You know you love your partner.
Whether you are at home cuddling on the couch or out for drinks with a couple of old friends, your love doesn’t change. Yet, your partner seems to feel cheated out of time with you when you’re not together. Have they expressed that he or she doesn’t feel like you are showing them enough care and appreciation?
Recently, someone struggling in their relationship shared the following with me:
“We have been married for over 15 years. My husband keeps complaining that he needs more attention and more appreciation from me. He feels like I’m putting my relationship with my family and friends before him.
I completely disagree with him and see it in a different light. I give him attention, we talk, we share things, and I make sure to let him know I appreciate him many times. I think he doesn’t notice it when I do those things.
The thing is, I have a close net family that I talk to on a daily basis. I also have a small group of friends that I hang out with, and I love my job and I feel connected to the people who I work with. I can’t imagine pushing them away.
My husband is not as close with his family, he has a group of guy friends, but they don’t talk about deep stuff, and he doesn’t love his job of many many years now and definitely not his peers.
How can I make him understand I want him to feel like he comes first, and at the same time I need my circle of family and friend to survive?”
This is a beautiful, sensitive and realistic question!
Because we all have a deep and very real need to belong.
A need to belong to our partners and a need to belong to a community of loved ones and supporters.
Of course, these needs sometimes cause friction for those we love.
The struggling person mentioned above wrestled with key questions that, indeed, many current couples grapple with:
- Which relationships do we nurture?
- Can we do both well?
- What are the costs of sacrificing either of these connections?
- What is the best formula for relationship success?
Rest assured, there is a correct way balance and manage both sets of needs without alienating your partner or sacrificing their need to be heard, cared for, and appreciated too.
Let’s consider how you can compassionately consider your partner who feels threatened by your other relationships.
Is Your Partner Really Always Number One?
Definitely! We receive messages all the time from relationship experts emphasizing the need to prioritize your partner on many levels to have a happy relationship. It’s vital that you devote enough time and energy to nurturing your love, promoting good communication, committing to honest, self-disclosure and engaging in healthy conflict rather than avoidance. Your willingness to keep your partner assured of their place at the top of your relationship list should not waver.
Does your partner express insecurity or upset about your time with other people routinely? Find ways to share that you love them and that your other connections do not subvert your love for them. Openly appreciate their vulnerability and honesty rather than express exasperation or resentment. This keeps your relationship safe and communicative.
This requires time, attention, and dedication. Make time to be alone, go on date nights, and fan the flames of desire. You need to prioritize being close and prefer each other to everyone else. This is a very good thing. Don’t be afraid to love your partner well.
Now, with your priorities clear, how should you approach the other people in your lives?
Is There Room for More than Number One?
Of course! Loving your partner well does not mean only loving your partner.
In fact, a healthy list of important relationships is crucial to your number one relationship. Otherwise, your number one person becomes the sole person in your life. That can get boring.
Boring partners tend to be less an object of desire and more an object of duty or obligation. Neither you nor your partner wants demands for attention to be the reason for the death of desire in your union.
In essence, it’s important to keep in mind that maintaining rich and meaningful social connections adds dimension and perspective regarding your connection to each other.
You don’t want to resent the fact that you have become each other’s entire world. Instead, you want to enjoy sharing ever-broadening aspects of your lives. These dimensions are created by a world of relationships and experiences enjoyed outside of your union. A balance between unity and individuality is important for your happiness long-term.
(For more about this consider listening to my podcast: Date Night Will Not Solve Your Problems)
So, knowing that both types of relationships are possible, the question becomes how to ease the negative feelings your partner is experiencing.
Begin by addressing stoking your attraction to each other.
What Keeps Attraction Alive in Your Relationship?
The TED talk “The Secret to Desire in a Long-Term Relationship ” by Esther Perel offered some valuable direction.
In the talk, Perel describes a survey she conducted. The survey addressed desire and attention in intimate relationships. She asked people in different situations and from different cultures a series of relationship questions like, “When do you find your partner most attractive to you?”.
Interestingly, Perel discovered that romance and stereotypical ideas about connection were not the typical response. In other words, most people did not say being close was tied to physical proximity, eye-to-eye conversation, or candle-lit dinners.
Not what you’d expected?
Actually, Perel notes that most people were most attracted to their partners when they’re excelling in some arena (recreationally, occupationally, or socially). There’s something about seeing someone in their element, looking confident, and dressing differently (wearing a suit, wearing a uniform, wearing an evening gown), in charge of themselves and their surroundings.
Moreover, partners often see desire grow after one has been physically far away, allowing a little time away for the sake of growing fonder towards each other. This promotes happy, passionate reunions.
A Fresh Perspective Keeps Partners Mutually Attractive
It’s all about seeing each other with fresh eyes. A positive, novel, admirable lens.
In essence, people want to be with partners who are good at what they do and actively engage the world successfully.
New York Times columnist and director of research and public education at the Council on Contemporary Families Stephanie Koontz notes the following in her article, “ For a Better Marriage Act Like a Single Person.”
“Socializing with others provides some of the novelty and variety that leading social psychologists call “the spice of happiness.” It also allows partners to show off each other’s strengths. My husband tells great stories, but I’ve heard most of them and am not interested in hearing them again when we’re by ourselves. When we’re out with others, however, I urge him to tell away. Their positive reaction validates me as well as him.”
Seeing your partner as the world or their community sees them reminds you of finer qualities that may be overlooked day to day. Thus, attraction and interest are boosted via the validation of those external relationships.
Practical Steps for Relationship Balance and Care your Partner can Count On
When the balance in your relationships shifts one way or another, it causes trust and intimacy problems. You don’t have to go on this way or feel torn between the important people in your life.
Here’s what I suggest to see your relationship thrive:
- Listen to the TED talk “The Secret to Desire in a Long-Term Relationship ” by Esther Perel with your partner.
- Stay curious and listen to each other. Can your partner explain exactly why they feel the way they feel? Do your best to remain curious, not defensive. Defensive language or behavior tends to shut down opportunities for deep sharing, It can also appear as though you’re not really listening or taking responsibility for your own contributions to the distance between you. Again, the goal is to prioritize and make sure your partner feels loved. Show, without condition, you are committed to working on your relationship.
- Make informed decisions. When you have gleaned the necessary information, from your partner, you can start setting relationship priorities. On your own or together, determine which compromises will need to be made. What things are you willing to change? Which core items can’t you give up?
- Be honest about what your communal connections mean to your couple relationship. Have you communicated the importance of social connections to your life together? Consider Stephanie Coontz’s aforementioned article in the New York Times and discuss how you can both prioritize external connections. Encourage girl or guys night out or suggest regular double dates with mutual friends.
- Resist resentment. Remember, connections outside your relationship are important, nourishing, and strong contributors to your happiness. Resentment is a dangerous thing.
Relationship author and researcher John Gottman of notes that partners who fail to choose each other in an ongoing way create a vacuum in which, trust and commitment fade away.
Thanks so much for your time!