Bookends of Relationship: Ask, Make Room for Your Partner’s Answer

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Last week I introduced, here on the blog, the idea that life gives us sets of bookends within which to operate.  We usually think of these as sets of opposites.  They are the sort of opposites where both are required in order for life and the endeavors of life to be balanced.  Some examples are night/day, dark/light, nurture/teach, work/play, make a mess/clean up, etc.  Today I want to talk about a particularly important set of “opposites” in marriage.  On one hand is the importance of asking for what you need and want.  On the other hand is the importance of making room in your thinking and behavior for your partner to give you their true answer.

Occasionally I run into folks, or have a client who does not believe they have the right to ask their spouse to change.  That is the language they usually use: ask my spouse to change.  When we get to the bottom of this belief, we usually find that it is a conflation of the two principles under consideration here.  It’s true, you cannot make someone change, and therefore you shouldn’t go into a relationship expecting for someone to change.  Everyone has the right to live their life as they choose and it is a deeply respectful person who keeps this ethical principle in mind in all their relationships.  When clients voice this objection to my suggestion that they ask for what they need and want, they are sometimes keenly aware of the fact, if so, that they themselves hold a strong value about not being controlled by others, including (and often especially) by their husband or wife.  They don’t ask for what they want and therefore you shouldn’t either.  Or sometimes this person is simply too conflict avoidance to speak up.  They may even be a person who gives, and gives, and gives, but does not ask for much themselves.  Folks who voice these concerns seem to be upholding the second of the two bookends: making room for your partner to give their true answer.  In so doing, however, they are cancelling out the imperative of asking for what you need and want, the other side of the coin to making a marriage work.

This “other side of the coin,” or other bookend, as we are saying, also has its set of proponents who may or may not be aware of balancing it with its opposite.  We all know of people who move through life with entitlement, whether consciously or not.  They assume that others will do their bidding and are usually very successful in achieving goals because they make things happen.  They may or may not be aware that they are sometimes infringing on others’ rights when they come on strong with their own agendas.  They may be well aware that they are being controlling of others and simply believe they have the right to do so, or they may be so filled with enthusiasm and desire that the pure force of their energy and personality just clears a path in front of them most of the time.  In truth, the person who gets what they want at the expense of others is usually not asking.  They are “telling,” either verbally or by their actions.  They are leaving little or no room for other people’s input to be considered.

The reason to consider these two principles as bookends of a healthy relationship is that they inform and balance one another.  They keep each other from either taking over or from going extinct.  You cannot have a partnership of equals, without the deep respect of honoring each other’s sovereignty as a human being and also honoring yourself by asking for what you want.  If a couple does not consciously work at balancing these two principles of life one of three things will happen.  If neither is asking for what they need and want, each will eventually build resentments towards the other.  If one partner expects to get their way, and the other seldom asks, the marriage will feel like HIS marriage, or HER marriage, but it will not be a mutually satisfying marriage.  Finally, if both partners expect to get their way, the relationship will be overrun with arguing, debate, stalemate, and escalating power struggles.  To have a good marriage, couples must consciously live in the tension of balancing the asking for what they each need and want and the honoring of their spouses sovereignty to choose for themselves what to do.

I have a childhood friend, Mary Ann, who once shared with me a sentence she often says to herself, when thinking about her loved ones, especially her husband.  Here it is.  She says to herself or to him, “Thank you for sharing your life with me.”  So simple, but so profound.  In this one little statement we find expressed the necessity of sharing, that is, of asking for and receiving from our spouse at least some of what we need and want in order to make the marriage OUR marriage, and also the necessity of allowing what our partner is able to give us to be SHARED with us, of their own accord, a gift, and loving response to our request.  When these themes go BOTH ways, we can be sure that the marriage belongs to us both and that it is mutually satisfying and fulfilling.

If this is the kind of marriage you want, or want to get back to, please contact me here at Marriage Like New: Therapy for Couples.  I’ve been counseling couples for 35 years and would love to be of help.  Like I say on the home page, you can have a marriage that is “just like new,” only better…better for the years and experiences that have seasoned your lives and made you capable of lasting love.