The Self-Effacing Lover (or Friend)

Dear Dr. Hurd: When someone in a romantic relationship expresses no preferences for both small things and values, are they compromising or self-sacrificing? Is it wrong to resent a love interest who consistently does this to themselves?


Dr. Hurd’s Reply: Fraud, deception and faking reality are never good things. If a person is pretending to go along with what you like, never voicing objections or offering alternatives, you’d be right to resent them.

However, this isn’t always or necessarily the motive. Some people just don’t have strong opinions about or preferences for certain things. As a result, they can be easygoing. It seems impossible that anyone would have no strong opinions or preferences for anything. That would raise some red flags, for sure.

But one of the things that makes a couple compatible (and this applies to friendships, as well) is being a “good fit.” What sometimes makes for a good fit is an easygoing person paired with a more particular one. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a relationship like this, so long as the easygoing person has a spine, has integrity, and sticks to his guns when it really counts to him.

If you’re in a relationship or marriage with someone, or even a long-term friendship or other kind of association, you’re going to have the opportunity to see what I’m saying. Does Joe never ever have a strong opinion about anything? Does he never ever seem to object or say no? You really only know people in full context and over the long term. You cannot form lasting or fixed opinions about someone’s behaviors in isolation of the entire person. Plus, people often evolve or change over time.

Everyone knows that honesty is the proper policy in a relationship. Not everyone follows it consistently, but everyone knows it. However, honesty is deeper than simply telling the truth. Honesty is not merely a negation of lying. Authenticity is what you ought to be seeking in others, your love relationship most of all. If you sense that your partner isn’t being authentic because he or she is always giving in to you — when you don’t even demand or expect that — then I can understand your being resentful. But try to remember that you care about the person before you become too resentful. Try to understand that this “go along to get along” mentality is probably a coping mechanism of some kind, perhaps from (in the past) being around bossy, pushy or even downright abusive people. Your job — as someone who cares about this overly self-effacing person — is to convey, in different ways, over and over — in words and action — the principle that, “You don’t have to be this way with me. I want to know what you think. I want to know what you want to do.” You cannot make someone you love retrain him- or herself. But you can offer the opportunity to try.

Ultimately, a good relationship is one satisfying to the two people. A relationship, like I’ve written elsewhere, is based on mutuality, a kind of spiritual or psychological “trade.” However, the notion of “satisfying” is not entirely subjective. It’s possible for two people to want or enjoy something that isn’t healthy. Anything that isn’t healthy will ultimately come back to bite you — or in a relationship, both parties. For example, let’s say a bossy and pushy type is married to a self-effacing type. The self-effacing type always gives in, even when internally she’s seething or resentful. This resentment will absolutely go somewhere, someday. It might end up in passive-aggressive behavior, or half-hearted disengagement from the whole relationship. It might lead to an affair. It might lead to non-romantic “affairs” with hobbies, friends or activities to the exclusion of the love relationship itself.

No matter how much the pushy or bossy type “enjoys” having a partner who gives in to everything, sooner or later he will pay the price through the loss of intimate connection if nothing else. Whatever form of subjective satisfaction he might get from this sense of power or control may be real, but it doesn’t make it rational, healthy or right. The same applies to the self-effacing partner who may subjectively enjoy the “security” or structure of someone making all her decisions for her, while never having the experience or autonomy of having a mind of her own.

One of the sadder instances I’ve seen is when a self-effacing partner breaks up or falls out of love with someone who honestly didn’t intend to be bossy, pushy or controlling — but who simply took the lead. Such a person is confronted with a spouse who is now out of love with him, an emotionally devastating experience, and never realizing all the resentment beneath the surface in the years of the marriage. However, he still has to take some of the responsibility here. He should have realized that he was always making the decisions and have actively encouraged his spouse to start doing the same.

That’s why there’s wisdom in the question you ask. It doesn’t occur to many spouses that the ones they love should be happy too. They often just take it for granted. But in the end, love must be mutual. It’s crucial that the person you love is as happy as you are. Otherwise, you’re much more at risk of losing what you think you have.


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