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Relationship Guide
March 2005:
Start Cheerleaders or Competitors
by Claire Hatch
Claire Hatch, MSW is a licensed social worker and mediator who specializes in working with couples. From her Seattle area office, she counsels people by phone and in person.

Claire will be happy to answer your relationship questions in this column. Please send them to claire@clairehatch.com or call her at 425.823.2273.
Want more relationship help? Then The Bridal Sanity Workbook is for you. Claire shares wisdom from her pre-wedding counseling experience and her work with troubled marriages.

When Kay met Brian, she was in the middle of an intensive management training course.

“He was so supportive,” she recalls. “I was so exhausted on our first date, I probably had no business even going out. But it was wonderful. He took me out for ‘comfort food,’ showed a lot of interest in the course, and said good night early so I could get some rest.”

Not surprisingly, Kay started thinking of Brian as a keeper right away. He made her feel exactly the way she wanted to feel with a partner.

Unfortunately, that supportive climate doesn’t always survive years of married life. When I counsel married couples, the partners often feel the other one makes their load heavier, not lighter. They become competitors instead of cheerleaders. How does this transformation occur? How does their attitude change from “How can I support you?” to “What have you done for me lately?”

Sometimes, it’s as simple as just taking on too much. So many couples I see for pre-marital counseling plan to have children, renovate a house, pursue demanding careers, start a business, and on and on. At some point, usually when the children come, it all becomes too much. Each person is just too depleted to give much support to the other.

Sometimes it’s because of the couple’s goal orientation. When people get married, somewhere in their mind they check “Relationship” off of their list of goals. Without realizing it, they say to themselves, “OK, that’s done, time to go on to the next goal.” They feel the lure of the next hunt. We forget our relationships need the same focused attention after marriage that they needed before.

But most of all, I believe people just don’t appreciate the value of being a cheerleader. And they don’t understand how rewarding their relationship can be if they commit to creating a cheerleader culture together.

Imagine you have a demanding day ahead of you. Maybe you’re giving a big presentation. Maybe you’re meeting with a teacher who doesn’t understand the needs of your child. Maybe you’re running a marathon. Whatever the challenge ahead, imagine that your partner sends you off with words of encouragement. And you know that when you come home, he’ll want to hear every detail. And be ready with advice if-and only if-you want it.

Now imagine that your partner doesn’t really have a picture of your day. He knows you’ve got some kind of meeting, but he doesn’t know what part you play in it. He doesn’t know that you’ve spent nine hours this past week getting ready for it. That there were a couple of nights when you lost sleep over it. And when you come home, he doesn’t remember to ask about it.

Do you think you’ll perform better in the first scenario? Of course you will. And if things don’t go your way, you’ll weather whatever disappointment comes your way better, too.

It sounds like I’m stating the obvious, doesn’t it? It is pretty obvious when you stop and think it through. But in the pace of every day life, the obvious can get lost. In fact, if you stopped ten people on the street and asked them exactly what their husbands and wives were doing today, I doubt if more than two or three could answer you in any kind of detail. Many people have whole worlds that their partners don’t see into.

When you don’t really know what your partner is doing, it’s easy to think of their routine just in terms of how it affects you concretely. Will she be home at 6:00? Will he have time to stop for groceries? Will we have the weekend free?

All these questions are important, don’t get me wrong. It’s important to come home! Down time together is just as important as pursuing goals, and I don’t intend for cheerleading to be an invitation to workaholism. But if you’re only thinking about your partner’s day in terms of mechanics, you’re losing a great opportunity to really feel part of each other’s lives, successes, and challenges.

So, how can you become cheerleaders and not competitors?

First, listen to each other—really listen. Put yourself in your partner’s place. Ask yourself, What would I be thinking if I were in their shoes? What would I want? What would I worry about?

Sometimes listening is inconvenient. One Saturday morning, Evelyn’s husband started processing the pros and cons of a promotion he was being offered. Evelyn felt herself becoming nervous. They had decided that this weekend, without fail, they were going to finish building that planting bed in their front yard. Evelyn was seeing her plan of a productive morning slip away. But she knew this was one of those cheerleader moments. A moment when her husband felt ready to talk and really needed her to listen.

Next, listen ‘between the lines’ to what your partner needs from you. Is she feeling insecure and in need of reassurance? Does she need some kind of concrete help? Sheila was the one who did the grocery shopping, but when she had a big interview coming up, her husband Tom offered to take care of it that week. She didn’t have to ask him—he saw the need and offered.

Ever so often you’ll slip into the habit of assuming you know what’s going on in your partner’s life without asking. Periodically, make a conscious effort to get updated. Look at your partner as if you’ve just met and ask him some basic questions. The answers may surprise you.

Ten years from now, will you have that wonderful, secure feeling of knowing your partner is always in your corner? And that there’s no doubt in your partner’s mind that you’re his greatest ally? Will you be cheerleaders or competitors? It all depends on the commitment you make, the time you’re willing to put in, and the attention you’re willing to give, starting today.

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