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We are all under the impression that if you really care about someone, taking care of them should be a joy, with no thought of being burdened or annoyed. And so, in many couples, one partner may get in the habit of doing things for the other person, first, out of love, then out of habit, and finally out of martyrdom. Each partner usually has some area in a long-term romantic relationship in which he or she feels very responsible and slightly taken for granted, as they perform their usual duties. And soon that person starts to feel invisible as they go about their usual routine.
I think the perceived lack of appreciation in the partner who is being “taken care of” may come from slight guilt about not doing much, or even guilt in getting away with something. When the “doing” partner asks for help, even though their partner might temporarily mind being rousted from their inert state, it makes them feel useful, necessary, and (here’s the surprise!) more loving.
The moral is, as soon as the martyred feelings of being taken for granted start, ask for help from your partner. (Try to ask before the martyred feelings build up and cause you to ask in such an angry way that no one would be caught dead wanting to help you.) When you ask for help, the overriding message is, “I can’t do everything myself. You matter in our relationship and I’m so glad to have your company and your absolutely essential assistance. Life might be impossibly hard without you!” If your partner is surprised, this can be spelled out further: “I need you. I’m not complaining, but sometimes I bite off more than I can chew.”
Another reason that asking for help is so essential is that we all measure our lovingness by how much we show it. If one person in a relationship doesn’t do much about showing their love in deeds, soon they may start to assume that they don’t love the other very much. But when we do things for our significant other, we feel happier and more loving, especially when it feels appreciated. So, after asking for help (in a polite way), spoken gratitude makes a big difference. And critiques about how it wasn’t done quite right are NOT useful.
Whether we are talking about romantic relationships, friendships, or relationships with adult children, these notions hold true. We probably “get it” best regarding friendships. No one would put up with a friend who was always a taker. With children, because their care is so one-sided when they are young, we run the risk of not shifting gears as they get older and more competent. We can easily forget how much children love the feeling that they are useful! Because parents sometimes feel guilty about working full-time, they may handle their guilt by doing more than they need to, thus keeping the child from feeling helpful to the family. So again, the moral is, ask for help for the other person’s sake, not just your own!
Jacqueline Olds, MD, is an associate professor of psychiatry, part-time, at Harvard Medical School and a psychiatrist at McLean Hospital.