication linked with freedom for each one to make their own decision.
The initial step towards this balance is achieved by agreeing in conversation to form (or reform) your relationship around this principle. Make a pact. Promise that when it is really important for fulfilling the other person’s needs, you will find a way to compromise or sacrifice to make it happen. BUT since it is only balance when it goes both ways everyone MUST commit to communicate those things that they believe are necessary for their fulfillment. Otherwise it comes down to guesswork, and not being good mind-readers, most people stink at relational guesswork.
The classic example of self-denial is the story The Gift of the Magi where both husband and wife give up their most prized possessions in order to give a gift to the other. Whether you find that the gestures were wasted or not, we can observe both proving by their actions that the relationship and the other person were more important than any object they possessed. The sacrifice is beautiful because neither choice was manipulated or forced, each one chose of their own free will to demonstrate their love to each other in this way.
Watch for the next post: How do we set aside models of power and control for models of love and service?