There are many reasons that people stray from their partner and from the relationship they took so much time to create and develop. Why do people tear down what they put so much effort into building up? Why do they sometimes seem not to care about each other anymore? Why do they sometimes replace compliments with put-downs so that partners feel like "He is always criticizing me!" or "She just doesn't like me anymore!"
One reason is that they do not feel appreciated in their relationship anymore as much as they did in the beginning. When we talk with couples, we often hear comments like "My wife never compliments me" or "He doesn't compliment me anymore" or even "He just doesn't like me anymore. He seems to be done with me. Take Ellie and Tom, for example.
Ellie and Tom have been together for 7 years. They joke to each other that it is time for 7-year itch to develop and they are still waiting. The joke is not as funny as they both would like it to appear.
Tom is having issues, ones he can’t really talk about with Ellie because, he believes, “nothing is wrong.” Except that something is wrong.
When Ellie and Tom started their relationship, Ellie constantly was telling Tom how special he is—how smart he is, how handsome he is, how considerate he is, how successful he is going to be, how lucky she was that she landed with such an absolutely unique guy.
Ellie’s feelings have not changed, but she has toned down the compliments. She would feel foolish, now that they are both older, if she kept up the ego-stroking indefinitely, especially in front of the children they now have. She is always there for Tom, but by now he knows how she feels, so she does not feel the need to remind Tom everyday of just what those feelings are.
Tom, though, is reminded daily at his office of how not quite up to snuff he is, and he feels that he is not quite the father he would have hoped to be—he’s just too busy trying not to get fired. He is feeling ego-depleted.
At least he has Maryanne at the office, who is constantly reminding him of how much better he is than the losers they both work for. Maryanne, Tom feels, really understands him. Maryanne feels the same way. And, from what she hears, poor Tom is married to someone who no longer appreciates him. That’s where she can make his life—and hers—better. Really much better!
When people stray, the assumption often is that they are unhappy in their relationship or at least are missing the love they once felt. Some affairs, however, especially for men, have little or nothing to do with the current relationship and a lot to do with ego gratification.
The Role of Compliments and Flattery Early in a Relationship
In the early days of a relationship, especially when the relationship is just forming, couples tend to spend a lot of time stroking each other, not only physically, but mentally and physically as well. They want to make sure the partner or potential partner knows how special they are to the lover (or potential lover). They know a fundamental principle of interpersonal attraction: Ingratiation works!
Flattery is one of the best ways to get and keep someone’s attention. Of course, anyone in politics knows this instinctively, especially these days!
The reason that ingratiation—sheer flattery—works so well is that most people, deep down, are insecure. They constantly need others to tell them how great they are!
As time goes on, our attempts to flatter or compliment our partners decrease. We end up like Tom, agonizing "My wife never compliments me - what did I do?"
Five things can happen in a relationship that lead us to pay fewer compliments to our partners.
5 Reasons We Stop Flattering our Partners
1. We may start to take the relationship for granted.
Check—we have that relationship. We move on to other goals we have in life. Except that people’s needs to have their egos bathed in flattery do not decrease with time. If anything, their needs may increase as they begin to wonder whether they are still as attractive and desirable as they once were.
2. We may become more acutely aware of our partner’s drawbacks, and show it in our behavior, even unconsciously.
“Wow, I did not realize how rarely he bathes!” “Yikes, he always leaves the house in such a mess!” “Eek, what did he eat for dinner—it smells like a sewer in this bedroom!” “Egad, not that joke again!” The list goes on, but over time, people’s weak points inevitably show themselves. I remember being warned about this when I took an administrative position as a dean at a university. The provost told me that, over time, every weak point I had would be observed and exploited by those working with me. Well, your partner may or may not exploit your weak points, but they certainly will notice.
3. We may become more overtly critical of our partner.
Criticizing a potential partner, especially in a significant way, is not a great way to get them interested in you. But once you are in a relationship with them, you may let down your guard and start saying things you would have held back on before. And as you know, negative information is much more powerful than positive information. The positive things you say and do may be quickly forgotten; the negative ones probably won’t be.
4. As a relationship progresses, we get busy and don’t make the time to say positive things.
We have our jobs; we may have kids; bills need to be paid; house or apartment repairs may start to consume our attention. (Right at this moment, Karin and I are waiting for the plumber to come to fix a leaky toilet!) Even planning and taking vacations can become a hassle, especially if, as so often happens in our small town, planes are delayed, canceled, or just are supremely unpleasant.
5. We may habituate to, and even start to write off, our partner’s compliments.
“Yes, I know my partner likes me,” you may say. What else is new? No new information in that. So you may look for someone else to compliment you, because those compliments provide affirmation and support in a way that your partner cannot quite compete with. In effect, we are hunters, hunting for new sources of ego boosts and self-esteem. We want someone else to tell us we are not only worthwhile but great.
The bottom line is the same, whatever the reason. Partners often find that the ego boosts they once got from their intimate relationship are no longer what they once were.
Some people adjust, realizing that, well, life is that way sometimes. They find other positive things in the relationship that make up for some of the negatives.
Other people do not adjust, but their need for ego boosts is not so great that they need boosts to come from others.
But then, there are other people who are insecure enough, and sufficiently in need of feeling appreciated and highly valued that, consciously or otherwise, they begin to look for new sources of ego gratification. It is not that they are truly unhappy with their current relationship, any more than they would be unhappy with any relationship. Rather, their ego needs are just so great that no relationship will satisfy those needs over the long term.
What can you do?
8 Things to Do to Make Your Partner more Appreciated
Relationship problems do not have single perfect solutions. People like Tom and Ellie don’t need a single perfect solution. But they need something, fast.
There are at least eight things they (or you!) can do to solve the problem of ego depletion—of feeling unappreciated and lacking in ego gratification.
1. Compliment your partner more and mean it.
Give compliments that are real. Your partner probably knows you well enough to know when a compliment is fake. Also, find new things for which to compliment your partner; don’t just keep repeating the old compliments about the old things.
2. Criticize your partner less.
Some criticisms are important. If your partner is spending you into bankruptcy or drinking him (or her) self to death, you have to say something. But how many of the criticisms you give are really necessary? And how many would best never being said?
3. If you criticize, do so constructively.
OK, you have said what is wrong. How can it be made better? What reasonable and meaningful steps can your partner, or better, you and your partner take together to improve the situation?
4. Show concretely you value your partner.
What does your partner really like? Flowers? Candy? Jewelry? Being taken out to dinner? Being given time to pursue a hobby? Find ways to show your appreciation.
5. Surprise and delight your partner.
Surprise gifts have special value. Everyone likes to get presents for their birthday but think how much more a present means when it is for no special occasion at all other than to show you care about your partner. Remember that surprises sometimes can backfire. Be careful in choosing your surprises.
6. Listen actively!
As we spend more and more time in a relationship, we may start anticipating what our partner will say or feel that we just don’t need to listen all the time. We’ve got other things to think about. Sure, if you want your relationship to slide downhill. Instead, listen carefully and respond. Show you are interested; you care; you value your partner enough to pay attention.
7. If you need something, say something. If you see something, say something (as they say with regard to subway crime).
If you need something from your partner, tell them. If you see something that troubles you, say something. Don’t wait for things to get out of hand. Don’t just go out looking elsewhere for gratification. Give your partner a chance. And another chance and another!
8. If things aren’t working, get counseling.
Sometimes, partners can’t get things back to the way they were, or at least, the way they want them to be. Get counseling. Don’t wait until it is too late.
Affairs of the ego can and do happen. But you can take steps to prevent them. Now is a good time to start.
Sources used in this article:
Jones, E.E. (1964). Ingratiation: A social psychologist analysis. New York, New York: Appleton-Century-Croft.