When it comes to relationships, we all want unconditional love. You gain a sense of security knowing that the people you love also love you back. This is true for friendship, family, intimate relationships and marriage. It’s easy to get carried away and fall into a pattern of people-pleasing our loved ones because it feels like the right thing to do. Addressing this pattern is common for relationship coaches because it leaves one person in a relationship emotionally drained while the other thinks everything is fine.
In college, people-pleasing was second nature for me, especially in dating. I met a guy, dated, fell for him and then saw myself slip away to be who I thought made him happy. Fortunately, I came to my senses before I did anything crazy. But the little things left me drained and disenchanted with those relationships. Whatever he wanted to do on a Saturday night, I enthusiastically agreed to do, even if I hated it. If he wanted to watch a movie on television, I wanted to watch it too, even if I had seen it and thought it was boring. In my mind, I was doing what I had to show my love. It never occurred to me that I could just say ‘no.’ Also, I inevitably concluded that each guy was the problem when I had not been honest about what I wanted.
As I grew older and understood my thoughts and behaviors, I recognized this pattern of people-pleasing and my incorrect belief that it equaled love. Recognizing that pattern and my idea behind it was the first step. Not only was this a pattern in my romantic relationships, but it impacted my friendships and family relationships as well.
Once I realized I had people-pleasing tendencies, I started getting honest. However, in my marriage, I still wanted to please when my needs or wants meant my husband had to sacrifice. For example, my husband and I had to decide whether he would accept a long-term overseas assignment. We would be living in different countries for a year right after two years of him constantly traveling for work. I didn’t want him to go, and I was nervous that it would cause problems in our marriage. But instead of telling the truth, I pretended to be excited because it was a positive step for his career and a financial boost for us. Several months later, during an unrelated argument, I blurted out that I never wanted him to go overseas in the first place. I couldn’t hold it in anymore, and my dishonesty made me resentful of the whole thing. He was so angry. I thought that I was doing the right thing in supporting him, but, in reality, I’d hurt him. He explained that he needed me to be honest about the decisions we made together. He didn’t want his career to ruin our marriage and supporting him did not mean lying about what I wanted or needed.
I’d developed the pattern of putting my needs last and convinced myself that love required it. It doesn’t. Unconditional love requires honesty with the people you love, even if it hurts.
In retrospect, it all seems simple. I married a man that loves me. Of course, he wants me to be honest! Yet, I regularly talk to women with similar experiences because they think putting themselves last is an expression of love. I thought I loved my husband by keeping my mouth shut about something that challenged his career. I’d developed the pattern of putting my needs last and convinced myself that love required it. It doesn’t. Unconditional love requires honesty with the people you love, even if it hurts.
I’ve done a lot of work to develop self-awareness around my idea of unconditional love. Transitioning from people-pleasing to having healthy boundaries and honest communication is challenging but well worth the effort. Not only do you change the way you communicate, but you learn to make peace with the uncomfortable nature of brutal honesty.
Your relationships change when you develop your awareness and learn to make the choices that honor who you are.
Now, I approach decisions in my relationships differently than I did in college, acutely aware of the emotional consequences of my choices. If my friend wants to go to brunch, but I’m changing my eating habits and don’t want to be at a restaurant, I can either do what she wants or be honest. I’ve learned to be okay with the discomfort that comes from disappointing others. I have to trust that a missed brunch won’t ruin our friendship. And if she decides never to invite me anywhere again, I have to be okay with that too.
Being honest and self-aware in relationships is the only way to break the people-pleasing patterns that cause resentment and emotional exhaustion. The people in my life that love me never expect me to do everything they ask. They do expect me to be honest. I had to get that straight in my head to make my relationships stronger. Your relationships change when you develop your awareness and learn to make the choices that honor who you are. People that love you unconditionally will continue to do so. The ones that never loved you that way still won’t. But you’ll be amazed at the depth you can develop in your relationships when you are 100% authentic!