Jeremy* is wondering what to do about his relationship with his girlfriend.
“I feel like I’ve been doing everything,” he says. “I make all the plans. I’m the one who calls every day. I initiate all the sex. What has she done? Nothing.”
“Nothing?” I ask.
“It sure seems that way,” he replies. “I mean, she’s always happy to hear from me, happy to do things with me. Once I initiate, she seems to enjoy sex. But it’s all been up to me. And I’ve had enough.”
“What are you planning to do?”
“I’ve decided I’m going to stop calling every day. I’m not going to be the one to come up with plans. And I’m not going to initiate sex. I want to see if she is going to step up to the plate. And if she doesn’t, maybe I should end it. I don’t want to be in a relationship where I do all the work.”
Most of us will find this story familiar. We all feel, at times, that we’re the one putting all the effort into a relationship, whether with a partner, parent, sibling, or friend. Doing so can seem unfair or be exhausting. Hostility and resentment often build. And we wonder:
“Why should I do all the work? Shouldn’t a relationship be 50-50?”
Jeremy asks me this very question.
“That’s a great question,” I answer. “But what do you propose? That you only put in as much as you think she’s contributing? How would you measure that?”
When you decide to limit how much you put into a relationship because you think the other person isn’t doing enough, the relationship is likely to go downhill.
“Do you enjoy spending time with Becky?” I ask.
“Sure,” Jeremy says. “I’d like to keep dating her and see where this could go. I do think about marriage.”
“So why are you planning to pull back?”
“Because I don’t want to do all the work.”
“So instead, you’ve decided to do none of the work?”
“Please tell me how that makes sense,” I ask.
“Well, how do I know that she cares about me?” Jeremy pauses for a minute. “Actually, I know she cares. A lot. She’s said so. She shows it. But…I’d just like her to take charge sometimes. It would really feel nice to not always have to be responsible for what we do together.”
“OK,” I say. “So instead of pulling away from Becky, how about giving this relationship your all?”
“But I just told you, I’m tired of doing everything.”
“I get that, Jeremy. And I don’t think that giving your all to this relationship means continuing to do exactly what you’ve been doing. But if you saw yourself as 100 percent responsible for the relationship improving, what would you do?”
After a moment, Jeremy responds. “I’d tell her what I just told you. That I’m tired of always being in charge, and that I’d like her to take the lead, sometimes.”
His answer doesn’t surprise him or me; we’ve both been observing, since we’ve been working together, how difficult it is for him to talk about what he wants, or to tell someone else how he’s feeling. Now his relationship is giving him the opportunity to get better at this. If he wants to give his hundred percent toward a better relationship, Jeremy will have to talk to his girlfriend about what’s on his mind, rather than keeping his mouth shut and pulling away.
If you want your relationship to improve, act as though you are 100 percent responsible for this outcome. All relationships go best when you don’t place limits on how much you’ll put into them.
In my work with individuals and couples, I find that some of the most amazing transformations can happen when I challenge clients to look at the ways in which they may be holding back from giving 100 percent. When you take your focus off the other person and focus on what you are doing, and not doing, to limit a relationship, you have the opportunity to get better at handling yourself in a way that you respect, by facing your own limitations and pressing past them. As a consequence, you may well find yourself in a much better relationship.
*All names and identifying details altered in this article.