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Thursday, June 10, 2010

Relationships: Are You Compromising or Self Sacrificing in Your Relationship?

Most of us know that being in a relationship is a two-way street that often involves certain compromises from both people.

But how do we know when we've crossed over the line from compromising to self sacrificing to the detriment of our own well-being?


There is a big difference between compromising and self sacrificing in relationships
Self Sacrificing to the Point of Masochism:
Many years ago, when I was an undergraduate student, I had to take a required statistics course. The professor who taught this course was a notoriously bad teacher. He was also the only professor who taught this particular required course. He had been teaching the same course for 30 years and he made it very clear that he hated teaching and he was only there to get grant money for his biopsychology experiments. He told us on Day One that the dean had a folder six inches thick with complaints about him from students, but he was tenured and he could not be fired. So, he said, if we complained about him, it wouldn't do any good. He also made it clear that whether we got the concepts that he taught or not was of no importance to him. He explained that the required text book for this course was incomprehensible to most students, and we had better form study groups if we hoped to pass. The one positive thing that he said was that if we managed to get an "A" on his midterm, we would not have to take the final exam, and we would get an "A" for the class. We learned all of this on Day One.

By Day Two, several of us who were motivated formed a study group and agreed to meet on a regular basis to do assignments together and share what we each understood from class. We had to memorize formulas and we were not allowed to use calculators in class or on tests, which seems ridiculous now, but that's how it was then.

Overall, the group was fairly cohesive, except for one student who tended to miss our groups because of various problems that came up with her boyfriend. Let's call her Millie (not her real name).

Millie usually came to class frazzled and in a state of high anxiety. One day, we went to the cafeteria during a break and she told me that her boyfriend hated that she was taking college classes. Her motivation was that she was in a dead-end job, and she wanted to get a degree so she could get a better job and earn more money. Getting a college degree had always been her dream, but her parents couldn't afford to send her to college after she graduated high school, so she had to go to work. Like most of us in that class, she was balancing a full-time job and a hefty course load. She was the first one in her family to attend college, and she got no support from her family and even less from her boyfriend, who never attended college and couldn't hold onto a job.

It was not unusual for Millie to miss class and miss our group meetings. Usually, when we saw her the next time, she would be very apologetic. The first time that she missed our group, she told us afterwards that she had an allergic reaction to brownies that her boyfriend made. She said that he made the brownies with nuts because he "forgot" that she was highly allergic to nuts. When she told him that she couldn't eat the brownies because her throat would close up, she said he was very hurt and annoyed with her. So, to appease him, she ate one of the brownies and, soon afterwards, he had to rush her to the emergency room because she couldn't breathe. None of us said anything to Millie about her boyfriend, but we were all concerned that she would sacrifice herself in this way.

Another time, Millie came to our group completely unprepared. She said, "My boyfriend said that I always have my head stuck in a book, and I don't pay enough attention to him, so I skipped looking over my notes so he and I could watch his favorite TV show together." Even though we tried to help Millie get caught up with the assignment, it was obvious that she was already very lost. And since one concept builds on another in statistics, she was falling further and further behind due to her efforts to try to appease her demanding boyfriend.

I don't think I have ever studied so hard and memorized so many formulas in my life as I did in that statistics class. Fortunately, the people in my statistics study group and I worked very hard and did well on the midterm. All of us got A's--all except Millie. By the midterm, she was failing most of her classes, and she decided to drop out of college. She told me, "I have to concentrate on my relationship. I found out that my boyfriend was having an affair, and he blamed me because I wasn't paying enough attention to him."

By dropping out of college, Millie let go of her dream to be the first in her family to get a college degree. She also knew that her chances for getting a better job would be nil, and she would be unlikely to increase her earning power. She knew all of this, and yet she dropped out of college to try salvage a relationship with a boyfriend who was cheating on her and who seemed to offer her very little. After she dropped out, I never heard from Millie again. I hope that, eventually, she left that relationship where she sacrificed herself so much, to the point of masochism.

How Do You Know if You're Making Reasonable Compromises or if You're Sacrificing Yourself?
As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, being in a relationship often involves compromise and it should be a two-way street. When I say this, I don't mean that you're keeping a strict tally of the compromises that you've made and comparing them to the ones that your partner has made (or not made). But I do mean that, if you can be objective about it, overall, do you find that either you or your partner tends to be the one who compromises most of the time?

Are you making reasonable compromises or are you sacrificing yourself?

Reciprocity: "Give-and-Take" in Relationships
Is there reciprocity so that, over time, there is "give-and-take" in your relationship or is it lopsided either one way or the other? I stress the words "over time" because if you're in a long-term relationship, there might be periods in your relationship where one or the other of you might be the one who compromises more because of a particular situation.

For instance, in Millie's case, if she had been with a boyfriend who was more supportive of her attending college and they were going to be together for the long haul, he might have realized that there would be times when she wouldn't spend as much time with him as he would like until she got her degree. Maybe the compromise would have been that they carved out special times together for each other that were meaningful to both of them so that they preserved their relationship, but Millie also put in the necessary time to dedicate to her studies.

"Giving" Til It Hurts
What are you "compromising" about?

It's one thing to compromise about a movie and another thing to compromise your college education and your future. If one or both of you think that you're always going to get what you want in your relationship, chances are good that either the relationship won't work or one of you is going to be compromising to the point of self sacrifice.

For instance, if your religion or sense of spirituality is very important to you, but your partner puts you down because he or she has different views, if you give up your spirituality, you're giving up something that supports and sustains your well-being and is part of your core values. If you give up your spirituality and it's important to you, that's not compromising--you're engaging in self sacrifice.

Another example is if your partner asks you to give up your friendships or family relationships. Unless your friendships or family relationships are abusive, this is usually not a reasonable request. This isn't a compromise--it's self sacrifice. You can't get everything from your relationship, so it's important that you maintain strong ties to people who care about you.

Is whatever your "compromising" about eroding your self esteem?
To assess this in yourself, you need to try to be as objective as possible and ask yourself if you're engaging in behavior, at your partner's request, that is making you feel bad about yourself. If you're able to check in with yourself and go inside to see how it feels, do you come away feeling low? This is often an indicator that you're self sacrificing and not compromising.

For instance, when I was in high school, I knew a girl who had a very jealous boyfriend. Before she met her boyfriend, she used to like to wear makeup and look fashionable. She had good taste and a very good fashion sense, and it made her feel good about herself to look well. People usually complimented her on how well she looked. But after she started seeing her boyfriend, she changed how she looked to try to assuage his jealous nature. He felt that she was wearing her makeup and dressing fashionably to attract other boys, which was not the case. She was doing it for herself. But he only wanted her to dress fashionably and wear makeup for him when they were alone. So, to appease him, she stopped wearing makeup and began dressing in a matronly way, except for when she was with him. Her boyfriend was satisfied, but she felt badly about herself most of the time. Fortunately, eventually, she saw his jealous and controlling behavior for what it was, left him, and she met someone else who was much better suited for her.

Ask Your Trusted Friends:
Sometimes, it's hard for us to see things about ourselves and our relationships objectively. It's easy to make excuses for ourselves or our partners. But if you have trusted friends that you confide in, they might be more objective about what's going on for you in your relationship than you are. Maybe they're not saying anything to you right now because they're afraid of hurting your feelings or they don't want to jeopardize your friendship with them by telling you something that you might not be open to hearing.

But if you can open your mind and your heart to hearing things that you might find difficult to hear, you might learn something about yourself and your relationship that you aren't admitting to yourself. If you have trusted friends who can communicate with you in a tactful and honest way, you can take in what they have to say and see if it resonates with you. Often, our friends tell us things that we already know deep down inside but that we've been too afraid to admit to ourselves.

Seek Professional Help to Make Changes:
Suspecting or knowing that you might have an imbalance in your relationship when it comes to making compromises is one thing. Being able to change that imbalance is often another thing.

Having intellectual insight isn't always enough to make the necessary changes that you need to make. You might need the help of a licensed mental health professional to help you to make those changes.
If your partner is willing to go to couples counseling, you might benefit from working with a professional who has experience working with couples.

If your partner is unwilling to seek help with you, you shouldn't suffer by yourself. As an individual, you could benefit from working with a professional who specializes in relationships. Sometimes, partners who are unwilling at first become more willing once you begin getting help and will eventually join you. But if he or she isn't ready, if you feel "stuck," you still could benefit from getting help, whether you stay in the relationship or not.

Very often, taking the first step of acknowledging that you need help, and taking action to get help, is the first step down the road to a better sense of health and well-being.

I am a licensed psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, and EMDR therapist in NYC.

I work with individuals and couples, and I have helped many clients with relationship issues.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006 or email me: josephineolivia@aol.com.




photo credit: Pamela Machado via photopin cc

photo credit: zubrow via photopin cc

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