Standing on opposite sides of their newly remodeled kitchen, the cleanliness and order of the room in stark contrast to the current state of their relationship, Brooke and Gary are a couple on the brink. The tension seems dangerously thick compared to the subject of their latest argument, their expressions a mix of shock, wonder, and fear as they edge closer and closer to the fault line of their relationship. While on the surface they are arguing over a mundane household chore, in truth they are fighting for their relational lives. Finally, in a fit of desperation, Brooke reveals what she wants Gary to instinctively understand: “I want you to want to do the dishes.” Gary, unable or unwilling to recognize the test that has been laid before him, smugly announces, “I will never want to do the dishes.” In this scene from the 2006 film The Break-Up, Gary has totally missed the boat—a perfect opportunity to make his girlfriend feel chosen by him. Naturally, when I discuss with couples the importance of choosing and making sacrifices in their relationships, someone references this scene, usually stating flatly, “I suppose I am going to have to want to do the dishes.”
When we feel chosen, we feel loved. Once we boil it down, a true partnership is a choice. When we couple, we are in effect stating to our friends, our families, and our partners that we pick this person. Studies show that the key to longevity and happiness in relationships is directly linked to one’s ability to trust enough to be vulnerable to another person. Trust and vulnerability allow us to be truly intimate (the secret to a long and happy relationship so many of us seek), but the road to that deep intimacy lies in choosing our partners in the everyday and routine moments of our lives. If we are able to cultivate the practice of actively choosing our partners on a consistent basis, trust can form and pave the way for deep connection. What some researchers have begun to call “positive sacrifice” is a primary building block to a fulfilling and intimate relationship. While the practice of positive sacrifice has been given honorable mention in the latest literature on couples, its importance has not been stressed nearly enough. Couples need to be alerted to the importance of positive sacrifice and trained in the art of choosing each other every day.
Megan, at thirty-five, has been in a relationship for ten years, and married for four of them. “I knew the day my husband really loved me when he showed up at the dressing room of H&M holding clothes he thought I might look good in.” Before that, Megan said getting her husband to go shopping with her was like pulling teeth, let alone getting him to help in the process. She went further, “It sounds silly, but when he came bearing clothes, he might as well have been bearing gifts.” Megan said in that moment she knew she mattered, and this was her husband reaching for her.
Truly choosing our partner does not necessarily happen on the “big day,” in the pretty dress and the fancy suit, it does not happen when everyone is watching. Choosing our partners happens in the regular moments of life—in the dead of night, when a crying baby rouses an already exhausted couple, and one partner says, “Go back to sleep. I got this one.” It happens in the heat of an argument, where everything in us is telling us to win and to fight dirty, but instead someone says, “I see you are hurt. Please help me understand.” This kind of choosing is essential to the formation of a healthy bond, found in something as simple as a cup of coffee made just the way she likes it, or a date night planned at his favorite restaurant when she would rather stay in, or even—in Brooke and Gary’s case—a stack of clean dishes. It registers in us when we see our partner reaching beyond their own comfort zone to connect with us. Too often the small moments in a relationship can be written off as unimportant or inconsequential, but it is precisely these “small” moments that carry the biggest message of I choose you, I love you, I pick you. Megan's husband sent her this message, and his effort, though small by most standards, tells her very clearly, "You can count on me. I will be there for you."
Brian, a New York City lawyer and admitted commitment-phobe, said he would have felt more comfortable moving in with Mindy, his girlfriend of two years, if she were more willing to amend her busy schedule to accommodate his ever-changing calendar. Brian knows his trial schedule is a lot for anyone to handle, a large part of the reason he’d lost relationships in the past. In an effort to make sure his relationship with Mindy did not meet the same fate, Brian began a campaign of choosing Mindy. In the face of mounting work pressure to put in more time Brian took time off to be with his partner. Brian began to boundary his weekends and to leave work early to be with Mindy. However when Mindy did not reciprocate Brian felt abandoned and alone. Though Mindy insisted that she wanted to move in and move forward in the relationship Brian felt something was missing. Through months of individual work around the issue Brian vacillated between trying to accept his position in Mindy's life and feeling like he needed more. Ultimately Mindy's inability to change her focus from a me frame to a we frame made Brian's decision for him. Though the fear of losing Mindy could have compelled Brian to settle for a less than fulfilling relationship, he ultimately decided he wanted and deserved more from his partner. Brian reported it was not that Mindy had to work a lot but that he felt she truly chose her work over the relationship. This leaving Brian to feel as if Mindy was not as devoted to the relationship as he was. For Brian's part he wondered how this would manifest in their lives going forward with regard to building a family. The disparity between Brian and Mindy's devotion to the relationship left Brian feeling exposed and unsure of her ability to commit.
A study published in Family Process Journal offers that positive sacrifice, or choosing to act in the interest of the relationship at the expense of immediate self-interest, has an overall positive effect on the health of a relationship. The study further indicates that it is the “common, day-to-day behaviors” directed at our partners that are seen as salient symbols of devotion and commitment in the relationship. These findings add to a growing body of data that substantiates the notion that to choose our partners, every day and often, sends the message that you are safe to trust in me and that I will show up for you.
The fear of the loss of connection with a partner has been coded in us over millions of years of evolution. It is linked to a primal panic response in the brain, according to noted researcher and founder of Emotionally Focused Therapy Sue Johnson. Real love and relationships are not as they are billed by our sentimentalized popular culture. Love can be scary, flirting with the possibility of heartbreak at every turn; it can feel dangerous and exposing. It offers us a veritable treasure trove of opportunity for injury and abandonment. Knowing we are chosen offers shelter in an otherwise perilous situation. When a sacrifice is made in our direction, or in the direction of the relationship, we get a clear signal that it is safe enough to endure the exposure of that love. Feeling chosen creates a softening in ourselves, and in our relationships, that allows us to trust or trust again.
Couples come into my practice searching for the key to building or rebuilding trust. Trust in relationships is more broadly defined than the promise of fidelity. Trust is defined as the expectation that our partners will behave benevolently and will respond to our needs. For many couples, the building of trust seems an insurmountable task. Trust is born out of choosing our partners, or feeling chosen by our partners, over and over again, day by day, over time. These actions show a level of psychological, emotional, energetic, and material investment in the relationship. When these investments are made, we get the message that our partner is intending to hang in there with us and therefore it is safe to invest in them, too.
When working with couples I ask each partner to imagine that they have a bank account attached to their relationship, and each moment of actively choosing is a deposit in the relational account. As the account fills, and their partner feels chosen, trust begins to form. If there is little to no attempt at choosing, withdrawals are made on the relational account. If there are too many withdrawals (e.g. affairs, disengagement, lack of consideration), we will have a negative balance, resentment and distrust filling the void.
The stakes in intimate relationships are high, and the risks are many. As Sue Johnson offers, the distress of this exposure is sated by feeling chosen by our partners as they answer the question, “Will you be there when I need you?” Knowing that our partners choose us, and choose to make positive sacrifices for the relationship, is the doorway to trust and vulnerability. This choosing has been linked to deeper couple commitment, overall satisfaction, and profound intimacy. It is the cure for ailing relationships and boring sex lives, as it has been directly linked to the production of the love hormone, oxytocin. After the initial dopamine blast, the mark of an early relationship, many couples become less intimate, inciting fear around that lack of excitement. These couples often become disengaged as they wonder, “What exactly does this mean about us?” Choosing each other increases our oxytocin levels, thus increasing our ability to be empathetic, supportive, and loving.
We do have to want to do the dishes. We have to reach in the direction of our loved ones and we have to know we are reached for as well. Unfortunately for Brian and his Hollywood counterpart Brooke, their partners did not understand the importance of positive sacrifice and were not practiced in the art of choosing. Relationships fail for just this reason every day, keeping the lights on in therapy offices like mine across the country. When we feel we’ve “lost the spark” in the relationship, it is an opportunity to ask: Am I choosing my partner? Am I making the shift from a “Me” frame to a “We” frame? Am I offering the chance for my partner to bond or attach to me? The answer is clear and simple: choose each other, every day and all the time. True love doesn’t have to exist within a fictional realm of romantic comedy, poetry, or love ballads on the radio. Our capability to connect, to couple wisely, exists within us. So the next time you find yourself battling over something seemingly inconsequential, will you be like Megan’s husband, exercising the gift of Choosing? Or will you be like Gary, staring blankly at a sink full of dirty dishes and wondering where it all went wrong?