Relationships take work, and any relationship will involve each partner adjusting in ways that he or she did not anticipate when he or she started out. As time goes on, thorny issues arise that call on us to think or act differently to get along with our partners. But when is acting differently a “stretch” and when is it asking too much?
On the one hand, changing to meet one’s partner’s wants and needs can represent growth. In fact, being in a relationship offers a unique opportunity to learn where one needs to change. This involves “stretching” beyond one’s comfort zone and facilitates growth.
On the other hand, some people find themselves in relationships in which they are constantly trying to please their partners. They try this way and that to accommodate the other person. Changing oneself in this fashion may not represent growth but rather losing oneself in the relationship.
So in any given instance when we change ourselves to accommodate our partners, which is it? Is it a “stretch” or is it losing ourselves in the interest of the other?
There is no silver bullet to tell the difference between the two types of change. It can take reflection on oneself, experience over time, and possibly even talking to a counselor to figure out what one is doing. Still, I can give you some guidelines to help.
First, we can tell the difference between a “stretch” and losing ourselves to the other by how we feel after we have done an action that does not come easily in order to support our partners:
- Do you feel accomplished, proud, calm, and/or happy, even if it took some effort, for having tried the new behavior that supports your partner, or
- Do you feel stressed, fearful, exhausted, depressed, angry, and/or resentful that you once again let the other person’s wants or needs supercede your own?
If one has the first set of feelings, the stretch, even if difficult, probably was in the interest of your growth and facilitates the relationship. If one has some of the second type of feelings, one probably has failed to set proper limits and denied oneself yet again in an attempt to please the other or make the relationship work.
A second guideline for whether the change is a “stretch” or is about losing ourselves to the other involves the other person’s response.
- Does the other person respond with less reactivity, possibly appreciation, or even engage in new behavior him- or herself, or
- Does the other person continue in their old behaviors, whether they are demanding, withdrawing, erratic, or addictive?
If the other’s response involves the first set of actions, then your “stretch” has increased the other’s willingness to be vulnerable as well. If the other person continues in old behaviors even after you have changed yours, especially if you have done so repeatedly, then you may be feeding into their behaviors and giving up yourself as well.
So, for example, Janice found herself in her first marriage trying to change how she communicated with her husband to get some emotional response from him. He tended to be “even-keel” all the time. She also tried to please him, because he tended to be controlling, especially with money. After years of trying, she realized she was giving herself up too much and exited the marriage. In a new relationship several years later, she found it difficult to set limits with her boyfriend. However, when she made the stretch to do so and told him he could only come over a couple of times during the week because she got tired after working all day, he understood and respected her boundary. He appreciated the opportunity to support Janice and checked with her more carefully about when it was okay to come over.
So which is it for you in your relationship, whether past or present? When you look at changing yourself, is it a “stretch” or is it giving yourself away? It can be difficult to discern between the two, because we only look at the situation with our own eyes. Still, it is worth the look.
This is Glenn Stevenson, with Self Sense Counseling and Coaching, until next month wishing you the ability to “stretch” in your relationships without giving yourself away.