Have you ever found yourself making assumptions about how your partner will take care of you or show up for you? Do you assume they’ll do certain things that make your life easier even though they haven’t actually agreed to do that? Have you ever felt resentful toward your partner for not following through on what you assumed they would do for you? If so, you’re not alone! In today’s episode, we’ll discover how these assumptions can lead to resentment and learned helplessness. We’re going to dive into some specific actions you can take to prevent this from happening in your relationship.
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Hello and welcome to another episode of Relationship Alive - this is your host Neil Sattin. When you make assumptions about how you and your partner will show up for each other in your relationship, that can ultimately erode the goodwill and generosity in your relationship. And, on top of that, it can undermine your own ability to feel safe in your own skin. So this week we’re going to talk about how to make the implicit explicit - so that the way that you and your partner collaborate in each other’s lives actually adds energy to both of you - instead of ultimately stealing your fire. It’s an important topic so get ready to dive deep.
But first - are you finding Relationship Alive to be helpful in your life? If so, please consider a donation to help support what we do. To choose something that feels right for you, please visit neilsattin.com/support or text the word SUPPORT to the number 33444 and follow the instructions. And this week, I want to offer sincere gratitude to Danielle, Denise, Kelee, Kent, Abe, Sarah, Renee, Micheila, Ruthana - thank you all so much for your generous contributions to help us keep the lights on here at Relationship Alive headquarters.
This episode is also brought to you by Green Chef. For 50 dollars off your first box of Green Chef go to GreenChef.us/alive. And I’ll tell you a little bit more about them later in the show.
So let’s move on. When you first get into a relationship, it can feel almost magical the way that everything lines up. Those falling in love feelings often also lead to incredible generosity - we’re inspired to show up for our beloveds for so many reasons, not the least of which is how good it feels to offer them something and see the happiness that comes as a result. Back in episode 102, Jeff Zeig talked about the phenomenon called “TOPIAH” - taking pleasure in another’s happiness - which is central to that falling in love state of being.
And when this is happening it can feel like you have been brought together in order to complement each other, make each other’s lives easier, etc. What’s the point of being in a relationship, if not to share joy, and make each other’s life easier? Otherwise, why would we tolerate all the challenges of relationship?
So I’m not going to get down on the way that happens. On the other hand, what tends to happen is that the overwhelming generosity that can mark the beginning of a relationship leads to ways that we take each other for granted. And this is a huge double-edged sword that can slice right into your happiness together and take you down if you’re not careful. Let me explain…
Why is it a double-edged sword? Because on the one side of the blade are the assumptions that we start making about our partner. Assumptions about how they will take care of us, show up for us, make life happier and easier, etc. The problem isn’t that they’re doing all those things - the problem is the assumption, the expectations, that can then lead to resentment. In the ways where you once showed up willingly, out of generosity, you might now find yourself feeling taken for granted and wondering if your partner gets how much you do for them.
Don’t worry, in a moment I’m going to give you a way to steer clear of that problem - but you might remember that I said it was a double-edged sword - so what’s the other problem?
The other side of the blade is the ways in which we learn to rely on our partner and how that can sometimes get in the way of our realizing our own capabilities. It’s a form of learned helplessness - not the kind that’s linked to trauma or recurring pain - though of course, that can *also* happen in relationships - I’m talking about how we come to rely on our partners and then when they for some reason can’t show up in the way that we’ve come to rely on them, it actually triggers our fear - instead of inspiring us to be capable.
Here’s an example. These are the kinds of things that you come to see more clearly when you have to be apart from your partner for any length of time - as you start to realize all the ways that they contribute to your life, or the household, or your wellbeing. Like imagine that your partner leaves for a week, and you suddenly realize that there are no groceries in the fridge, or gas in the car, or dinner on the table when you get home from work. Sometimes when that happens, instead of diving into our own capability - like going to the grocery store, gassing up the car, and cooking a nice dinner - and doing all of those things OURSELVES - we go into a fear response from NOT being taken care of in the ways that we’re used to. So there we are in our trigger - not only not getting our needs met, but feeling fight/flight/freeze in reaction to a partner who simply went out of town on business (or for whatever reason).
And that can ALSO lead to resentment. We can resent our partners for leaving us to fend for ourselves, or we can resent them for making us confront our own little ways of being helpless, or we can actually resent ourselves for having given so much power away to our partners in the first place. It’s a habit that we’ve acquired - letting our partner do things for us, and coming to rely on them for that.
Quick side note on that - often when you move through the triggered place, you can find an enormous blessing in HAVING that space, so that you can feel what you’re truly capable of.
And what’s ironic about this situation? It’s usually true for BOTH partners. In other words, it’s rare that one of you is doing all the assuming, and the other one of you is doing all the work. The reality is usually that both of you give in your own ways, and both of you can feel taken for granted. This is a dynamic that we actually talked about back in our episode with Betty Martin, in episode 162, talking about the Wheel of Consent. Now in that episode, we talked about how it impacts the way that we touch or receive touch from our partners, but the underlying premise is the same as you come to understand the dynamics of giving and receiving.
But I’ll let you listen to that episode to get that part of what I’m talking about. What we’re focused on here is the danger that making assumptions brings to your relationship. And I’m going to show you what to do about it. We’ll solve all your assumption problems with a simple exercise or two - in just a moment.
However, this is the time in the show when I get to tell you about this week’s sponsors. And they both have cool deals for you, so you can try them out - at a discount - and experience what they’re cooking up for you.
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Now let’s get back into the conversation about how to keep your assumptions from eroding your relationship.
As I hinted at the very beginning, the antidote to the toxic effect of assuming on your relationship is to make the implicit explicit - in other words, to get really clear on the dynamic that’s happening in your relationship and to turn assumptions into agreements.
You may have heard me talk about agreements before on Relationship Alive, as they are a key part of creating the container of your relationship. So far we’ve talked about them in broad strokes, though - they represent the things that you and your partner agree NOT to do - you know, things like spending large sums of money without talking to each other about it first, or your agreements around monogamy - these are important things to be really clear about with your partner. We’ve also talked about the things that you agree TO do - things like commitment to supporting each other’s growth or sharing appreciations with each other each night. These are just a couple of small examples.
The problem with assumptions is that they represent agreements that you haven’t actually agreed to. They often have the same degree of expectations that come with an actual agreement - but the problem is that you and your partner don’t actually know exactly that the agreement exists. Let’s take something simple as an example.
Let’s say that every night your beloved gets home from work 30 minutes earlier than you do. And every night they get home, take the dog out, and then start cooking dinner. So you walk in the door, and the dog comes over to you, tail wagging, and you fall on the floor to give your dog a tummy rub, while your partner is there, standing over the stove, whipping up something tasty. Only instead of being really happy to see you, for some reason your partner is standing there looking really serious as they saute the onions, and you already have that sinking feeling that there’s something going on that you’re going to have to talk about later.
Now, let’s just state the obvious - you should always greet your partner before you start rubbing the dog’s belly. If your dog is getting more affection and attention than your partner is, then you’re in trouble. Trust me. In fact, maybe I’ll devote an episode to just that. Moving right along…
And, now let’s even take this situation a step further. Let’s imagine that it’s this way night after night. Except for one night you get home, and your partner is in the living room, kicking back and reading a book. And as you walk in the door and the dog rushes over to greet you they say “great, can you take the dog out?” - and then you realize that they have already cooked and eaten an early dinner - without you. In that moment are you feeling, maybe, just a little bit...resentful?
I’m pretty sure that the answer here would be “yes”. And why is that? Why was your partner stewing over something when you came home to their cooking, and why are you now stewing because it’s suddenly on you to take the dog out and figure out dinner?
In this hypothetical situation that I know none of you has experienced...did you and your partner ever create an agreement about who was going to take the dog out and start dinner?
Now, of course, it’s possible that you might have a stale agreement, something that you made long ago and which no longer is working for one, or both, of you. It’s worth revisiting your agreements every so often. But in order to do that, you’re going to have to know what your agreements are.
So, let’s get there - together. As you may be guessing right now, you are going to actually have to communicate with your partner to figure this out. But before you take that step, let’s get more clear on what your assumptions are.
The best way to do this is to keep track. Have you ever used a time-tracking app to figure out how you spend your time when you’re on your computer? That can be really useful data to have, so that after a week or two you get to see when and how you’re the most productive (and, correspondingly, when and how you waste time). It’s useful - and occasionally scary.
So for the next week what I’d like you to do is to keep track of all of the ways in which you are relying on your partner. The challenge is going to be remembering to do this throughout your day...one way to approach it is to have a little pocket notebook that you carry with you so that you can note things down as they happen. Or you can, of course, keep track in your smartphone. The key here is, first, to remember to be paying attention throughout your day - and then to actually write it down or note it.
It’s tempting here to think “OK, I’m going to just notice it as it happens” - and to take the shortcut and NOT write anything down, or actually keep track of anything. Unless you have a superhuman memory, do NOT do this. Write it down, or record it somehow. This is important, first so that you don’t miss anything! And second, so that as you review your notes at the end of the week, you’ll have a sense of just how vast the number of assumptions is.
Now there may be some things that jump out at you right away as you hear me talking about this. You can go ahead and write those things down. Maybe it’s the “who makes the meals” scenario? Maybe it’s the who does the laundry or the grocery shopping? Maybe it’s that you trust your partner to text you back within 5 minutes when you’ve texted them, and if any more time goes by you start to get anxious?
The big question here is: what are all the ways that I rely on my partner? And what are all the ways that they’re relying on me?
And...after a week of that goes by...you get to look over your findings. There will probably be some things on your list that you already knew about - and hopefully, there will also be some surprises on your list. See if you can get a sense of what led to a particular thing becoming just a way of being - how did it work its way onto your assumption list? That’s helpful to know - at a 1000 foot view you can often see the ways that these patterns start - which is a great way of seeing your own part in things.
Now the next step is going to be to communicate with your partner about what you discovered. I’ll give you a framework for that in a moment. As you might expect, the WAY that you talk about it will have a huge impact. For some important pointers, make sure that you check out my free Relationship Communication guide. If you’ve already downloaded it, then you might want to revisit it just for a reminder - and if you haven’t gotten it yet, you can grab it at neilsattin.com/relate - or by texting the word RELATE to the number 33444 and following the instructions.
So let’s talk about how to approach this conversation with your partner. Maybe you’re lucky and you’re already listening to Relationship Alive together - and doing this research together. So if that’s the case then you simply want to schedule a time to talk about what you discovered. If you’re doing this on your own, then the first step is to ask your beloved if there’s a time when you can sit down to talk about some important things you’ve been noticing. Don’t just spring this on your partner!
And even if you have a long list of ways that your partner is making assumptions about you, I wouldn’t bring that up just yet - if your partner asks you what you want to talk about, just say that you’ve been noticing some ways that you take them for granted, and you were hoping to be able to sit down, chat with them, and get some clarity about it. Maybe even express your gratitude - you know, that kind of thing.
When the appointed time arrives, then, yes - you want to set the stage by talking about how you have noticed all these ways in which you’ve been taking your partner for granted or making assumptions that things are a certain way. If you have lots of examples to choose from in your observations, you might choose the one that seems the least triggering to your partner - in other words, start with something easy. Not necessarily a hot-button issue right away.
Then you might say something like…”I’ve been operating as if this is an agreement that we have made, to do things this way. But we never really did, did we? Or maybe we did, but that was a long time ago, and I’m not sure that it necessarily makes sense anymore.”
Each step along the way you want to check in with your partner to see if what you’re saying is making sense to them. Do they get it, what you’re saying? Do they agree? Can they lend any insight into what you’ve already noticed?
If you’re starting with ways that you’ve been taking them for granted, then it will be easier to inspire their collaboration in the conversation. One thing to pay attention to here is your own level of activation, of being triggered. If your partner is TOO eager to point out the assumptions that you’ve been making, then you could find yourself feeling like you’re being attacked. Do your best here to find your balance on your own, to take responsibility for your own emotional state. As much as possible you want to keep operating from your prefrontal cortex - in other words, the non-triggered part of your brain that knows how to problem-solve, stay curious, and be creative.
So - what’s the ultimate goal here? The goal is to bring up the assumptions that you’ve been making and then to ask your partner if there’s an agreement that you can actually make, together, about each particular thing. It’s as simple as that. Some possible ways to frame that include: “In this situation, would you like to <and then insert the thing>”. Or “What would make that ok for you? What would make that feel like something you actually want to do?” or “how can I help you so that you’re not doing it on your own?” or “What would be a meaningful way - to you - that I could show my appreciation?” Or “Is there some way that I could contribute that would make a difference to you?”
You may also discover that some of these ways that you’ve come to rely on your partner actually are obstacles to your own feeling fulfilled, actualized, and capable in your own life. So rather than your go-to being trying to get your partner’s buy-in to just keep doing things that way - but with an agreement - I invite you to first consider how you can show up to at least be an equal partner in what’s happening. Or perhaps you want to take full responsibility for making this thing happen for you - rather than relying on your partner at all. This could be about your reclaiming that part of yourself, or it could also be about ways to give even more to the relationship.
I leave it to you to feel through the situation for what feels best to you and your partner. But definitely, spend time entertaining the different possibilities - instead of immediately rushing to the first solution that jumps out at you.
Bear in mind too that even if your partner says that they are more than happy to do whatever it is that they’ve been doing, by at least getting it out in the open you can ensure that you’re both completely in integrity about it. And you can also discuss how to safely bring it up if the agreement STOPS being ok with either one of you. Having a way to bring the topic up without anyone getting triggered or resentful - in other words, revisiting your agreements on a regular basis and having that be just built into the structure of your relationship will help you keep things healthy and minimize resentment in the time ahead of you.
Oh, by the way, in case you were wondering about how to address all those ways that you feel like your partner might be taking you for granted...again remember that it’s best to start with an offering - which in this case is you taking responsibility for all the assumptions that you’ve been making.
Next you might ask your partner something like this: “Would you be willing to talk about some other places where I think we could use a more explicit agreement between us?” And if the answer is “Yes” - then you’re on the right track. Instead of framing this part of the conversation as ways that you’re being “taken for granted” - you might instead say something like “Here is a place where our agreement isn’t quite clear…” And rather than focusing on the assumption - in other words, rather than saying something like “it seems like you assume I’m going to make dinner every night” you might say something like “I find that most nights I’m making dinner. And I’m doing it by myself. And while I do enjoy making dinner, what I really miss is the opportunity for us to work together to make choices about what we’re going to eat. So I find that lately I’ve been getting lonely and maybe even a little sad, instead of feeling inspired to cook for both of us. Would you be willing to talk about ways that we could change that up a bit?”
You might be surprised to find that your partner will actually show up with some creative solutions - especially if they’re not being blamed.
OK - I think that’s enough to get you going in the right direction. If you’re on Facebook and haven’t joined us in the Relationship Alive Community yet, please come find us there. You can get support from the more than 2300 Relationship Alive listeners who are creating a safe space to talk about relationships. And in the meantime, if you know someone who could benefit from hearing this episode, please feel free to send the link along - it’s neilsattin.com/167. I look forward to being with you next week - take care until then!