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The Gift of Giving in Couples Therapy

By Karen R. Koenig, LICSW, M.Ed.

As every experienced couples therapist knows, partners may enter our office with one agenda on their lips and harbor quite another in their heart. Their manifest goal is generally framed in terms of the partnership—help us to improve communication, stop fighting, be more effective parents, have more fun, repair damaged trust, feel the way we used to about each other, enjoy better sex, stay together. Yet the latent goal our trained ears hear often expresses quite a different imperative: make my partner give me what I need so that I will be happy.

Generally we start off the therapy by joining with the couple and their goal of improving the relationship. Whatever course we take—we empathize and sympathize, interpret and reframe, validate feelings and shore up defenses—we are always moving toward the ah-ha moment when the partners recognize, individually or jointly, that if one wants greater happiness, one can only change oneself.

Yet following on the heels of such an ah-ha moment, clients often experience an intense surge of fear, assuming that changing means being the loser. In the win-lose context of many relationships, experience tells them that giving up or over or in to what their partner wants equals loss, not gain, nor even a quid pro quo. And at such a point in their lives and/or relationship, this perilously fragile point which has brought them into therapy, the thought of voluntarily letting go of any behavior or attitude—however destructive to intimacy—seems out of the question.

If both partners, driven by old or current fears, dig in their heels against changing, a stalemate develops. Their thinking goes defensive—Let him change first. I’m tired of making all the sacrifices. I’ll wait and see what she does. No way am I going to make the first move. I already feel one-down in this relationship—and the therapy becomes stuck. They become more determined than ever to cling to what they have, however little it is, in order to protect against further loss—of love, esteem, autonomy, liberty, competence, attachment, power, soul.

One way to unlock the stalemate is to propose a behavioral change that will initially almost certainly feel counter-intuitive to the partners: gently insisting that each do more, not less, to please their partner. A helpful therapeutic tool that poignantly illustrates the far-reaching virtues of unselfish giving is the O. Henry classic, Gifts of the Magi. A quick read or reread, the story is an instructive homework assignment for couples at all stages of life and relationship.

This captivating tale, a love story, is about Della and Jim Young, a poverty-stricken young couple passionately in love. Unbeknownst to the other, each gives up their finest personal possession in order to buy just the right Christmas present for the other. What moves the reader is that the monumental internal cost or sacrifice Jim and Della make in giving up something so prized does not even seem to register as a blip on their radar screen. From a purely material standpoint, their sacrifices are a wash, but on a relational level, their gifts represent the ultimate in loving: setting aside one’s ego/needs/desires/attachments for benefit of a partner.

Attention to the Magi’s theme can prove helpful to the couple even if our injunction to give and do more falls short of total success. For example, if one partner follows the suggestion and begins to do more giving in, giving up and/or giving over in a heartfelt, meaningful way and the other fails to respond in kind, something is learned by everyone. The giver learns that their partner is incapable of or unwilling to give more or perhaps that unfinished business is short-circuiting the reciprocity loop. The partner who is not reaching out (by first reaching in) gains insights about their own limits and fears. And even if the partners learn nothing at all about themselves or their relationship, the intervention is a goldmine for the therapist in terms of gathering new information about the couple’s interpersonal and intrapsychic issues.

A more positive outcome from the intervention, and its primary objective, is that when one partner begins to stretch and give more, oiling the relationship, the second partner often begins to loosen up as well. Magically it seems, each begins to bend toward the other, much as plants grow toward the sun. This unexpected and unsolicited bestowal of mutual gifts, of making an offering unasked to the partner and receiving one in return, generates, first and foremost, a much needed climate of good will. It also raises hopes realistically (that is, based on positive experience not merely wishful thinking) and turns on its head the unhealthy dynamic of partners receiving only scraps of love, kindness and generosity from each other. Instead, it creates a healthy dynamic in which partners feel they are getting more from the other and, ultimately, from the relationship.

The Youngs are neither noticeably psychologically minded nor well educated. Like all of us, they have their small vanities and common fears. But what makes them so endearing and impressive is how they instinctively put their partner’s welfare first and how perfectly matched they are in their unwavering willingness to do so. Each trusts fearlessly that what they are doing is exactly what needs to be done. To be sure, the Youngs embody a method of giving rather than an ideal to be achieved. They are, after all, only one-dimensional characters in a very short story.

Most couples are less well matched than the Youngs and few, if any, are so trusting of each other. They fear giving too much and getting nothing back; worse, they fear exposing their vulnerabilities, then getting humiliated, invalidated, rejected or abused in return. When we ask them to give more to their partner, we are requesting an enormous amount of them, certainly more than all can give. But when partners can both lift themselves above their own needs in the spirit of the Magi story and begin unselfishly to give to their beloved, a synergy of loving exchange does indeed magically follow.

FOCUS Newsletter - October 2001


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