Relationships involve both giving and taking, but sometimes you may feel like you’re putting in everything you have while your partner seems distant. This is an issue you should address head-on, because letting a feeling like this simmer can lead to resentment and bigger issues later on in your relationship.
Bringing up your partner’s perceived lack of effort can easily come off as an accusation or attack, so avoid jumping to conclusions. We spoke to a couple experts and college women about why you may feel like your SO isn’t doing as much as you for the relationship, and what to do about it.
Understand what you both need.
Kim Olver, a professional coach, counselor, and author of the award-winning book Secrets of Happy Couples, bases her philosophy on choice theory, which involves the concept of five basic relationship needs. These basic needs include survival, love and belonging, power, freedom, and fun. Your highest need can influence what you’re looking for in a relationship and how you approach it, so it’s worth it to take the time to figure out which one you identify with most.
“If you have a high need for love and belonging,” Olver says, “you like relationships, you want to be with people. You tend to be the peacemaker—if there’s a conflict, you often give in first.”
People who have a high need for freedom, on the other hand, might seem more aloof at first because of what they view as most important in a relationship. “If I have a high need for freedom, I like my own space, I’m very private. I’m pretty independent. Relationships are challenging for them,” Olver notes, “because they have to give up some of their freedom.”
People that have high needs for love and belonging in relationships that date people that have high freedom needs tend to struggle, according to Olver. “My 120 percent might be a lot easier than their 20 percent,” she says. “It’s like comparing apples and oranges. It can work, but you have to be willing to understand what the other person needs.”
Rhonda Ricardo, a relationship expert and the author of relationship research book Cherries Over Quicksand, also noted that when people feel like their SO may be distant, “boredom, and a lack of flirty compliments, gratitude, respect, and self-respect are all over the torn relationship-map.”
According to Ricardo, perceived distance also has a lot to do with attitude, and she suggested a way to test the waters. She says, “If you are both unhappy, a short visit to your family to get some space might be a great test to see if you miss each other. Most people confess that they missed the other far more than they thought they would especially if they parted with a good attitude. If they parted with bad attitudes they usually hope their SO stays with their family for much longer than planned. Ouch!”
If going to see your family for a bit isn’t a feasible option, try talking to your partner about spending some time with other, non-mutual friends or taking a short break. You’ll be able to come back with a clearer idea of how you feel about the situation.
Make a question, not an accusation.
So, what do you do with this newfound knowledge? After you’ve figured out what need or needs you prioritize, Olver suggests using choice theory as a chance to explore your relationship together rather than assuming you have all the answers.
“You can say to somebody, ‘I came across this and I learned something about myself. Do you know what your basic needs are and what is your highest? I think that mine is X, and I think yours might be X. Do you want to talk about that?’” Olver says. “That way, you’re not accusing, just inquiring about it. You’re saying, ‘We have some differences. Let’s see if we can find a way to talk about this.’”
Ricardo also has a way to put the question on the table without starting an argument. She says, “Before even thinking accusatory words, first look around for anything in your surroundings or lives that could make your S.O. uncomfortable to be close to you. … If the reason for their distance is still unknown you can ask a fun question like: What is your dream or ultimate description for our perfect together time? If he or she adds anything like, without neighborhood kids, pets, family, elders, the phone, or that friend that seems to always be using your television to play video games, then you solved the mystery!”
This is a great idea because it makes sure that you’re letting your partner define themselves and their own needs. It requires communication between both of you and can set the tone of the conversation that follows to be inquisitive in a curious way, rather than defensive.
Meet in the middle.
Relationships in which both partners have different basic needs may not be all smooth sailing, but that doesn’t mean you have to throw the towel in. Olver used the example of a relationship between a love and belonging person and a freedom person to demonstrate areas in which both people need to both change their approach to the relationship.
“The love and belonging person has to be trusting,” Olver says. “Not controlling, not clingy, not needy—you have to be willing to give your partner some space and room.”
She continues, “The freedom person has to be willing to give the love and belonging person some good quality time. That means not just watching TV together or keeping to themselves while with their partner. … It looks different for every couple, but in order to work, it takes the realization that this is happening, we are possibly incompatible, so we have to work together.”
When you’re talking with your partner about your needs, be sure to bring these things up. Compromise is a necessary part of any successful relationship, so make sure they understand that you’re willing to work with them and respect their need for space, but that they also need to recognize what you’re looking for and to pay attention to that.
Susie Abramovich, a rising sophomore at the New York Institute of Technology, also highlighted the importance of listening to what’s on your SO’s mind and saying outright what’s on yours. “In my current relationship, if he’s being distant, it’s because something’s wrong, like he’s super stressed about something … we usually share our thoughts and feelings,” she says. “And if I want more attention, I can literally just tell him that and that’ll do it.” It may seem scary, but being so direct has its benefits because there’s no room for misinterpretation or miscommunications.
Ask yourself: Is it worth it?
Olver suggested three questions to ask about yourself and your relationship that can help you recognize whether these perceived differences in effort are worth working through, or if you should call it quits. The questions are: Am I happy in this relationship? Do I love and respect my partner? If this person never changes, is this the person I really want to be with?
“If you look in the mirror and you say, ‘I do not like who I am in this relationship,’ if you’re … jealous every time they’re not with you and then when they do come around, you’re grilling them … and realize that’s not who you are? You’re in a toxic relationship and you need to get out of it,” Olver says.
As for the second question, it should go both ways: does your partner love and respect you, too? For Susie, that wasn’t the case. “From my past relationship, if I felt him being distant or I wasn’t happy, I would have to be dramatic for him to give me attention,” she says. “I ended it after I realized that the rare occasions of him making me happy weren’t rewarding enough to make up for all the times I was unhappy.”
And finally, to answer the last question, you have to understand your partner as they are, not as who you want them to be. “You find a person who you think might be the perfect companion, but they need a little tweaking, and you think you’re the person to do that. If you’re feeling like that, you’re holding expectations to them that they’ve never really shown they’re capable of,” Olver says.
And if you notice that even after talking things through your efforts are still one-sided, it may be time to call it quits. “If he or she has done something they don’t want you to know about, you may never know why they have become distant,” Ricardo says. “If they don’t want to talk about their problems or seek help you might want to make a safe and kind departure from your relationship, and always put safety first.”
However, it’s not at all guaranteed that your partner doesn’t want to change, or that your relationship is doomed. “If we always keep in mind that a love life is wonderful but without making some time for the main reason anyone is fulfilled (making a unique difference with our individual strengths and continuing to build toward the personal goals in our hearts),” Ricardo points out, “we may always be intriguing and exciting to an equally healthy SO and never worry about losing anyone’s attention.”
Hopefully, these insights can help you and your partner learn more about each other and find a middle ground where you both feel appreciated by the other person and appreciative of them. There’s no one formula that works for every couple, but effort and open communication are requirements for any successful relationship.