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Are You Often the “Giver” in Your Intimate Relationships?

Eight reasons why people end up being the primary givers.

RANDI GUNTHER Clinical Psychologist & Marriage Counselor

Over the past four decades, I have so often listened to couples sharing their unhappiness over unequal needs in their relationship. Sometimes I’ve been able to help them negotiate the differences but, at other times, one partner has to sacrifice for the other.

When each partner can give equally in different situations, the relationship stays balanced. But, if most of the time the same partner has to do the majority of giving to keep the relationship intact, that balance can go awry. In my role as a relationship therapist, I have been often in the company of intimate partners who have felt they were the primary giver in all of their relationships. Sometimes they feel comfortable doing so and pick partners who appreciate them. At other times, they end up feeling exploited, wondering why their willingness to sacrifice backfires. Whether or not imbalanced giving ends up helping or hindering a relationship has all to do with what motives, strategies, and goals drive the givers to keep doing what they do. If they know exactly what is behind the role they play, they can better predict what will happen in their relationship if they continue to give more than they receive in return. Here are eight reasons why people end up being the primary givers in their relationships, and whether those behaviors help or hinder their relationships. All of us are capable of any and all of them, but, knowing when we are playing those roles, we can modify them accordingly.

Reason Number One - Naturally Easy-Going Temperaments There are some people who are just bountiful by nature. Their own needs do not overtake them in most cases, and they find it easier to give up what they want when their partner’s needs are more urgent.

They are often referred to as harmony seekers or people who just like to get along whatever it takes. They seem to be innately and effortlessly flexible and responsive to their partner’s needs. When the behavior works:

These people often just have even temperaments. They simply don’t react urgently when they can’t have something they want. When they do have competitive desires with their partners, they find it easy to give in or to let go of their own wants rather than disappoint the others. They don’t rile easily, don’t usually build resentments, and seem to effortlessly support the more urgent needs of their partners. Their partners often describe them as wonderfully compatible. When it doesn’t work:

In the relationship world, many partners unconsciously pick partners who are behavioral opposites of each other. Whether from childhood modeling or difficult prior adult relationships, they are drawn to opposites, making one “whole person” between them.

Givers often find themselves in relationships with partners who do not feel uncomfortable when they accept generosity. They can feel an easy entitlement if it benefits them and are understandably attracted to those who offer themselves generously. Unfortunately, these easy receivers can become more self-indulgent over time and wear out the giver’s resources. Reason Number Two - Silent Contracts: Psychological Banks for Future Withdrawals There are givers who try hard not to ask for anything but are silently “saving up” for an emotional rainy day. They are essentially putting their “gifts” into a relationship bank, holding on to the receipts in case they need something later. They are repulsed at the thought that they may be seen as people who ever take advantage of others. When the behavior works:

If a couple agrees that more often one-way giving is appropriate, then the more receiving partner absolutely must understand if needed to reciprocate. The caveat is that the giver must be willing to state what and when he or she does want something in return. When both partners accept that contract and feel totally fine with it, the imbalance of giving can function as negotiated. When it doesn’t work:

If one partner assumes that the giver is content in the over-giving process, he or she will not realize that an “emotional credit card” is accruing. If the giver, at some future time, expects to be able to “withdraw” acts of reciprocity when needed, without penalty, it is likely to lead to a distressing situation for both. A partner who has unwittingly taken what appears to be “no-cost” gifts of kindness is not likely to realize that he or she has been accruing debt. Reason Number Three - Giving to Avoid Unwanted Responses Many times, people have become givers because it seemed the best option at the time to avoid conflict, abandonment, or resentment from another. These kinds of anxiety-based behaviors usually start early in life when a child feels he or she must accommodate a power figure to avoid anticipated loss, and also watches adults do the same. When the behavior works:

There are people who just cannot stand disharmony or fear punishment if they don’t concur with what is asked of them. They are highly sensitive to uneasiness or anticipation that their partners will be unhappy, withholding, or unwilling to stay in the relationship if they do not comply. If they are okay when they are able to avert disharmony and do not feel lessened by the situation, they may be more than willing to operate in this way. When it doesn’t work:

Over-accommodating personalities too often attract partners who want things their own way, like to be in control, or experience genuine excitement in having power over others. Sadly, those who give just to keep criticism at bay may attract partners who take advantage of that fear. Reason Number Four - Giving for Praise People in successful relationships count on their other partner to be authentic in their compliments and honest about their distresses. They help each other know what others may expect of them by being as real as they can in their interpersonal responses. When praise is offered, it is most often honest and fitting for whatever the other partner has done to merit it. When the behavior works:

Intimate partners who feel comfortable with themselves, each other, and their actions, rarely need praise for them. They can genuinely accept and appreciate it when their partners offer it. It’s not wrong for relationship partners to shore each other up, especially when things aren’t working out for them. Givers tend to be generous in their praising but sometimes, like most, do so in order to get recognition or status. When it doesn’t work:

Giving that is primarily motivated to elicit praise from the other partner usually backfires over time because it is often rooted in insecurity. Overly focusing and expressing on the other partner’s assets and ignoring any negative behavior often ends up counter-productive.

Reason Number Five - Giving Because It’s “The Right Thing to Do.” Gallantry and chivalry are considered by most as very respectable ways to behave. Throughout history, those ways of being have been the hallmarks of quality people who are able to choose cause over self. They are described as courageous, self-sacrificing, heroic, and worthy of admiration. In quality intimate relationships, they occur automatically when there is a crisis. When the behavior works:

People who choose to put cause, relationship, people, or ideals, over their personal needs are often sought after as mates because they can be counted on to act according to those helpful and constructive values even when they must sacrifice to do so. They are the “keepers;” the people who come through at the risk of personal sacrifice and don’t require the other person to praise them for those behaviors. When it doesn’t work:

People with inbred ethics can be taken advantage of by partners who do not feel the obligation to live by the same standards. They can also sacrifice to the point of self-erasure. If their partners use their values against them, they can slip into martyrdom. If they are bound by beliefs that have become outdated, they may find themselves easily controlled by those who don’t truly value them. Reason Number Six - Giving Because It Just Feels Good Many people have told me that they just “love giving.” They find the most satisfaction when they bring pleasure to others, go out of their way to pay attention to other’s needs, bask in that joy. They steadfastly claim that they need nothing in return because the giving, in and of itself, is enough for them. When the behavior works:

These people do the world a great service when their gifts are wanted, appreciated, and helpful. They are regularly called upon to help when needed, and simply don’t have hidden agendas. They are the “pay-forward” kind of individuals who don’t seem to need rewarding. When it doesn’t work: Help is not always helpful. The self-sacrificing-joy of giving without the need for reciprocal obligation can feel wonderful to the person giving, but can engender resentment and obligation in the receiving partner over time. Support, generosity, consideration, and kindness work best in any relationship that is reciprocal and balanced. Too much giving, no matter what the motive, can create dependence and weakness, rendering the other partner spoiled and without true self-respect. Reason Number Seven - Giving Because It’s Expected Though this is somewhat similar to giving to avoid unwanted responses mentioned above, it is different in that the expectations of an intimate partner are not always fair or appropriate. Yet, not all partners have the ability or motivation to give in the way it is expected by another, and may find themselves resentful or cornered into obligation. When the behavior works:

When giving is spontaneous and welcomed, it can be strong love-glue in a relationship. Givers who make their own limitations and needs clear, can reasonably expect to share those behaviors with their partners. That way, they can maintain their resources to keep giving as they have. They tell their partners what they feel is reasonable to expect and what is not, without guise or mystery, because they understand their own capability and are comfortable within that behavior. When it doesn’t work:

Too often though, givers do not realize those limitations and unwittingly set up expectations in their partners that the givers may not be able to keep. Those who give to be gallant or give because they simply enjoy doing so, often run into the danger when there are no clear contracts to establish what each partner can reasonably expect. The other partner may not realize that he or she is expecting too much, and then ends up creating martyrdom in the other. Reason Number Eight - Giving to Look Good to Others Though most people would not want to be seen this way, all people, at times, give so that they will look good to others. They may just like how it feels to be seen this way, to feel more accepted, or perhaps to have a strategy in mind to benefit from the results. Some do it, of course, for ego satisfaction and to seek the notoriety or popularity that may go with it. If the deed is still productive and someone benefits by it, it does not take away from its value. People bask in the mirrors of other’s eyes when those reflections are positive.

When the behavior works: Both partners in new relationships go out of their way to give in order to be looked upon as favorable to their partners. They put their best feet forward by making sure that their partners lack for nothing.

The giving, in and of itself, is not the problem, if those gifts are both wanted and appreciated. If the other person in the relationship is giving that praise accurately and authentically, both can feel just fine. Some people have confided in me that they do give to make points with their partners. But, if they get true satisfaction out of giving to look good and don’t feel resentful, it is not a problem. When it doesn’t work:

Too often, the receiving partner may come to depend on a behavior that is chosen to elicit a certain reaction. When the giving does not produce the kind of response sought, that needing-to-look-good person does not get what he or she wanted, and may feel betrayed.

In situations where a person’s public image brings out the best in his or her behavior, but is not that way at home, that private partner is not the beneficiary of that giving style. It is particularly problematic when that at-home-partner hears wonderful stories about the other’s public persona while being the “pit stop” when the lights are turned off. Giving is a complicated process. It sometimes benefits the giver more than the recipient, and sometimes the other way around. At other times, it can be a true blessing for both.

What is crucial is that those who do the primary giving in a relationship do so with a motivation, strategy, or goal in mind. If they understand that those reasons can create both positive and negative outcomes, and are authentic and transparent with their partners, their relationship may function quite well. Imbalance giving only becomes a problem when it ultimately results in resentment or obligation on the part of the receiver. A beautiful gift that is wanted and appreciated, clearly offered, and openly motivated, can be a wondrous compliment to any intimate relationship.

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