I have tried a little “relationship experiment” and I think it is working well. This real-life experiment is grounded in some very good science, so this week I am going to tell you about what I did, then tell you why I did it.
Here’s the back-story: After writing my YouBeauty.com column Why Is It So Hard to Appreciate Your Partner? I received many excellent and thoughtful emails. The premise of the column was that there are quite a number of times in our relationships when we become too self-focused. As a consequence, we can miss opportunities to appreciate (show gratitude) to our spouses, lovers, friends and/or other family members. I started thinking about this idea and, in particular, about the ways my own needs, wants and desires might limit my relationship with my wife. What would happen if, rather than being so self-focused, I became totally relationship-focused?
Let me say that this would not be an easy task. I am pretty inflexible. I like to exercise, sleep, eat, play and work according to my own personal schedule. It would not be inaccurate to say I am somewhat rigid… OK, maybe a lot rigid. Of course, my needs exist in concert with my wife’s needs and, in general, we balance things out fairly well by saying what our needs are, then negotiating for a balance in how those needs can be met. What would happen, I wondered, if I put more energy into thinking about my wife’s needs than my own needs? Could this actually improve our relationship? Would my needs go unmet?
Here’s the experiment: For the last two weeks I have made a conscious decision to think about my wife’s needs above my own. Example: I prepared to go to the gym on a Monday morning before a long day of teaching; exercise helps me think much more clearly and is a great way to start the week. My wife stays up late on Sunday night and our daughter wakes up at 4 a.m. on Monday. I got up with our daughter and watched her for a while, but, previously, I would have left to go to the gym at 5:30 a.m. and more or less insisted my wife “take her turn” with our kid. Right before I did this, though, I reflected on the experiment and realized that my wife’s need to sleep was much more important than my own need to exercise. I let her sleep and skipped the workout.
You might say that I was simply doing the job of a reasonable parent/partner, but the key thing to recognize here is that we have no gripes about kid management in general. I could have gone to the gym and this would have been exactly how we have (relatively happily) managed to negotiate our life together. She would not have felt I was not doing my part; after all, I was up at 4 a.m. with the kid to being with.
I consider the experiment a success for two reasons. First, my wife seems happier. I haven’t told her about the experiment, but my perception is that things to be a bit easier than usual— perhaps because I’ve given up constantly trying to negotiate for my own needs. Second, for precisely this reason, I feel happier. I never knew how much time and energy I devote to figuring out if I am going to get to do what I think I need to do. So what if I stay up late trying to fix her Blackberry? So what if I don’t get to work early? So what if I skip a few days at the gym here and there? In addition to feeling good about helping my wife, I feel good about not worrying so much about my own needs, which, in turn, enables me to be more available for everyone in my family.
To be clear, I am not advocating making my needs disappear. I am not her servant, but the key idea here is that if you can start thinking more communally, there’s a high likelihood the relationship will benefit and you will feel better in the end as well. This, of course, is predicated on the fact that you are partnered with someone who won’t take advantage of your desire to be more communal.
There is a very large research literature on the benefits of communal orientations toward a relationship, and this is why I attempted my experiment in the first place. For instance, a recent study showed that for people who are highly motivated to act communally (that is, to make sacrifices for the relationship and for one’s partner when they are not expected), doing so is associated with greater relationship satisfaction and feeling more appreciated by a partner. Importantly, feeling authentic explains the association between communal actions and positive outcomes. Said differently, we feel good when we sacrifice for others because this sacrifice can bring us closer to who we truly feel we are. This is a wild finding: To feel like your true self, sacrifice for others.
Who knows what will happen with my experiment, but I’d love to hear about your thoughts on being more communal in your relationship. What would happen if you tried the experiment? Let me know!
Copyright David A. Sbarra, Ph.D., October 5, 2011