“True happiness is found in unselfish love, a love which increases in proportion as it is shared.” – Thomas Merton
A romantic relationship is the combining of two individuals with their own unique sets of traits, preferences, and dreams. A vast array of conscious and unconscious factors play into our initial attraction towards another person. We are often attracted to qualities in other people that “remind” us of other important loved ones from our past or even that remind us of qualities that we long to have in ourselves. When we combine our own paths with that of another person, we have embarked upon a shared journey. It is no longer “my” path and “your” path in life… it becomes “our” path.
When you reflect upon your relationship, you may consider that there are two primary entities involved: you and your partner. In fact, there is a very important third entity that Dr. William Glasser discusses in his book “Choice Theory.” This third entity is the relationship. When you are in a committed romantic relationship, you inevitably must make compromises to work together as a team. If you are exclusively focused on getting your own needs met, the relationship suffers.
It is often easier said than done to set aside your personal needs to consider what is best for the relationship. Quite often, what would be best for you, as an individual, is not what is truly best for the relationship. However, this does not mean that in order to have a healthy and harmonious relationship you must subordinate all of your needs and wants. What it does mean is that you must be willing to compromise and make reasonable sacrifices to maintain a long-term romantic relationship. It can’t be “all about you” every moment any more than it can be “all about them.”
When problems arise in your relationship, make the choice to let your partner know that you would like to have a frank, open, and direct discussion about what compromises each of you are willing (and not willing) to make. Be straightforward about what things you are willing to change or give up not “for your partner,” but “for the relationship.” If at any point during your discussion you experience significant stress, tension, or unwillingness to make personal sacrifices or changes, you must be willing to say, “What I want/need right now is more important than this relationship. Give me some time to think things over and let’s discuss this again in the future.”
William Glasser explains that we all have the same innate needs, but they vary in strength according to the individual. It is when we have significant discrepancies between our own need strengths and our partner’s need strengths that trouble may arise. Fortunately, if you are functioning within your relationship from a choice theory foundation (i.e., avoiding controlling the other person and taking full responsibility for your own behavioral choices), then discrepant need strengths can be openly worked through.
Glasser’s Five Basic Needs
- Love & Belonging
Interestingly, Glasser points out that the strength of one’s need for love and belonging “is measured by how much we are willing to give, not by how much we are willing to receive” (1998, p. 96). It is common for people to desire more love than is usually available. What is important to recognize here is that you cannot get more love than your partner is able to give.
If you are interested in getting all of the love that your partner is capable of giving you, the best chance (within a choice theory framework) to get that love is to give as much love to your partner as you can. If you feel that something is lacking and you want to receive something from your partner, rather than try to force your partner into giving through aggressive or passive-aggressive strategies, make the choice to give that which you wish to receive. You may be surprised by the powerful simplicity of this concept.
Glasser contends that the most difficult need to satisfy (in and out of relationships) is the need for power. This doesn’t necessarily mean the need to wield tyrannical control over other people, but it does mean some sense that you have a feeling of power, control, or authority in some area(s) of your life. If you are fortunate enough to be a part of a good workplace where you manage to have some power and work with people who don’t excessively push you around, the benefits of this environment carry over to your romantic relationship (Glasser, 1998).
Two people who both have low needs for power are almost always compatible, according to Glasser. This low need for power tends to translate into an increased willingness to negotiate and reach comprises through sacrificing one’s own personal interests for the sake of the relationship. When you put two people together and neither one is willing to budge an inch or sacrifice any of their self interests, the relationship may be threatened. Healthy relationships require compromise and letting go of power when reasonable.
When you put two people together who both have high needs for power, there may be a strong initial attraction since power tends to attract power. The problem is that these two people are often irresistibly drawn to get their own way and struggle with coming to compromise, since each person tends to view compromise as some form of weakness or defeat. Glasser explains that “negotiation cannot take place if neither is willing to give up some power” (1998, p. 99).
People with a high need for freedom tend to struggle mightily in romantic relationships, since they perceive the very nature of their being “free” as meaning that no one owns them. It is worth reflecting on how much this idea of being a part of a romantic relationship is really about “ownership.” It is possible that people with high needs for freedom are especially sensitive to interpersonal and environmental cues that give the slightest hint of threatening their freedom, causing them to potentially overreact when they experience this need being threatened.
Again, the concept of putting the relationship before one’s individual needs is of the utmost concern. Any relationship requires some level of letting go of freedom, although if the person with a high need for freedom chooses to reframe this negotiation as needs by considering all that they have to gain (i.e., a loving and stable relationship), then perhaps they can effectively work through this compromise without feeling so threatened.
A high need for fun is beneficial for all romantic relationships. Glasser points out that “with a minimal effort, you can laugh and learn anytime, anywhere” (1998, p. 101). Couples who choose to share interests, learn together, and laugh together receive wonderful benefits to their overall relationship satisfaction. However, disparate needs for fun within a relationship generally do not cause significant damage, provided that there is reasonable balance between the other needs.
Importance of Compatibility & Strength of Needs
“The best marriages share an average need for survival, a high need for love and belonging, low needs for power and freedom, and a high need for fun. Any deviation from this not-too-frequent pattern will need to be negotiated. The greater the difference, the more negotiation. What this information gives you, whether you are already married or looking, is a clear picture of where there may be trouble. Armed with this information, couples who want a better marriage will … negotiate. Unsatisfying marriage is, by far, the most frequent cause of human misery. As a friend of mine said years ago when we discussed the value of negotiation in marriage, ‘Consider the alternative'” (1998, p. 101).
Reflect upon how the choices that you make impact your relationship for better or worse. Begin to take responsibility for the choices that you make that negatively impact your relationship, without resorting to blaming your partner. It is a trap to get into the habit of thinking, “If only he/she had done [this], then I wouldn’t have done [that.]” This is an excuse and a cop out to avoid taking responsibility for your actions. The only person whose behavior you can control is yourself. If you want to have a “better” partner (e.g., more loving, more trustworthy, more reliable, etc.), then be a better partner yourself. Begin to choose “we” over “me” and notice the consequences.
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Glasser, W. (1998). Choice theory: A new psychology of personal freedom. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.
Featured image: My heart is in your hands by aussiegall / CC BY 2.0