Whether it’s your relationship with your husband, your sister or your best friend, it’s a game of two sides. But what happens when the sides aren’t equal; one does more of the giving, one does more of the taking? Here’s how to make sure the scales are balanced and you’re not left feeling like you’re losing out.
Balance is vital in any relationship, says Dubai-based personal development consultant Dr Lavina Ahuja, whether it’s between a husband and wife, a set of friends or siblings. “Reciprocity and equality help maintain trust and an individual sense of self-worth,” she explains. “You need to trust that the other party in the relationship prioritises you, so you can have a sense of being loved and/or cared for in the relationship.”
A balanced relationship isn’t just about sharing out chores or responsibilities, continues Dr Ahuja. “A relationship where one partner is the breadwinner and the other maintains the household can be an equal relationship, in the sense that both have an equal responsibility and operate as partners,” she explains. However, in a husband/wife relationship – and especially one with children – Dr Ahuja finds it often is who does what that becomes unbalanced. “In terms of practical elements, responsibility of the children is one aspect that often becomes unbalanced, usually falling to the wife,” she explains. “Women also often find maintenance of the relationship itself falls to them, so they’re the ones who have to keep bringing up issues relating to the relationship.”
Although the daily minutiae might well be the root cause of the problem, taking a longer-term view is also important. “One partner can put in more time, more energy, more effort in the short-term, but there should be a sense of equality; that if needed, that if the situation were different, there would be reciprocity,” Dr Ahuja says. So, if the balance is out in the relationship, what happens? “The partner who feels he or she gets less love, attention, time, energy and power – or makes the most effort – can end up feeling taken for granted by the other person,” says Dr Ahuja. “They can also feel very uncared for or very unloved and unimportant in the relationship. I’ve sometimes heard partners say things such as ‘I feel invisible’, which can have a real impact on someone’s sense of self-worth.”
According to US psychiatry professor Dr Scott Haltzman, author of The Secrets Of Happily Married Women: How To Get More Out Of Your Relationship By Doing Less, imbalances in relationships can also lead to each partner nitpicking and score-keeping, thereby adding fuel to the already smouldering fire and exacerbating the problem.
While an out-of-kilter balance in a relationship can be attributed to both parties, at some point personal responsibility comes into play. “It’s a two-way street; your partner can demand too much or be inconsiderate, focusing only on themselves, but then the responsibility for standing up for yourself is yours. And even if you’ve tried to stand up for yourself and it still doesn’t work, you can still stop over-working and accepting the unacceptable.”
US counsellor, author and blogger Debra Fileta, says a good starting point would be a look in the mirror. “The interesting thing about one-sided relationships is that no matter who’s doing the giving and who’s doing the taking, it takes two people to keep them going; one-way relationships are always fuelled by two people,” she says. “This tells you behind every one-way relationship, there’s a person who’s giving too much and expecting too little. A person who continues to make excuses, a person who continues to see the relationship for what it could be rather than what it is.”
Dr Ahuja agrees; if we’ve decided we’re on the losing side in the relationship game, deciding what to do starts with thinking of ourselves. “If we don’t prioritise ourselves, or even consider ourselves, how can we expect others to do so?” she asks. “In practical terms, that might mean we need to learn to identify and voice our needs, and stand up for our rights to have those needs met. Don’t just continue putting into a relationship you’re not getting an equal amount out of.”
The importance of honesty
Avril Carruthers, transpersonal psychotherapist and author of Freedom From Toxic Relationships, says a large dose of honesty is likely the first ingredient you’ll need when facing up to a potentially imbalanced relationship. In her book she says, “It’s important to know that, to some degree, we may be unconsciously contributing to an unhealthy dynamic through our insecurity or low self-esteem. Are we too accommodating? Too anxious to please? Believe they need us or only we can understand them? If so, are we really helping or just maintaining our own exploitation? Be honest; a deeper level of discernment might pick up that we’re actually immersed in [the other person’s] emotions, neediness and insecurity, and that we’ve been unconsciously coerced into maintaining their equilibrium and keeping them happy.”
So, besides personal responsibility, what else can cause relationship imbalances? US relationship blogger Patrice Herbst says one of the fundamental causes is a simple lack of communication. Don’t just assume or expect the other person to know what you want; ask! It won’t make it any less valuable if or when you get what you want. “I thought if I had to ask for what I wanted, it would make [the other person’s] efforts come across as insincere,” she says. “To me, having to ask for what I wanted meant the other person didn’t really know me and didn’t really care.”
American relationship therapist Brandy Dunn agrees, and says many individuals expect the other party in the relationship to be a mind-reader which just isn’t realistic. Instead, she says, have a mature discussion about who wants what so you’ll both be on the same page and have a clear understanding of expectations.
While both parties in a relationship can end up feeling the more hard done by, Dr Ahuja says it’s more often women who feel like they’re getting the raw deal, and this could be partly our own doing.
“Women have been socialised to put themselves in others’ shoes, be considerate of others and even to put others first; I think this sense of consideration, and the pressure to be a ‘good wife’, often leads to women being the ones giving too much,” she explains.
So, then, what to do? UK counselling service Relate suggests a frank, honest conversation is what’s needed, and timing is crucial. Counsellors suggest initiating a discussion about your relationship when you’re already feeling frustrated or upset is likely to make the other party feel attacked, or that you’re just saying what you’re saying because you’re in a bad mood; instead, sit down without any distractions, make it a proper conversation and take time to explore what’s going on.
It’s also vital to listen as well as talking, even if you’re the one feeling aggrieved and the temptation to simply vent is strong.
According to Relate, the way you approach the discussion and how you express yourself is also likely to have a significant impact on the outcome of any discussion. Instead of simply telling the other party what you feel they’re doing wrong, try taking ownership of how you’re feeling and explaining how their actions are contributing to these feelings. This way, they’ll feel less like you’re simply offloading accusations and anger, and more inclined to take your issues on board.
Going forward once you’ve restored the balance, though, isn’t simply a matter of sitting back and expecting everything to be tickety-boo. “I don’t think a relationship can work where you just set a few things in place and it stays that way by itself; relationships require constant work and effort,” counsels Dr Ahuja. “As individuals we’re dynamic, which means the relationship has to be dynamic to be fulfilling and help both partners achieve, grow and be happy.”
Carruthers says staying true to yourself is an essential part of the long-term prospects of any previously imbalanced relationship. “Assertiveness and clear communication free of game-playing means an unequal relationship can be rectified into one that is more equal. It takes courage to be in the moment and not default into habitual ways of relating; to take responsibility for honest communication and to expect reciprocal respect.”
And fundamentally, says Dr Ahuja, it’s back to basics again. “Learning how to identify your needs and communicate your needs effectively, then maintaining good communication, is vital for the relationship to stay balanced in the future.”