During my years in practice as a couple’s therapist, I have found that women, within their relationships, give an awful lot of themselves. I don’t mean that they are generous with their hearts; I mean they give their identity away. There seems to be something that makes women believe that they can fix many relational problems by quieting their own voice. Maybe it is because many girls and women are not taught to be assertive. Maybe it’s because some women have a hard time standing strong in their values because they worry they will be seen as nagging or bitchy. It could be that girls and women are still taught that they should only be nurturing caretakers and not strong decision makers.
While this is not the case for all women; there are many examples of strong self assured, assertive women who are in successful, happy relationships. Still, there are a great many women for whom this is a big issue. Some of these women have shown up in my therapy practice, either alone or for couples counseling with their partner. They can’t figure out why their relationship is not working when they are giving everything they have to make it work. I’m going to call this woman the “Giving Woman”.
Sometimes a couple can find themselves in an unhappy relationship, confused about what is happening. Couples often show up in my office for couple’s therapy, a woman saying that she is going above and beyond what any reasonable woman would do to make her partner happy. Her partner will often feel disconnected, frustrated, unhappy, and unable to meet her needs. While there are many dynamics that can cause a couple to become disconnected, one of them is the subtle erosion of the woman’s identity. It is a dynamic that is created by both partners; often times neither one of them realizing that it is happening. It begins in an innocent, even loving or caring way. The Giving Woman notices that her partner is upset about something that doesn’t seem to be that big of an issue for her. She thinks, “ Sure, I wanted Italian for dinner, but my partner wants Thai food. I can make my partner’s life a little better if I just have Thai food.”
It sounds harmless enough. If we argued and debated about every meal we ate with our partner we may never sit down at a restaurant together. In most cases this interaction doesn’t become problematic. We agree on Thai and we go enjoy a lovely dinner. However, when the Giving Woman really wants Italian but she hesitates to voice her want, she doesn’t have an opportunity to be considered in the relationship. Her partner doesn’t have the opportunity to accept her suggestion and make her life a little better. The Giving Woman sees her partner enjoying dinner and she thinks that she has done something good for the relationship. She feels that she has made a deposit into the “good feelings bank account”. While she thinks, “That was good for the relationship” she grows a little quieter within herself.
This pattern can slowly (or not so slowly) spread to other areas of the relationship. For example, Giving Woman wants to spend the holidays with her family while her partner wants to go to a mountain ski resort. Giving Woman may feel disappointed and/or sad that she won’t see her family for the holidays, but her partner works so hard and really wants to go skiing. Giving Woman agrees to go. In order to not feel so bad about it she may even convince herself that she wants to spend the holidays in the mountains. After all, she’s spent every holiday with her family, what really is she missing? She doesn’t put up much of a fuss about it but on the inside she feels disappointed.
Often these women lack confidence in their opinions, abilities, and overall importance in the world. This lack of confidence can often be linked to some emotional wound they suffered as young girls. It could be that their sense of self was questioned, or that they were not encouraged to be independent. Maybe they learned that having strong opinions pushes people away. Fearing that voicing her opinion will push her partner away the Giving Woman says nothing. She learns that she can make her partner happy if she behaves the way her partner wants and keeps her disappointment to herself. She learns that the way to get her partner to love her more is to be who she is asked to be, not who she really is.
Partners of Giving Women are not necessarily manipulative bullies. They may be attracted to the easygoing nature of the Giving Woman. There are few disagreements that don’t get resolved with relatively easy, positive outcomes. Partners don’t usually notice that the Giving Woman is giving away her identity. It just seems like the couple is really compatible, that they are on the same page most of the time.
The internal struggle of the Giving Woman is great. Losing your identity for the benefit of a relationship in which you are deeply invested is a vey scary thing. Giving Women often define themselves by their ability to get others to love them, rather than by their sense of who they are independently. They need to be needed; it’s what makes them feel useful and safe. It is also often the thing that can create distance, insecurity, and even resentment in a relationship. A couple begins to struggle when neither partner can explain what is happening between them.
Afraid to show her true self to her partner for fear of not bring loved, the Giving Woman allows her partner to try to fill her up. A partner will try to provide many ideas about what Giving Woman could be doing. Her partner will suggest hobbies, even a career path which Giving Woman will try. She believes that if she just takes up roller derby, or painting, or if she becomes a real estate agent her partner will be happy with her and love her more. Inevitably, after a time Giving Woman will give up the hobby or career because it doesn’t really fit her; it doesn’t make her feel happy or fulfilled. Her partner will then start to see her as a quitter, lazy, or dispassionate. This cycle of hobby giving – hobby giving up will take it’s toll or the relationship. Giving Woman becomes highly dependent on her partner for her sense of self. Some fundamental parts of her personality are given to her by her partner. How she spends her vacations, what she chooses to wear, what job she chooses to do can all be influenced primarily by her partner’s ideas of what she should be doing. Often times partners believe they are being helpful. They see great potential in their Giving Woman mate and want to do what they can to help build some passion in her.
Sadly, this desire of partners to build passion feeds Giving Woman’s fear that she is not good enough, that she can only make her partner happy if she does what is prescribed for her. It’s a dynamic that takes away Giving Woman’s sense of self. Often times the things that her partner found attractive when they met are lost to her fear. The relationship begins to break down, and both partners can feel disconnected, scared and insecure.
It is possible to break this cycle. It takes work on the part of both partners. Safety needs to be built into the relationship. The relationship needs to become the place where each person is accepted completely. All of their thoughts, needs, short coming and values have to be equally important to, and accepted by each partner. This work can often be done with the help of a couple’s counselor. Once both partners can feel the safety, the Giving Woman can begin to share her voice rather than shrink in fear of not being loved. When a woman regains her voice her relationship often regains it’s passion. There is something infinitely attractive about having a partner who has opinions of their own for which they are not afraid to stand up.
As this change occurs the Giving Woman transforms into a Confident Woman. She can continue to be easygoing and nurturing in her relationship. However the impetus changes. She is no longer dong it for fear of not being loved. When the Confident Woman nurtures her relationship it comes from a place of passion. That passion fuels the relationship in a very differ way than does fear. That passion breeds connection, acceptance and safety or both partners, which can often be the basis for long lasting love.