“I’m sorry,” a woman said as gently as she could to her boyfriend, “you’re just not meeting my needs.”
She then directed the conversation back to me.
“I’ve been with my boyfriend for a while now, and in the past I cheated on him because I felt like I wasn’t getting attention from my boyfriend. I know it was wrong and I wish I could take it back. We broke up, but we managed to talk and we ended up getting back together. We do love each other. However, we’ve been fighting a lot lately because he says I need to change the way I am, and to gain his trust. He says I don’t act like a girlfriend sometimes and that hurts. I never know what to do. For example, he says I don’t comfort him and that he’s the one who does everything. He says he puts my feelings first and that as a girlfriend all of this should be an instinct: I should know what to do and say as a girlfriend.”
So it works both ways. Men and women can have that same feeling of not being treated right, not being treated the way they think people in love “should” treat each other. The only problem is the only “manual” on how to show love is the nonsense we watch on television and in the movies. I used to get so annoyed when I would watch a movie wherein several people kind of gang up on the person who isn’t behaving right and then … presto! He’d get it.
It doesn’t work that way.
As a therapist, I can tell you people do not “get it” so easily. And it is generally not their fault, either. How can you know what to do when you didn’t see it growing up? If you didn’t see kindness, compassion, caring, giving and forgiving, loyalty, valuing, and apologies, then how do you know what to do?
My guess is that the couple above, let’s call them Sherry and Sam, both need to learn how to put the other first. Sherry cheated when she was not getting enough attention. Incidentally, a therapist who wrote a book on why people cheat, Gary Neuman, found this to be the No. 1 reason for cheating among men as well as women. We all have emotional needs, and of course we want them met.
Here is my three-step formula for making it work:
1. Nourish Yourself
If you think that is contradictory—that you are taking care of someone else’s needs by taking care of your own—it’s not. Think of it this way: If you are starved for love, can your partner ever “fill up your bucket”? You can’t go into a relationship feeling starved. It will likely show and scare away the other person.
So start to love yourself, no matter how difficult that is. Pat yourself on the back for your accomplishments, your good qualities, the gifts you were given the day you were born. Say affirmations every day to remind yourself of these good qualities. And treat yourself nicely: Get a night’s sleep; eat healthy, delicious food in the right amounts; and get exercise. Do fun things (not self-destructive things); pursue your dreams. Learn to say “no” sometimes, and set appropriate limits; do not be anybody’s doormat.
2. Become a Giver
Some people give because they don’t value themselves as much as they value others, or because when they give, they expect some kind of positive response and that makes them feel good. But it is very healthy to give in order to make the other person happy. It is said that the highest form of giving is totally anonymous; the receiver doesn’t know who you are and you don’t know who the receiver is.
I just heard a story today like that. It seems that a man died. A week later, his wife got a call from a woman wanting to know where her medicine was. The widow had no idea who this person was or what this was about.
The caller, in turn, did not know the man who died. Apparently, 20 years earlier, when she learned that she had a medical condition and could not afford the prescription, she told the pharmacist. He kept this in mind and mentioned it to another customer who took it upon himself to pay for her medication. For 20 years. And she received it every week until the week he died.
So just what should you be giving? You can give your attention, for starters. This is probably the most valuable commodity there is. When you give attention properly, you are really listening and absorbing what the other person is saying. You’re not looking at your phone; your mind is not wandering.
You can ask questions that show you’ve listened. You can even listen to things that bore you to death—and try to figure out what it is that your partner finds so interesting about them. That’s real giving.
Giving up what you want for the other person is a beautiful way to give. Does your partner love tear-jerker movies while you want to see action? Go to the tear-jerker. Do you love Tex-Mex while your partner loves sushi? Go for the sushi. Smile at your mother-in-law. Make pleasant small-talk when you wish you were a thousand miles away. That’s giving.
3. Know Who You Are Dealing With
We tend to overlook flaws when we love someone, and that is smart and makes for peace. But what kind of flaws, exactly, are we talking about? If your partner lies, cheats, steals, is abusive, or never there, then perhaps you should be mindful of just what you are overlooking. All the giving in the world will not turn around someone with self-destructive tendencies. The right therapist might succeed, but that is for another article.
I am not saying not to give someone a chance. Absolutely, you should try therapy—obviously, I believe in it. But for how many years and for how much pain? Loving yourself means not allowing yourself to be mistreated, even if the mistreating person says he or she loves you. Because that is not love.
The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.