Dear Navigator, I consider myself to be a very nurturing person. Initially my mate was very appreciative, but has recently become too comfortable! He (seems to) speak without thinking, takes me for granted, and is now very demanding. Can you think of subtle things I could do to keep him in check?
Human beings are complex, aren't we? We communicate in many different ways. Emotional communication in particular is especially powerful, because it happens on a primal level. For example, I could probably have a 60 minute conversation with my mate about her feeling neglected without it triggering a strong emotional reaction in me. I would care of course and would work hard to make things better, but I would not necessarily feel any deep emotion about it. Watching attractive guys (i.e. guys with character, intelligence, humor, physical beauty, money, or power) shower my mate with attention for 5 minutes however, would probably trigger deep emotions in me -- sadness, jealousy, fear of loss, etc.
Okay, let's say I am always encouraging and my words boost my mate's confidence, I go shopping with her and give her great fashion advice, and I inspire my mate to exercise more and she is now in great shape. Others begin to notice . . . and she really enjoys the attention. What can I do?
Here are some questions you should ask yourself:
* Are you and your mate clear about the purpose of your relationship?
* Have you and your mate ever had a direct conversation about your perception that he or she is too comfortable? Have you ever talked about feeling as if you are being taken for granted?
* Is this situation a deal breaker (i.e. does this issue have the power to create resentment if left unresolved)? If not, is it important to raise this issue?
* If this issue is a Deal Breaker, does your mate understand that? To be clear, a Deal Breaker is more than "very important" -- a deal breaker is a conflict worth parting ways over if it cannot be resolved in a way that works for you.
* Is your mate arguing against your interpretation of the situation?
* Do you feel any pressure to get your mate to see things your way?
* Do you plan to express this as a fairness, love, or respect issue? It may very well be, but thinking about conflicts this way masks the the central issue -- your mate's actions are triggering resentment in you. This is not about fault it is about resolution.
The easy solution would be to check my mate, but perhaps I should first check myself:
* Did I build my mate up for selfish reasons or do I genuinely want her to be healthier and happier with or without me?
* Did I build my mate up, but neglect to build myself up -- or worse, let myself go?
* Have I changed? Have I lost sight of what my mate finds attractive about me?
* Do many of our outside activities involve events where my mate is well known, but I am unknown?
* Are we attending events that are skewed in my mate's favor or events that play to my mate's attractive qualities, but not to mine? A situation like that will increase the odds that my mate will be showered with attention. Generally speaking, this would not be a problem. Unfortunately some people find it hard NOT to get a little cocky when they are receiving a lot of attention.
* Have I given my mate the impression that I have no options because she is only person I spend time with?
* Is my fear of losing my mate so great that I am too afraid to express my expectations in the relationship?
* Is the real problem that we spend too much time together and not enough time with family or friends? Sometimes we need time apart to create longing and mystery. Our outside activities are also great because they become the stories we bring home to share with each other.
Here are some things I would do:
* I would continue to be nurturing and inspire my mate to be the best person she can be. If that causes her to treat me less that how I would like to be treated, I am grateful to be learning this sooner rather than later. I'd much prefer a mate who understands that my desire to treat her well comes from love not fear.
* I would look for easy ways to be more attractive at home. I would get on a regular grooming schedule and not let my mate see me too comfortable. I would get rid of clothes I know they find unattractive.
* I would get clear about what my mate finds valuable in me and deliver that value while seeking higher ground. For example, if I discovered that my only real value in the relationship is sex, I would find out what else my mate values and try to deliver those things, because a sex only relationship is easily replaceable.
* I would seek out events where I know people and where my attractive attributes are valued.
* I would get clear about the importance of me attending events with her. I trust my mate, so it would not bother me that she attended some events with her friends. If it is important to her that I attend and I know people at those events, I would spend some of my time with them. If we each have a chance to spend time with people who make us feel special, we will naturally be more comfortable and enjoy events more.
* I would NOT give up my friendships or my hobbies. I would demonstrate that I love my mate very deeply, but that I have other great things going on in my life.
* I would read Navigating Love. In it, I offer techniques designed to help readers to determine if they are in a healthy relationship. For example I define the word League as a group of people who can be honest with each other. If you behave as if you and your mate are not in the same league, Navigating Love can help you uncover the beliefs allow this to occur.
* I would spend time away from my mate every once in a while. A side effect of catching up with family and friends is that the time apart helps us reflect on how great our time is together.
If my mate's attractiveness results in a situation where she is receiving lots of attention, but she does not make it clear that we are in a relationship (she fails to introduce me as her boyfriend when she talks to people she knows, her physical distance from me leads others to believe that we are not together, or she brushes off the advances of others but does not make it painfully clear that she is with me) I will excuse myself -- Go to the restroom, talk with other people, go get a drink -- anything, because it's awkward to feel like a third wheel in my own relationship.
After the event, once we were in private, I would say "Can I ask you something? I was surprised that you did not introduce me as your boyfriend (or surprised I was not introduced at all, etc.)"
I would try to put myself in her shoes -- I would say "Maybe you could not remember a person's name? Maybe you felt pulled in too many directions or pressed for time?" I would then ask her "What can we do to avoid a situation like this in the future?"
Maybe we could come to an agreement? One such agreement could be that whenever my mate introduces me I will immediately ask the person what their name is or that she will stand closer to me in the future.
It is critically important to me that my mate's actions not be coerced -- I want to make my concerns clear without demonizing her or guilt tripping her into agreeing with me. Coercion has the power to create resentment, which is not good for the long term health of our relationship. Inevitably, that resentment will be directed towards me if allowed to persist long enough. Coercion also hinders my ability to understand my mate's true beliefs and feelings.
I've adopted a new philosophy about arguments that makes them totally unnecessary in the context of romantic relationships. First, I define the importance of a situation by whether or not it has the power to trigger resentment in me. If a situation cannot create resentment, then by definition it is not important, and thus not worth arguing about. Second I want to love someone the way they are. If the situation is important and we disagree, again it is not worth fighting over -- we should simply part ways. I will fight for a relationship if I perceive my mate and I to be fighting for the same goal.
Arguing makes people defensive. It creates an incentive to counter argue -- sometimes resulting in people saying things they don't mean. In many conflicts the main problem is the conflict resolution process itself.
If she does not already share my perspective, I would not spend much time trying to teach it to her -- either it makes sense to make our relationship clear to others or it does not. If we do not see eye to eye, it does not mean that anyone is "bad" or "wrong" -- It simply means that we should each find a mate who shares our perspective.
Defensiveness is most easily disarmed via a combination of clear value and clear expectations. Bringing clear value encourages a mate to invest her time and energy in me and gives me a seat at the (relationship) negotiation table. Bringing clear value encourages my mate to take my perspective into consideration. Clear expectations enable my mate to make informed decisions. A clear expectation is more than a declaration of what I require -- It is an understanding of what will happen if my requirements are not met.
Navigating Love is an plea for structure in relationships. There are many arguments against structure -- Let's examine a few of them:
* Conflict resolution is a fluid process <div class='answer'>In my personal experience, the vast majority of conflicts follow a simple pattern and can be resolved using a simple process I refer to in Navigating Love as SEED. The belief that our conflicts are unique or that conflict resolution requires an individualized approach discourages couples from looking for this pattern. Instead of understanding and preparing for one problem, couples are overwhelmed by what appears to be a thousand different problems. This almost ensures that we will be unprepared for most of them and as a result will fall back on a common set of dysfunctional techniques.</div>
* Don't sweat the small stuff <div class='answer'>This makes sense intuitively, but generally fails in practice because we lack a strong definition of the word small. Without this definition, couples end up spending a lot of time in arguments over the size of conflicts -- arguments that often make things worse. In Navigating Love, I define a 'small' as 'will not lead to resentment.' With this definition the perceived size of a conflict is irrelevant. With this definition we can focus our attention on the conflict resolution process itself.</div>
* Everything we dislike about others is a reflection of something we dislike about ourselves <div class='answer'>There may be some truth to this statement, but in my personal experience this truism is used a diversion tactic -- a way to counter argue legitimate concerns. For example, if my mate lies to me and I complain about those lies it could imply that I have beliefs I need to reexamine, expectations need to reset, fears to overcome, old wounds to deal with, and a sensitivity I need to adjust -- not that the complaints I have about my mate's lies are a reflection of my own lies.</div>
* Love has no rules <div class='answer'>Rules/agreements help groups of people operate effectively. Relationships are simply groups of two. There are many unwritten rules in relationships -- Rules about sleeping with people outside the relationship, rules about honesty. An argument against rules is effectively an argument in favor of suffering. A sad fact is that we seek freedom in our relationships then use that freedom to (inadvertently) hurt each other. The belief that love has no rules undermines the incentive (and hinders our ability to) create any, almost ensuring that none will exist when we need them most. Attempting to create rules as we go makes it likely that we will argue about the rules and the rule-making process make things worse.</div>
**(c) 2016, Malik Spencer.** This will be part of a new book "Dear Navigator" -- Please do not distribute.