The other day I overheard an interesting conversation between a girl and her friend at the coffeeshop. Let’s call the two girls Emily and Anne. Here’s a paraphrasing of the conversation.
Emily: So I just moved in with my boyfriend and I feel like I am always nagging him to do the things that he should be doing anyways
Anne: Like what?
Emily: Like taking out the trash or cleaning the dishes. He just leaves them.
Anne: That’s horrible.
Emily: I know. But then when he does take out the trash I feel like completely overwhelmed. Like he did this amazing thing. But he should have been doing it anyways, you know?
Anne: I did notice he is kind of a slacker
Emily: I just feel like he’s not really present or there in our relationship. He doesn’t do the things he should be doing and I feel like it’s my fault. Like maybe he doesn’t know how important they are to me. But I hate telling him to do them. I just want him to do them.
Anne: Is everything else in your relationship okay?
She then went off to briefly discuss other ways in which her significant other was not really present or aware in their relationship. They got up and left, but I sat there thinking about it for a long time. In how many relationships that you’ve been in have you experienced this?
I started to think about behavior reinforcement. When Emily praised her boyfriend for doing something that he should have been doing already, she may have been saying “thank you for doing this fabulous act, I am thankful for you going above and beyond” when really her reaction meant “I am happy that you are contributing because I am not used to seeing it happen.”
The baseline of behavior in a relationship should not be bare minimum. Simply going through the actions of being a partner (offering support, helping out, doing ones fair share) should not be rewarded as something extra. This can happen in any relationship, between any gender, between any number of people, between a relationship that is romantic in nature or not.
This doesn’t mean that we can’t appreciate our partners for what they do. There is a difference between appreciating and praising. I appreciate that my partner helps me do the dishes after I cook. I appreciate that he helps take out the trash and tidy the apartment. I appreciate that he listens to me when I am sad. I appreciate that I know that I can call him to come for me when I need him. These, I feel, are basic functions of a healthy relationship.
“Always give more than you take.”
Emily found herself nagging her significant other to do things he should already be doing. How did Emily and her boyfriend get to that place in their relationship? I don’t know the details. Maybe that’s how it always was, or that’s where it went after they began living together. There are a lot of ways in which that kind of behavior can start (on either, or both sides of the relationship) and there are a lot of reasons why it might persist.
Talking to your partner about expectations is extremely important. Don’t make the assumption that you’re on the same page. Be honest with your partner about what kinds of things you expect in a relationship. Some people require very little “relationship maintenance” and don’t necessarily need their partner there to help provide emotional support. Some people don’t split up chores or other tasks. Because all relationships are different it’s important to acknowledge those differences but it’s also important to not let your relationship just slide into whatever is comfortable for the other person.
Never feel like you have to hassle your partner to be a human being. Never feel like you have to hassle your partner to be there for you, to care for you, to offer their part in the relationship. If you begin to feel that way, or if you feel that the balance is off and your partner is doing more work than you, there is always time to correct the path and figure out how to make things better for each other.
Sometimes it can be as simple as “I didn’t know what I was doing wrong!” and sometimes it can be a much harder to hear “We’re just not compatible.”