In an age where half of all marriages end in divorce it's no wonder that many of us are confused about what it takes to stay together and be happy. Many of us who are currently married were raised in homes where our own parents divorced. We may have actually never seen a functional or happy marriage "up close and personal".
One of the unconscious by-products of being raised in a dysfunctional family is the idea that one must look out for oneself. This idea of not relying on anyone else and not trusting another person to truly "have our back" can subtly infiltrate an otherwise happy union. This dynamic can be viewed as "pro-self" versus "pro-relationship" behaviors.
A "pro-self" behavior behavior is essentially what it sounds like. At it's core it is designed to serve oneself and protect one's own self-interest. We make these all of the time, and when they are not made in the context of a committed relationship, or when they are infrequent, they are not necessarily destructive. For example, choosing to work out an hour before work may be a great choice for you. It can allow you to take care of your body with exercise and reduce stress. But if going to the gym before work means that you leave your partner to manage the task of getting your four kids off to school, and you know from previous conversations that s/he feels very stressed and overwhelmed by this and has asked for your help, then this "pro-self" choice is now working against the health and happiness of your committed relationship.
"Pro-relationship" choices are also just like they sound. These are the choices we make that are best for the relationship. Deciding to go to the gym on your lunch hour because your partner needs help in the morning is a "pro-relationship" choice. It may mean that you get a shorter work-out, or on some days, it may even mean not going to the gym at all. This may feel unfair, and of course we can't expect ourselves to be happy about it in the moment. But in the long run it is what is needed in order to make the relationship successful. Likewise, your partner needs to also be making more "pro-relationship" choices as opposed to "pro-self" choices. In that same couple one spouse may need to give up watching his/her favorite TV show at night in order to spend time with his/her spouse, who feels lonely because their partner tunes out with the TV instead of talking to him/her.
No one can make pro-relationship choices all of the time. We are human and as such we are prone to intermittent moments of selfishness, or egocentrism, or just plan forgetting to consider the other. We will of course sometimes make pro-self choices. But the more pro-relationship choices we can make, and feel good about making, the more healthy our relationship is going to be.
I can hear some of you thinking "wow, this is really naive!" What if your partner doesn't reciprocate? Well, that would need to change. This system (and a healthy, long-lasting and happy relationship) will only work if BOTH partners adhere to this rule. Both partners must be committed to making more pro-relationship choices than pro-self choices. If you and your current partner find this difficult then you may come from backgrounds in which your own parents did not prioritize their marriage above their own individual needs. You may have had a father who hid out in the garage all night working on projects while your mom felt lonely. Or you may have had a mom who bought things and hid the purchases from your father because she knew he would not approve. In these instances the parent is taking care of themselves over the relationship. If this is your history you may feel that making pro-relationship choices is naive or just plan stupid. You may feel that if you don't look out for yourself no one will, including your partner. If these feelings come up you may want to explore them in therapy with your partner. Through couples therapy you can learn what keeps you from making more pro-relationship choices and work to change those patterns. Just as we learned maladaptive patterns in childhood we can learn more healthy patterns as adults.
Wishing you well in your connection to others,
Krista Jordan, Ph.D.
Dr. Jordan has been in private practice for 20 years in Texas. She is passionate about helping people to overcome hurts and obstacles from their past to find more happiness and health in their current lives.