One of the hallmarks of a loving, healthy relationship is when partners envision their relationship as a kind of third entity—something in need of being served and supported in itself, by mutual accommodation; perhaps sacrificing what you want, sometimes, not just using the relationship as a vehicle for getting your partner to serve your own needs and desires.
But can accommodation and support for each other—mutuality—go too far, in ways that undermine the relationship? It can, especially when emotional issues, often unconsciously expressed, drive a partner’s agreeableness. That can give rise to depression and, especially, regret and resentment. We see that in psychotherapy often, with couples who bicker and foment over what each says he or she went along with for the other, but says it was “unappreciated.”
Recent empirical research documents how that happens, and why. Further, research shows that feeling supported by your partner is linked with greater willingness to take on new challenges and with overall greater wellbeing.
To explain and unravel all this, first consider that feature of positive, healthy intimate relationships. These partners consciously practice showing mutual support to each other’s needs, always with an eye towards what best serves their relationship long-term. They do this with an understanding that when differences arise, they’ll find compromise, a “middle way.” Sometimes that means “giving in” to the other’s desires in a particular situation—knowing that doing so best serves the relationship as a whole. But most importantly, that’s done with trust that neither one will exploit the sacrifice for manipulative, self-serving purposes.
But men and women don’t enter relationships in a vacuum. We learn gender roles in our intimate relationships. We form our patterns of attachment and connection from social norms and culture and from our experiences with our parents. That inevitably includes some emotional issues that may lie dormant, and intrude upon our relationships as adult. Many memoirs depict that with devastating, often painful accuracy.
Regretting Your Sacrifice To Your Partner
Foremost among those personal issues is the consequence of bringing a low level of self-worth or self-regard into the relationship. Or when you feel insecure about how much you can trust or count on your partner’s professed caring and love. The consequences can lead to accommodating and supporting what your partner wants as an ongoing way of relating to him or her. That fuels an imbalanced, unhealthy partnership, and is likely to generate a backlash of resentment, beneath the surface, until it erupts or just remains submerged, where it festers and creates a range of symptoms. That’s what we often see in both individual and couples therapy.
Now, a recent study from the Netherlands documents that, from a study of 130 couples. Summarized in this report, the research found that people with low self-esteem tend to feel vulnerable in their relationship. That includes feeling insecure about their partner’s support and love. According to lead researcher Francesca Righetti, “Low self-esteem partners…underestimate how positively they are viewed by their partner and how much their partner loves and cares for them. They also tend to think that others are not there for them, not available to provide support when in need.”
The upshot of the study, published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, is that people with low self-esteem who decide to sacrifice personal preferences for their relationship come to regret those actions. And that has further, negative consequences for their wellbeing. Righetti says, “…they are more likely to regret those sacrifices and this leads them to experience more negative mood, greater stress and lower life satisfaction, even over time.”
In short, they regret sacrifices they make because they don’t feel appreciated or supported by their partner. And they can lope along like that, depressed, unhappy, and often to the puzzlement of their partner.
The Power Of A Supportive Partner
On the other side of the coin, a recent study from Carnegie Mellon University showed a link between experiencing a supportive relationship from your partner and a willingness to pursue new opportunities or tackle new problems, especially outside of the relationship.
Described in this summary, the study found that people with supportive spouses were more likely to take on potentially rewarding challenges. Moreover, those who did so experienced more personal growth, happiness, psychological well-being and better relationship functioning months later.
According to lead author Brooke Feeney, “Significant others can help you thrive through embracing life opportunities. We found support for the idea that the choices people make at these specific decision points — such as pursuing a work opportunity or seeking out new friends — matter a lot for their long-term well-being,”
But, as Feeney added, significant others can also “…hinder your ability to thrive by making it less likely that you’ll pursue opportunities for growth.” The study was based on 163 married couples and published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
Both clinical experience and empirical research from studies like those underscore that what you bring into your relationship affects not only the kind of person you seek, but how you experience yourself within the relationship – for better or for worse. As I’ve written here and in other articles, self-awareness is key, as well as whether you and your partner are on the same wave-length about how you envision a sustaining relationship – what you want it to look like, as you both change over time.
A version of this article also appeared in Psychology Today.