The Best Relationship Advice I Know: Give More Than You Take

Comments 24
I feel certain that if one of them dropped their pretzel, the other would give them theirs. (Image/Huffington Post)
I feel certain that if one dropped a pretzel, the other would give them theirs. (Image/Huffington Post)

There are three common reactions to my ‘An Open Letter to Shitty Husbands’ series, and I hate two of them.

Reaction 1: “Atta boy! Good for you for owning up to your part in the divorce and trying to help others.”

I agree because it’s true. I accept praise for my efforts to accept responsibility for the mistakes I’ve made. Mistakes without consequence rarely teach us anything useful.

Reaction 2: “You take on too much, Matt! It takes two to tango! It’s not all your fault! Stop being so hard on yourself!”

I disagree with that one because I’m not being hard on myself. I’m telling you the truth: If I had behaved daily—in good times and in bad—as a husband must to love his wife and thoughtfully tend to his marriage, there’s no way I would be divorced right now, and my son would have both parents at home, which I think is a big deal. Exactly zero people benefit in life from pointing fingers and casting blame for their life circumstances.

Reaction 3 (always from men): “This is bullshit! No matter how hard we work, or what we sacrifice, it’s never good enough! We go to work to pay for their house and their car and their hair and their nails and their jewelry! We give them everything we have! We make them orgasm in bed! And then when we want to have a drink with our buddies or play golf or watch a ballgame, we’re somehow failing them because they’re not getting enough attention? So you’re saying we just have to do whatever they want all the time, or we’re shitty husbands? Fuck them. Fuck that. Fuck you.”

The problem with this is that it rings true for many men. I think most husbands—justified or not— feel this way at times in their relationships.

No, I’m Not Saying ‘Do Whatever They Want’

Some people seem to think I’m telling husbands to submit to their wives’ demands. Let’s deal with that for a second:

Your wife should not be DEMANDING anything from you in your marriage except for you to respect and abide by her personal boundaries. All other “demands” are totally inappropriate.

If you got married without knowing your wife’s personal boundaries, it should come as little surprise that your marriage is shitty and unpleasant. You promised a lifetime to someone you didn’t actually know, and before you were intellectually or emotionally mature enough to make the promise.

If a husband or wife wants to bark orders at one another in their bedroom while they engage in mutually agreed-upon sexual role play, I assume that might build trust and intimacy, and prove good for the marriage in the long term.

But any man or woman who acts like a tyrant, making commands and abusing partners (physically, verbally or emotionally) when they don’t obey them? They can eat dicks.

So many people find themselves in relationships that aren’t partnerships, but constant power struggles as one partner jockeys for position and authority over the other.

“I work harder!”

“I make more money!”

“I’m the man of the house!”

“This household would fall apart if it wasn’t for me!”

Marriage can’t be like a business partnership where one partner owns 70% of the company, and the other owns 30%. The person with the majority share ALWAYS has final say. It makes sense for a wife or husband investing heavily in their marriage while the other doesn’t to feel like their opinions should carry more weight.

In marriage, both partners need to be fully vested in the union. Most people think of it as a 50-50 partnership. But my mom said something to me once, and I knew right away it was true: In a marriage, 50% isn’t enough. Only 100% is. Successful marriages happen when two people both give 100% to the other. Not meeting halfway, but going all the way to one another. A 100-100 partnership.

Give More Than You Take

According to Adam Grant’s business book Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success, there are three styles of interpersonal dealing:

Takers – They intentionally take more than they give. Self-oriented.

Matchers – They give and take proportionally to what they are given, and their willingness to give is conditional. Others-oriented when it will benefit them to do so because it will help them.

Givers – They always give more than they take. Others-oriented.

All three styles can be successful in the business world, though “taking” will earn you little goodwill.

Through anecdotal evidence backed by mountains of research, Grant concludes that being a giver yields the greatest business success (but also writes about under what conditions giving is a failing strategy).

I think it applies to every transaction we have in our lives. At work. In our spiritual lives. With our friends.

First we give. Then life gives back.

Our emotions are insanely powerful.

We say and do shitty things to the people we love because we are hurt or angry. It’s so easy to say “Oh, just be unselfish and generous to your partner all the time!” But it’s really hard to do. A million things unrelated to our partners preoccupy and stress us out. Pressures at work or school or with family members or with some other thing we’re super-involved in. We forget. We’re thoughtless. We NEVER think: “Gee. What really shitty and thoughtless thing can I do today to make my partner feel horrible and cry?”

Yet, even with the proper give-more-than-you-take mindset, you’ll probably upset your partner more than you’d prefer.

Being a person is hard. It just is. But you have almost no chance of having a satisfying life if you’re not at least generally aware of how to succeed in a committed relationship.

The only responsible choice is to actively seek to give more than you take, every day.

Even if you’re not a natural giver, what’s the downside of giving unselfishly in your relationship knowing YOU will benefit from doing so? Hint: There isn’t one.

Consider it.

Every day, you try to give more of your love and generosity and time and energy and patience to your partner. And maybe you’re like: “Whoa! That sounds draining and unsustainable!”

But wait.

Every day, your partner is ALSO giving more of their love and generosity and time and energy and patience to you.

You are now in a relationship where you’re trying to out-give one another every day.

You both feel good because you’re giving generously to each other. Unselfishness always feels good.

You both feel good because you’re both GETTING everything you need from each other. Getting stuff always feels good too.

I think this is what love looks like. And two people practicing it daily will live a fulfilling, regret-free forever-kind-of marriage together showing friends, family and children the blueprint for sustainable relationships along the way.

I know it’s hard. I did it totally wrong.

I’m selfish and defensive. So any time a future partner might tell me how I’m failing them, my first inclination might be to justify whatever I did and try to convince her why I’m fine and how she’s really the one with the problem. You know, instead of apologizing and meaning it like one does for the people they love.

But if I was in a relationship in which giving more than we take was the very foundation on which we were built, in which that was the code by which we lived, I think we’d figure it out.

I think we’d get through anything. I think everyone living that way will.

I wonder what’s stopping us.

Maybe we could start today and then everything would change.

24 thoughts on “The Best Relationship Advice I Know: Give More Than You Take”

    1. Thanks for reading! Sorry I’m just writing back. I have memory issues, most likely stemming from poor choices in college.

  1. It sounds good, but it’s really freaking hard in practice. On paper, love seems so easy. Just love each other, try to be empathetic. Try to give more than you take.

    Human nature can be nasty though.

    We are terrible for adapting to our norm, and then taking it for granted. After all, it’s our norm.

    You get a pay raise at work, and you probably notice it on the first check or two. After that, it’s your “normal” pay. So you expect it (though I’m pretty sure you notice when it’s reduced).

    We all want to feel valued, and we all want to feel appreciated. And things break down when we don’t feel that way.

    Let’s say someone is giving, not because they feel they have to but because they want to. But suddenly their partner is not giving back. They are taking, and not returning (or at least in noticeably disproportionate amounts). This is fine for a while, but over time I think it’s natural for resentment to set in.

    The person who’s giving feels unappreciated. they don’t feel valued.

    So they start to pull back. It may be subconscious at first, but it will start to happen.

    Thing is, maybe they had a reason for not giving back. Maybe they were caught up in something else, and didn’t even realize they were doing it.

    I think this is where communication comes in, and sadly it’s something that most of us do very poorly. Of all the skills that should be taught in schools around the world, perhaps the most important one would be to learn to communicate, and to take criticism without becoming defensive. That more than anything would probably save marriages.

    But it’s not taught. So we stew. We don’t say anything until we’re already feeling hurt and possibly resentful. And when we do, instead of saying “damn, I guess I was being a bit of a dick” our partner gets defensive and may lash out instead.

    Relationships can be really hard sometimes.

    1. Yes, this: “the most important one would be to learn to communicate, and to take criticism without becoming defensive.”

      I just celebrated 40 years of mostly-pretty-darned-good marriage, with some very dark, how-did-I-survive-that-time periods. Ask what your partner likes to be given. Ask for what you need, not just generally but in the moment. Ask how you can respond to a partner in distress. Answer all of these questions with an open heart (far more useful than an open mind) and the intention to connect, rather than the intention to protect (yourself). My guy is a giver if you ask him. His ADHD often prevents him from noticing opportunities to give on his own. My guy always asks for what he needs, and sometimes needs help remembering I’m not an employee in this organization. My guy needs me to believe in him when he doesn’t and call bullshit when he starts comparing his life and choices to others’. I’m still married because I’m willing to do these things, most of the time. And he’s willing to do what I need, most of the time. Somebody else may have chosen not to, at many points along the way.

      so for me the question has always kind of been: Are you willing to be the spouse your partner needs, most of the time? Are they willing to be the spouse you need? “Need” covers a lot of ground, emotional, spiritual, political, travel, obsessive special interests, humor. You need a lot of overlap in the areas important to both of you, and you need to let the rest go. Of course all of these assumes neither of you is an ass.

    2. I think you have it figured out, good sir.

      This is really, really, really hard. No matter how much I read about, talk about, think about this stuff, I still have a hard time executing it when it’s inconvenient.

      It has always, and will always, take two people who, when the chips are down, will always make the choice to work through it no matter how hard it feels to do so.

      It’s super-rare. Even if a marriage is fortunate enough to have one, it’s not common to find one with two.

      We float through life (maybe this is just me) and we just do whatever feels natural, and sometimes that really messes things up.

      Sometimes, we have to be bigger than our “natural” urges, and make disciplined choices. Even with the best intentions, we still leave pain in our wake.

      We have to own it and do more.

      I have a really hard time with the second part. I’m great at admitting mistakes. I’m shitty and doing more to make sure it never happens again.

      I’ll never have a relationship that thrives until I find a way.

  2. I was totally a taker and my ex was totally a giver but eventually I drained him out….I made major changes but it was too late. He turned totally sour. I can barely stand to think about how I used to be. What a wreck!

    When my kids were little I would tell them, “when you share your cookie, it tastes better and you get more.” Of course, they didn’t understand it at all at first but eventually, if they try to live it out, they learn the very lesson you are talking about here. You DO get more when you share. . . and life tastes way better.

  3. LOL! It’s a bit funny Matt, your number 3 reaction that comes mostly from men, I share some of those sentiments a bit. The thing is our own personal power is directly connected to the amount of personal responsibility we take. So while some of these things may be true, perhaps some women are too demanding, perhaps we do expect too much, trying to pass all the blame onto her, will simply disempower you and rob you of any influence and control you might have.

    On the female side of things,marriage began to get really good when I simply decided the conditions of my marriage, good or bad, are going to be entirely my fault. That may or may not be true, but it sure opens up the possibility that I may have more power over the situation than I think I have.

    “Give more than you take.” Yes, amen! Another favorite of mine is “treat your spouse like an honored guest.” Far to often we treat strangers to the best we have to offer and reserve our worst for the one we are supposed to love.

    1. That last sentence.

      I do that.

      I am kind and courteous, pretty much 100-percent of the time to everyone I come across (except for the people I secretly want to murder with impossibly poor driving skills I must constantly avoid for health and financial reasons)…

      But I am capable of being a dick to my wife (now ex), my son, my mother, etc.

      It’s as if the closer you are to me, the less filtered I am.

      To be sure, I feel immense love for those close to me. It’s not lip service. And I most certainly give more to and do more for those people. But when inconvenienced, they are most likely to get the harshest treatment from me.

      It was a point of contention for my wife and I (and rightfully so.)

      She would watch me conduct myself with kindness and thoughtfulness in virtually every situation we were ever in, and then she would experience thoughtlessness and occasionally attitude from me when I’d be upset about something.

      I would like to, psychologically, understand what it is that allows such behavior.

      Why don’t I treat my son with the kind of patience and gentleness I would show a stranger?

      That’s something I don’t fully understand, but would like to.

      1. Well, personally I tend to treat loved ones the worst because I have an emotional investment in them. This brings forth all sorts of passionate and emotional responses. To depersonalize a bit, to pull back and grant them the same autonomy you would grant a casual acquaintance, really requires us to set our own selves aside, so it can be challenging.

  4. How do you know your theory of giving works? Did you implement it in recent or current successful relationships? To me, you make it sound like work. In every unsuccessful relationship I’ve had, it has felt like work. In my current relationship, it’s not. It’s the thing I feel like I don’t have to work on, because it does happen naturally. Sometimes you give more when your partner doesn’t have anything more to give at that time-in that place, and other times you take more because you have nothing to give in that time in that place. Relationships should be parallel to your dearest friendships. Sometimes you carry each other and sometimes you walk hand in hand, but love and respect and kindness are what make it successful.

    1. While I think this applies to everything we do, the intent was to focus on committed, long-term romantic partnerships between two people.

      I’ve only had two of those as an “adult,” and only one after age 21.

      You can be sure I have no idea whether I will succeed in my future relationships, nor do I claim to know more than anyone else about anything.

      But I believe what I wrote here. That a disciplined and difficult choice to, every day, concentrate on trying to out-give your partner, combined with that same effort from them will lead to a lifetime together.

      I don’t know if that’s possible for me to do. I just believe it to be the ideal to strive for.

      I know that the alternative doesn’t make any sense: To encourage people to take, take, take, at the expense of the person they’ve pledged their lives to.

      You might say, I don’t know that I’m correct, but that I do know the alternative is not.

      Human relationships are hard and messy and always will be.

      The only thing I know how to do is to keep trying.

      Thanks for chiming in.

  5. Matt! It’s been a while. Completely my fault, I admit. This is a great post. You are so right. We should always strive to give. In giving, we will naturally be given back to. If we love someone, giving to them should be easy. It shouldn’t be viewed as work. We should *want* to make them happy. In return, for the kindness that we’ve shown them, they too will want to do the same for us. It’s a partnership where no one loses and everyone wins.

    1. It’s the only kind of structure and daily mindset that seems sustainable.

      I hope it’s practical. There’s a lot of cynicism out there.

      “That’s just the way it is!” or “You give people too much credit!” or “That’s just not the real world!”

      Yeah, maybe it’s not.

      But it could be.

      Always good to hear from you. 🙂

  6. The three kinds of interpersonal style remind me, a little, of Daniel Goleman’s three kinds of empathy: cognitive, emotional and empathic concern. The balance of all three is ideal but many people have varying degrees of each. The conscious person, or person wishing to become their best self, would work at discovering the area of lack and engage in improving it. I think this is the kind of person you are Matt, a conscious person questing to become better. A noble and lifelong experience. I agree 100% is what we should give all those of utmost importance in our lives, including ourselves.

    1. Thank you for reading and commenting. I really appreciate it.

      Rest assured my future partner will need to be patient with me as I slowly inch my way toward that best self. There will be plenty of frustrating moments along the way.

      I’m nice. Fun. Funny. Polite. But irresponsible. And something of a pain in the ass.

      You might say I’m an immature guy who does a fine job passing for a functional adult.

      Most people forgive me because of the nice/fun/funny/polite parts, but that’s not enough when you have to deal with all the little annoyances of living with thoughtless every day that sometimes feel like disrespect.

      I have plenty of growing to do.

      Always trying.

      1. Thank you for your honest reply (maybe that’s an attribute to add to your list), that is life though we are always becoming/growing. Being conscious of that and aware of the areas we want to work on is a very mature thing to be doing 🙂

  7. As a woman I can understand where reaction number three comes from, for I see what men can offer to women and to me that seems like a longer list.

    Though I am still young, I do not know what to give to my male partners other than straight forward seduction. I will give them my time and let them have their time alone or with others. But what can I give to be a giver… I feel like a matcher at best :/

    1. Totally! Sometimes girls want to mate even. One time, one married me and we made a child. (But that didn’t work out, which is why I write things like this.)

Comments are closed.

Scroll to Top
%d bloggers like this: