When you have children there are so many decisions to be made. Do you feed on demand or on schedule, is breast milk important, is practicing religion important to your family traditions, etc..? If problems arise the stakes get higher and emotions can become intensified. The big and the small questions need negotiation and discussion to ensure both parties feel heard and considered.
Sometimes one person will attempt to “take care of things” a to make it “easier” for the other. He or she may go to the pediatricians appointments, pack the diaper bag, agree to live in the neighborhood the other prefers etc… Both seem satisfied and the children seem happy. Until one day when it all changes.
The person without the voice may be able to go for an extended period of time believing he or she is going with the flow or helping the family along. There may be significant choices to be made about medical issues or special education schools and this person is often the person who will figure out what needs to be done to help his or her child. Unfortunately, this can leave the other partner in the position of playing Monday morning quarterback, second-guessing or becoming critical of the partner who is doing all of the heavy lifting.
Eventually, resentment and frustration builds and sacrificing partner becomes upset, feels underappreciated, not considered and even criticized. Its natural for him or her to look at the other partner and see him or her as the culprit of the problems. The truth is that the responsibility belongs to both people. They are both involved in a dance that they have become accustomed to. Sometimes the sacrificing partner feels he or she will be loved more if he or she relents or bears the burden of family struggles. He or she may gain a sense of accomplishment or may even feel that his or her family will be better if he or she is in charge. I have heard high-powered women insist they need to make their children’s lunch because they feel their partners will not make the sandwiches with enough love.
There are many reasons why we do the things we do in relationships. Sometimes our behaviors are learned from our childhood experiences or young adult relationships. Regardless of the reason, at some point the sacrificing partner got the message that this is the way to run the family affairs. The other partner, often unconsciously, received the message that delegating makes sense and never considered that there may be fallout as a result of abdicating involvement for so long.
In an ideal situation, both people will fight for the persistence of their union. However, that perspective is difficult to keep top of mind, particularly when you are sleep deprived and/or stressed. The heavy lifter or sacrificer is often the first to see that there is trouble in the relationship. He or she may feel hurt, lonely and betrayed by a partner who doesn’t seem to notice that he or she is not happy. At this point, distance may grow between the couple and that is not good for them or the children. Yet the sacrificing partner may feel that he or she has done too much and does not want to put forth any more effort. Unfortunately, effort is exactly what is needed to move the relationship out of its stump and the sacrificer is usually the one to do it. The vast majority of couples who make the decision to get help, even when one person is more motivated than the other, can mend their relationship.
There are many decisions to make and many struggles to endure when a couple decides on a lifetime commitment of love and children. Life can be full of joy and wonder but everyone will also endure hardship, loss and disappointment at some point. Couples are often eager to save their children from difficulty but they must care for themselves and their partnership as well or the children will suffer too.
Keeping an eye on the relationship and checking in with each other from time to time can help relationships stay on course. Life and work get in the way and relationships can too easily be neglected. The person who is seen as the “neglecter” (like the sacrificer) is not the only one at fault, both people play a part in the dance. The person who feels neglected is likely to feel the hurt first and therefore, is in the best position to raise the white flag, not just to request peace but to advocate for him or herself the way he or she would advocate for the children. It does not matter who is “right”, what matters is the persistence of the union and the commitment to continue advocating for the relationship until the relationship has returned to a better place.