What do people in relationships owe each other?
I’m deeply in love with my wife, Laura. She’s big-hearted, gorgeous and full of life. Laura is from South America, and has a style that is a lot more vibrant than is typical for Washington. I love it, but I work at a somewhat conservative firm and occasionally have an event to which it’s appropriate to bring my significant other. And I am uncomfortable bringing Laura when she dresses up in a way that is, in my opinion, too “showy.”
I’ve told her this nicely but she gets offended and tells me that she knows how to dress and how to be appropriate. She also says she doesn’t want to dress like someone’s grandmother.
I’m comfortable being out but I am the only lesbian at my level at work and am always conscious of wanting to make a good impression and seem normal. I am trying to figure out if part of my discomfort with the way Laura dresses at these events is that I don’t want to stand out even more than I already do. But I honestly think that she doesn’t dress appropriately for my formal work events and I don’t want to be known in my company for having the spouse who makes this sort of impression.
If my career may suffer, shouldn’t Laura give in for my firm’s formal events? I’m happy to let her dress however she wants at all other times.
Strip away the details. You want Laura to do something, and she doesn’t want to do it. This is such a common couples dynamic that it has a name: The two of you are locked in a power-control struggle. You are making a power move by trying to influence Laura and she is making a control move by blocking your influence.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with power and control moves. We all make them all the time. You can certainly advocate for what you want, just as you can certainly say “no” to someone’s request.
Power and control moves turn toxic when you start thinking of your relationship as a battlefield where there has to be a winner and a loser. When you’re unwilling to be thoughtful about each other’s wishes, your relationship becomes like a tire spinning in the snow, going nowhere and burning rubber.
Think of power-control struggles as the equivalent of a temper tantrum. Rather than accepting our partners’ differences and figuring out how to construct a life together, we shut down and hold fast to our own point of view, stamping our feet in disappointment because our partner doesn’t want to do it our way. I’m guessing that this is not the only place in your relationship where you two are having this struggle.
Maybe you’re creating this particular issue in your head because you want to be a flawless lesbian at the office and no one else actually cares what Laura wears. Maybe Laura is refusing your request because she feels like you’re running the show and wants some say in her own life. It doesn’t really matter. Instead of putting energy into this squabble, the two of you need to find a way out of the “Do what I want” vs. “Don’t tell me what to do” sinkhole.
Here’s my advice:
- • You can make requests of your partner, but honor her decision, which is hers to make.
- • When you’re on the receiving end, be generous about honoring your partner’s requests of you. It’s a great idea to say “yes,” unless you have a strong reason not to. Saying “no” because you don’t want to let your partner boss you around is a weak way to assert your strength.
- • Don’t keep score or be retaliatory about how many times each of you goes along with your partner’s wishes unless you want to poison your relationship.
- • Talk to each other about why your wants are important to you instead of trying to impose your will by demand or refusal. You’ll understand each other much better, feel closer and likely be more understanding when your partner lets you down.
In any relationship, there are times when two people will want very different things, but only one path can be taken. There’s no easy answer as to whose preference should rule. The best guidance is to aim for a collaborative relationship by keeping in mind that when your partner is content, you also gain, even when it doesn’t go your way.
Michael Radkowsky, Psy.D., licensed psychologist, specializes in LGBT relationship counseling and individual therapy in D.C. He can be found online at personalgrowthzone.com. All identifying information has been changed for reasons of confidentiality. Have a question? Send it to [email protected].
Working from home is taking over our lives
We need to create boundaries and return to offices
Back in the late 1980s when I was a young financial analyst at a New York bank, I’d leave the office at five and go home to my little Upper West Side studio. With no cable, internet, or cellphone, a landline was my only connection to the outside word till I went back to work the next day.
What was it like? Tranquility is the word. Surrounded by Manhattan, I was as isolated as a monk in a cell, with uninterrupted hours to read a book, cook, or listen to an album. And of course I could go out on the town without a work crisis reaching out to ruin my plans.
I’ve been thinking back to those days a lot, lately. Working as a psychologist, I’m hearing more and more clients complain lately about how much time they’re putting into their jobs. Folks have been working from home for a year now, and as the months have gone by, many of us are spending more and more hours on the job.
What’s going on? I hear a few justifications.
First, many people tell me that they don’t feel they have an excuse not to reply when they get a text or email from a boss or colleague after normal work hours. After all, what else would they be doing? This is especially true of my single clients who don’t have children. Even dinnertime isn’t off limits.
Second, as the pandemic drags on and most of us have so few sources of fun and stimulation, people are turning more and more to their jobs for something — anything — to keep them occupied.
And, of course, there’s the reality that we’re working from our homes. There’s no physical boundary keeping work at work.
So while it’s great not to have to commute or wear pants, working from home is making it even easier for our jobs to take over our lives than they already were. Put bluntly, this sucks.
We all need a break from work. Every day. Your job likely isn’t paying you for 16-hour days. Even if it is, you need to have some fun, rest, and recharge your brain.
Of course we can’t shut ourselves off from the world as completely as I did in those pre-internet/cellphone days. But we need to draw a boundary, even if it means disappointing our employers and colleagues by doing so. I’m not talking about not doing your job. I’m just talking about setting a limit on how much of your life you are willing to give to your work.
Standing up for your own well-being can be scary. There may be real risks in terms of job security and compensation. Only you can decide for yourself when it is vital to say “no.” But advocating for yourself is necessary at times. To quote Hillel, an ancient Jewish sage: “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me?”
Taking action on your own behalf is also a skill you want to develop, because it will help you in all areas of your life. If you can’t say “no” in order to eat dinner uninterrupted, watch a movie you’d like to see, spend time with someone you love or get a good night’s sleep, you’re going to get chewed up and spit out by others, quite a lot.
Recently, I’ve been reading that D.C.’s downtown is in danger of financial ruin. As many people may not be be returning to the office after the pandemic, some believe that the whole web of service businesses may collapse.
I’m hoping that the doomsdayers floating this theory are wrong, and that as the pandemic ends many of us will head back to the office, at least much of the time. We need to get back to setting a stronger boundary between work and the rest of our lives.
Yes, we’ll be helping our city rebound. And we’ll also be making a big step toward taking care of ourselves, by re-constructing a life that’s about way more than work.
Michael Radkowsky, Psy.D. is a licensed psychologist who works with gay couples and individuals in D.C. He can be found online at michaelradkowsky.com.
ADVICE: Despair vs. resilience in trying times
Coronavirus lockdown has many down but you’re stronger than you think
As the COVID-19 crisis goes on without our having any clarity about how or when this crazy situation will improve, most everyone I know is super-anxious about getting sick, fed up with being locked down or both. Is there a way for us to get through this any easier?
Here’s a start: Acknowledge that there are no guarantees in life.
When we accept that life is going to throw all sorts of challenges at us and that there is sometimes nothing we can do to stop these challenges from coming, that leaves us with one great option: Work on becoming more resilient so we can better deal with the hard stuff, including the very hard stuff.
This is called resilience. Being able to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and keep going forward. Cliché, yes, but it’s what we need to do if we don’t want life to beat us down.
Good news: resilience is a trait we are born with. As I’m writing these words, I’m watching my 4-month-old, who recently learned to turn from his back onto his belly, trying to turn from his belly onto his back. He’s been at this for days, and has succeeded just once. He keeps crying and trying. He won’t give up. That’s resilience.
Further good news: If you’re LGBT, you likely have already done some work in this area. All the difficulties that we experience as we grow up — struggling to accept an identity that’s stigmatized, teasing, rejection and worse — and here we are. How? All of us found a way to keep moving forward in our lives rather than letting circumstances defeat us.
Of course, this is pretty much true of anyone who has been through tough times and survived. Many of our elders who experienced the Depression, wartime, or worse tell us that they aren’t fazed by the virus or having to stay at home. Having endured previous struggles, they know they can do their best to endure this one.
That’s what all of us must keep in mind now. Knowing that we have had the resilience to get through past difficulties can support us in getting through this new hard time.
Another important point to keep in mind: When we give our suffering meaning, it helps us endure the suffering. Reminding ourselves that striving to endure this tough period will make us even more resilient can actually help us to more easily endure it.
Other ways we can strengthen our own capacity for resilience:
Do our best to take care of ourselves, of course. When we eat well, find a way to exercise, get adequate sleep and take breaks from virus-worrying through meditation or just focusing on something pleasant or uplifting, we’re less anxious and better able to keep calm. The ability to soothe ourselves is key to being resilient.
Stay connected to people around us so that we don’t wind up feeling isolated and alone, which can deepen feelings of hopelessness. We all need supportive friends and family whom we can ask for assistance when we really need it to survive. Knowing that they are there is part of feeling resilient. And if we’re able to help others in some way — dropping off groceries for an elderly relative or neighbor, or simply being willing to listen — we’re likely to feel stronger and more able to cope.
Appreciate what we have. This can include a roof over our head, food to eat, people and companion animals we love and simply being alive right now. Doing will serve us much better than lamenting.
While none of us will live forever, we all want to stay in the game as long as we can. Striving to be resilient can help us keep going forward through life with the belief that if it’s possible to survive, we have a good shot at doing so. And that belief can give us hope, determination and a positive outlook.
ADVICE: Nerves easily fray while social distancing
Look within to avoid unnecessary tension with your significant other
For many years, I’ve told couples I work with that being in long-term relationships is like taking a long journey by ship in a very small stateroom. You know, the kind where the couch unfolds to be a bed, you have to step over your partner’s legs to get to the bathroom and there’s no place to stow the suitcases. You have to find a way to stay calm, not drive each other crazy and enjoy the voyage.
I’d never actually traveled by boat, so this was just my theory. So when my husband and I were lucky enough to take a journey by ship up the Norwegian coast a few years back and had a cabin exactly as I’d envisioned (i.e. teeny), I discovered I was right. Despite the unbelievably gorgeous scenery right out our porthole, after a few days we could see how easy it would be to get irritable with each other.
Now here we all are in a much more difficult situation. We’re stuck at home, on top of each other, trying to do our jobs while taking care of companion animals and children, attempting to avoid an invisible enemy that could be anywhere. We can’t go out on deck to watch Norway float by. Instead, we’ve got the television to look at, keeping us posted about all the bad and scary news.
So it’s natural that as our nerves fray, we’re going to get irritated by our mates. They’re in the way. We don’t like their tone. They aren’t doing enough or responding when we ask a question. We feel like we’re the one doing everything.
It makes sense that we react like this at such a stressful time, but when we do, it’s all downhill from there. In our current predicament, we don’t have the usual escape outlets that let us take a break and come back to our spouses calmer and with a refreshed attitude.
What to do? Here are some simple strategies to help you, your significant other and your relationship through this extraordinarily miserable period:
Don’t point fingers: Think about what you can do to make the situation better rather than focusing on what your spouse should be doing. And then do it. This is a great strategy even in normal times. Remember, we have very little power to get another person to do something, but lots of power over our own behavior. So if we want things to change, we should look first to ourselves.
Be generous: Does your spouse feel strongly about something? Now is likely not the time to get into a struggle over whose say goes. Unless you have good reason to go in the other direction, be generous. Again, this is a policy worth adhering to when we get back to normal (soon, I hope!).
Take responsibility for soothing your own anxiety: This is always a great idea, but especially now. Yes, when we’re worried about something it feels great to get a hug and be told everything will be OK. But right now, your partner is just as anxious as you are and likely without the bandwidth to soothe you. Moreover, none of us really know that everything will be OK.
So the best thing you can do when you’re anxious is look to yourself to find ways to keep as calm as you can, under the current circumstances: Meditation, slow deep breaths, whatever exercise you can find to do, striving to be in the present, working to accept uncertainty — these are all ways you may be able to help yourself feel even a little more calm.
And if you’re able to reach out and offer your spouse some loving reassurance — even if none of us know how this will end — so much the better. Giving your partner emotional support is always a good move.
Michael Radkowsky, Psy.D. is a licensed psychologist who works with LGBT couples and individuals in D.C. He can be found online at michaelradkowsky.com. All identifying information has been changed for reasons of confidentiality. Have a question? Send it to [email protected].
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