Emotional Debts You Don’t Realize You “Owe”

Thanks to a reader, I recently ran across a somewhat cynical yet surprisingly astute commentary on human relationships:

There’s a really good chance that the last person who got annoyed with you for seemingly no reason at all did it because you failed to pay a debt you didn’t even know you owed. There’s this weird thing where in most relationships, and maybe in every relationship at one point or another, both parties think the other side is in debt to them.

Most bad marriages work that way. The wife thinks, “This guy was a lonely mess before I came along, who knows where he’d be if it wasn’t for me rescuing him! Probably dead!” Meanwhile, the guy thinks, “I’m the breadwinner, I gave her this nice house, if not for me she could have wound up with some scumbag who beats her! Probably to death!” Both of them think they’re the martyr in the relationship, selflessly sacrificing while the other does nothing but take. Each is shocked and pissed off when they find out that the other person is working from a different balance sheet.

Your workplace is probably like this as well — everybody in your department thinks they heroically keep the place afloat with their tireless labor, while the boss thinks you’re a bunch of slackers for whom the company generously puts food on the table. You’re shocked and insulted when the company heartlessly announces layoffs (“Where’s the loyalty?!?”), and the boss is shocked and insulted when any of you quit without notice (“That ungrateful bastard!”).

Source: Cracked.com, “5 Ways You’re Accidentally Making Everyone Hate You”, January 28, 2013, by David Wong.

It’s true that our emotions are, in a sense, psychological balance sheets. As Ayn Rand put it, emotions are ‘lightning-like’ indications of what’s important to us.

There’s no escaping emotions. We all have them, and consequently we all have evaluations taking place in our minds, all the time.

These qualitative (and sometimes quantitative) indicators known as emotions do not lie, for they tell the truth of what we most deeply value, and therefore who we really are. This is probably why so many ignore, evade, repress or deny their emotions—even to themselves.

The question is how rational or contradictory these lighting-like evaluations are, or whether they’re even rational at all. Emotions are simply different forms of thoughts. They’re subject to facts, reason and logic just like any other thoughts or ideas.

Mr. Wong, in his article, describes the kind of relationship where the unspoken premise of each participant is, ‘Sacrifice is good.’ If sacrifice is good, then it logically follows that each partner wants to be viewed as the one making the most sacrifices.

‘I’m the breadwinner. She’d be lost without me.’ Or: ‘He’s a caveman. Where would he be without me to civilize him?’ These are the more conventional, even stereotypical forms that many relationships take. The specifics will vary, but the principle will not. At least, not when people have internalized the idea that sacrifice is virtue.

A different approach to relationships would go like this: ‘Life is valuable to me, and these are the various things I personally enjoy about life. This person adds immeasurably to my enjoyment.’

From the self-sacrificial perspective, this is a selfish and therefore wrong point-of-view. It is selfish, but why does that automatically mean it’s irrational and wrong?

The person who loves himself and loves life to begin with is only seeking a romantic partner (or any other kind of connection) because he seeks to add to that enjoyment. Doesn’t this seem to you like a better kind of person to know than somebody who’s in a sick, never-stated competition with you to prove that he can make himself more miserable than you will make yourself, for his sake?

Do you want someone to love you because, to some extent, it makes him or her suffer and therefore feel more virtuous? Or do you want someone to love you because you are who you are?

I once heard a man say, while self-reflecting, ‘I don’t want to be loved for my vices. And I don’t want to be loved in spite of my failings. I want to be loved for my strengths, and I want to first know I have them.’


The ideas you hold, or have even subconsciously internalized, about matters such as self-sacrifice determine the kinds of emotions you feel, including most especially about your personal relationships. These ideas matter, because they generate the emotions you will feel. And emotions matter.

I’ve noticed that most romantic connections start out with each partner loving the other for whom he or she is. Once “the institution of marriage” enters the picture, that’s when the trouble begins. It’s not marriage itself, but the ideas associated with marriage (in most people) that do the damage. Those ideas, consciously or subconsciously held, involve the belief that sacrifice is the ideal. In practice, these beliefs lead to a sense in each partner that, “I’m sacrificing so I should be getting sacrifices in return.” What started out as a beautiful connection between two people all too often ends in the ruins of, “I gave up everything for you and you give up nothing for me.”

When I see such situations play out over and over, I can’t help but think: It never has to be so. At least, not if people really learn to grasp what love is, in the first place.


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