Our Self-Sufficiency is Ruining Relationships — Here's How to Stop the Cycle

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A psychiatrist asked to consult with me about a problem. He had lived through five failed relationships in a row. Each ended when the other party left him. He could find no reason for the failures. “Rabbi” he explained, “you must understand that I gave each of them everything anyone could wish for. Unlimited money, my time and attention [I never let work or anything else distract me from my responsibility to each of them], my deep understanding of human nature to provide whatever they might need, want, or even fancy. With all that – in spite of all that – each left me. What could possibly account for it?”
I was able to understand his frustration because of my own history of feeling as he did. As a man, and a teacher, casting others as needy and myself as provider came very naturally. It was a struggle to learn where this stance misses the mark. But I finally did learn it from my wife. With her insight in mind, I asked him: “And what did each of them give you?” He answered: “Give me?! Rabbi – I am a giver, not a taker. I asked them for nothing, gave them everything, and yet they walked out on me!?” I answered: “Well, maybe that is precisely what they needed to give to you. To feel validated by what they could do for you. Everyone needs to be needed.” The idea was utterly foreign and unacceptable to him and that is where the conversation ended.
I learned this from my wife when we were counseling a young man who was looking to get married. He presented his “wish list” – the characteristics he desired in a spouse. Compiling such a list is good preparation for the search for a spouse since it takes considerable self-understanding to recognize what one needs and what one wants in a marriage partner. Then my wife added two thoughts. First: “You need also another list – your give list. What can you share, support, encourage, inspire, model or teach a spouse? When you meet a possible match, and each of you has both lists, then see if your give list matches the other’s wish list and vice versa. If so, you have a good chance for a profoundly integrated relationship.”
Second: “And don’t think this is just altruism. It is in your own best interest. Imagine you meet someone who has everything on your wish list and is willing to marry you – but does not need you at all. Would you be happy? In a healthy relationship you need to be needed.”
It was this second thought that I tried to share with the psychiatrist. He did not even recognize his partner’s need to be needed. The illusion of giving when really representing the other as needy and dependent and thereby bracing one’s own fragile ego is a common male problem. It came as a revelation to me to learn that true giving must include showing one’s own needs.
My wife’s insight is rooted in classical Jewish sources. Rav Eliyahu Dessler describes the fundamental importance of giving. On the one hand, G-d created the world only for the sake of giving, so when we benefit others we are as similar to G-d as we can be. The perfect world is one of giving only. On the other, if everyone only gives, to whom are they giving? Do not some have to take in order for some to give? He answers by distinguishing taking from receiving. Taking is for the benefit of the self. Receiving is also for the benefit of the giver – to provide an opportunity for the other to give.
This is an ancient Jewish theme. The Torah records occasions when laws were hidden from Moses in order to give others the opportunity to ask and stimulate divine revelation to him. The reward to those others is that they are God’s agents in giving Torah [R14] to the Jewish people. The highest form of charity is to provide a means of earning a living. That gives the satisfaction of earning one’s support rather than suffering the implied failure of receiving pure charity. A particularly dramatic example is Moses attempt to administer the Torah [R15] to the Jewish people by adjudicating all their disputes on his own. He is corrected by his father-in-law Jethro. Thus Jethro makes a crucial contribution to Torah life [and thereby earns immortality].
Let’s see how this works in practice. When I ask my wife for advice, what is implied in my request? My request expresses my confidence that she has the wisdom to know what I need and how to communicate this to me. Is this not how each of us feels when others ask us for advice? So I receive the benefit of her advice, and she receives confirmation of her wisdom and communication skills. And if we are both motivated by wanting the other to receive, then we are both giving.
We have personal experience with a very inspiring example of what it means to give. Our niece Esther lives with multiple challenges that necessitate special care. She has received help from hundreds of doctors, teachers, and aides. Yet, as one of her teachers said, “She wants to give back”; and currently works four days a week socializing with the elderly. Her spirit of love and the joy she finds in giving to others illuminate the lives of all who have the privilege to meet her. Because she is a giver, and sees herself as a giver, she radiates a wholeness that eclipses her limitations.
It has been observed that we do not say “I love you” often enough. But there is another expression that many never use, namely “I need you.” When is the last time any of us said that to anyone? What holds us back? Is it not obviously true that we all need others? [I often wonder if the so-called “self made man” reflected that without teachers, lenders, hosts of professional whose services he uses, and friends who believe in him and provide him with emotional support – not to mention a healthy physical environment – he would not have been successful.] So why do we not speak this truth?
For many saying “I need you” is scary. If I need you, then I am needy, and so I am dependent, and so I am a failure. Don’t we say to our children [especially our boys] “Stand on your own two feet!”? But the truth is that I do need you, that I cannot make it [with the same success] without you, that I am [therefore] needy and that I am dependent. And that does not mean that I am a failure. It just means that I am human – and that I enjoy a relationship with you that makes many things possible. That is a cause for rejoicing!
For me, it was important to think of myself as caring for the needs of others. The role of provider built my self-esteem. Subconsciously I was relieved of the fear that I could not be self-sufficient. And I never said, “I need you” to anyone. It was a struggle to learn my wife’s lesson!
This balance between giving and receiving is not limited to marriage. All relationships benefit from this balance. Marriage is the microcosm for society as a whole.
If this seems obvious to you, maybe you can tell me why it is not included in the sources on self-esteem. For example Wikipedia, The National Association for Self-esteem, the Centre for Clinical Interventions, and Self Esteem Pathways do not even mention the idea that giving is crucial for improving your self-esteem. Since poor self-esteem is a serious problem for children, perhaps opportunities for giving in the school system and in extra-curricular activities would be beneficial. Every child has some ability from which others could benefit. Finding ways for each child to give would go a long way toward building self-esteem. When a child presents Mom or Dad with a finger-paint masterpiece receives gratitude and love in return, does this not build the child? And if a classmate could improve his/her baseball swing, inter-personal relations, handwriting, math aptitude, acting ability, reading comprehension – would that not build the child who aided the improvement?
The Jewish tradition too celebrates the contributions of children. When Miriam’s father despairs of Jewish future in Egypt and separates from his wife, it is Miriam who convinces him to return [and thus Moses is born]. Abraham breaks the idols and convinces his father of monotheism. Solomon becomes king at the age of twelve and when offered wealth, long life or wisdom by G-d chooses wisdom.G-d rewards him by giving all three. The message is universal: Anyone can make a crucial contribution that leaves an indelible mark on history
For me personally, the ongoing struggle – and gradual success – in expressing my vulnerability and needs has changed my life. My wife has the satisfaction of a more sensitive spouse and a grateful pupil. Relationships enjoy a new dimension of sharing. And my understanding of the working of society and the world as a whole has been greatly enriched.
Dovid Gottlieb received his Ph.D. from Brandeis in philosophy and taught at Johns Hopkins 1969-1981. Since then he has been teaching at Yeshivat Ohr Somayach in Jerusalem. He is the author ofOntological Economy[Clarendon] andThe Informed Soul[Artscroll].