Oct 20, 2022

Over-Giving: New Year, New Life Series

Opposites attract, as the old saying goes.  European Society of Human Genetics has even found scientific evidence as to why this occurs.  Apparently, if we’re in our child-bearing years, we look for partners who are different from us to expand the genetic building blocks for the benefit of our future children.

One of the ways in which this often plays out in marriage is when an “over-giver” is matched with an “over-receiver.”  Usually, the over-giver is the wife, and the over-receiver is the husband.  We know this occurs, because a recent study from the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, shows that when both spouses work full time, the women also do an average of 61% of the child-rearing, 68% of the food prep, and 76% of the housework.  Why?  The study indicates the reason is deeply entrenched gender roles that are based on old-fashioned ideas about the job duties of men and women within the family.

So, it is not surprising that this issue comes up all the time in my divorce caseload.  Very often, I encounter women (whether they are my clients or the opposing party) who are D-O-N-E with over-functioning in the relationship with their spouses.  They often ask, and feel anger over, the amount of over-giving they have done historically, and wonder openly about whether it can be repaid or accounted for in the final settlement.  And the answer is generally “no.”  The best that can usually be accomplished is that the over-giving is “reeled in” by resetting boundaries to provide for greater parity in parenting.  Also, the divorce ends the additional accumulation of marital assets, and so a woman who has over-given financially in the marriage may see this come to an end.

Regardless, it is important for over-givers to understand that over-giving never attracts another over-giver.  Rather, it is like trying to put together two magnets with same polarity (like two positive ends).  They will repel each other.  Why?  Because neither over-giver feels worthy enough to receive, so each pushes the other’s gifts away.

How do we address this?

Lightbulb Moment:

In a perfect world, the over-receiver would see the situation objectively and realize he or she is taking too much and too often. That person would approach the giver and together they would reconstruct the lopsided parts of the relationship.

It’s more common, however, that the over-receiver is either unaware of the imbalance or unwilling to “upset the apple cart” until something disruptive occurs, bringing it to the forefront.

For example, a “disruption” may occur if the over-receiver must shoulder the many responsibilities of the over-giver while she is ill or away on business. When all responsibilities are placed on one spouse’s shoulders, they may wonder “how does she do all of this in 24 hours?” and ideally a renegotiation of responsibilities occurs.

Re-Define Boundaries.

A chronic over-giver should examine her personal boundaries. Has she given more, bit by bit over the years without bringing her resentment of this to light in the relationship? Does she say yes to every request even when she has no time or sanity left? What happens when one spouse does not fulfill earlier promises? Does the giving spouse always “sweep it under the rug”, take on the duty herself, and therefore enable the behavior? Ideally, both spouses discuss and reallocate their responsibilities when imbalance occurs. But it may be necessary for one spouse to step up and identify the imbalance out loud before any change can take place. This is not to lay blame on one spouse or the other, but rather encourage all to actively communicate their needs and readjust boundaries when things become lopsided.

Remember Balance Looks Different.

It’s important to note that a balanced give and take relationship looks different for each couple.  Times have changed since the 1940’s when gender roles were rigidly defined.  A balanced relationship may be a 50/50 household chore split while both spouses work.  Or, perhaps one spouse parents full-time at the home and the other works full-time to provide the cash flow, so they share household responsibilities in different percentages due to the differing amount of time spent at home. Perhaps one spouse loves to cook and the other loves to do yard-work, but they each hate cleaning and split that chore equally.  Balance will look different to every couple, but balance is only achieved when the couple comes to a mutual decision on the division of give and take.

The final – and I think most important – key to realigning the give-take balance is a combination of raising self-esteem and practicing the ability to receive.

Raise Self-Esteem.

Those who have lower self-esteem often have poorly defined boundaries, allowing others to take advantage.  When a person has a giving spirit, but low self-esteem and low boundaries, it’s unlikely she will stand up for what she needs and instead, give until she is painfully empty. This is a person who needs to be reminded that she is worthy of respect and allowed to state what she needs.  There are a number of ways to do this, and they likely require the giver to reach out for help. Therapy, coaching, and affirmations are just a few ways to begin raising self-esteem.

Practice Receiving.

In tandem with low self-esteem is an inability to receive. I believe receiving must be practiced in order to do it well. Practice saying “thank you” when you receive a compliment. Don’t reciprocate (“oh, you look great too!”) or devalue (“oh this old thing?!”) the compliment.  Just practice accepting it.

Also, practice by giving to yourself.  Start small.  What about 10 minutes to read a magazine article?  What about a Epsom salt bath with some herbal tea?  Maybe going to bed 15 minutes earlier or buying something inexpensive that brings you a lot of joy, like a candle or a new book?

When we finally come into balanced giving and receiving we are then prepared for true partnership with another.  This only happens, however, when we first come into true partnership with ourselves. We can only let in from others what we can give to ourselves.  And to get into right relationship with ourselves, we must strengthen our abilities to receive.

Suzanne E. Grandchamp