When we want too much…or not enough: Prioritizing ourselves in relationships

prioritizing ourselves in relationships

When we want too much…or not enough: Prioritizing ourselves in relationships

“Somedays I still tell myself to take what is offered, because if it isn’t enough, it is I who wants too much.”    The Crane Wife, by CJ Hauser;  The Paris Review, 7/16/2019

How often have I settled for what was offered me, particularly in relationships–assessing myself as not worthy of prioritizing myself in a relationship? The wife in Hauser’s story is told that she wants too much—she is made to feel she’s too much—too demanding, too selfish, too negative in her protestations. Not rendering herself obedient enough to the needs of her husband. Or at least that’s how I project my own experience on the character. It is sad to think about the ways we fail to show up for ourselves, and the myriad ways we are made to feel bad if, and when, we do.

As I work on my memoir, looking at the not-always-successful experiences of my post-divorce years, I’m exploring this issue. And every time I ask the question, “Why did I settle for something far less than I deserved?” or, “Why did I stay so long?”, the answer, if available, is murky.

How can I attribute blame to the right party, or is it parties? Who is to blame? A culture that says women should be grateful for men in their lives, that girls should speak less, be meek and mild?   What specifically shaped my self-limiting beliefs? The people in my life who made me feel inadequate? How could it be that in spite of seeing the facts, or knowing intuitively that this or that person wasn’t right for me, I stayed anyway?

It’s not about blaming someone else, but about exploring how I got to that place. What drove me to make the decisions I made? Or more accurately what led me to ignore my instincts? And to trick myself into thinking I should be grateful for what I had, regardless of how bad or ill-suited. 

How do we learn to dissect maladaptive behaviors and get at the root causes? The day I acknowledged my unhappiness with my marriage, and all the ways I denied my needs was the beginning of my attempt to find my way out. Along with many women of my generation I learned to view my happiness and well-being as secondary to that of others. As a wife, my husband’s needs were of primary importance. I delayed seeking a divorce because I didn’t think I had a right to do so–seeing it as a selfish act. I was holding myself hostage to the perceived thoughts and judgments of others when what I needed to do was prioritize myself in relationships.

Anytime I would try to engage my husband in conversations about our marriage, he liked to say I was, “having another one of your little moods’”. In other words, I was having an aberrant moment in taking care of myself, in standing up for myself or daring to challenge the status quo. And if you’re a person who has been subjected to subtle gaslighting and criticism as a child then this is a difficult move to make—it could be labeled as defiant, or disruptive.

In an earlier era they simply put us in mental hospitals.

Only in writing my memoir did I realize my tendency to stay too long in unpleasant or even unhealthy situations. A learned behavior: making myself invisible to minimize discomfort. And I wonder, as I read about one of the common complaints of older women–invisibility– if feeling invisible is connected to the denial of our wants and desires?  It seems to me that each time we deny ourselves, while conforming and shutting down, in an attempt to suit the person or situation of the moment we subconsciously take part in our own invisibility.  I don’t think we can be fully, wildly present if our overriding impulse is to prioritize other people, an impulse that puts us at risk of sacrificing ourselves.

 Is (one of) the answers as simple as asking ourselves each morning, “what is it I want today?” A simple shift that reminds us to prioritize our own needs. It’s a good start: pausing to see what our body needs, or what makes us happy in this moment. It is a proclamation, an act of self-love. It may even be an act of survival. It’s not easy to erase decades of conditioning that we, as women, have been subjected to. It’s not easy to face being labeled as selfish or heartless. Even harder sometimes is seeing ourselves as worthy of our best and most loving focus. Not if we feel, “…it is I who want too much.” 

What I’m learning is that the more confident I feel about myself, and the more time I spend acknowledging my desires, the more visible I feel. It is a practice of giving myself permission to take up space. For me it’s a matter of letting go of old learned behaviors and knowing I’m good enough to prioritize my own care, my pleasure and my rights as a human being. 

Isn’t this what we all want?

20 Comments
  • Beth Havey
    Posted at 10:51h, 23 August Reply

    Beautifully said. Sometime we outgrow ways of living and we demand a change.

    • Walker Thornton
      Posted at 11:08h, 23 August Reply

      Thank you. I like that–‘we demand a change’. I’m grateful for being able to see what needed to be changed!

  • Judy Freedman
    Posted at 12:03h, 23 August Reply

    I felt that way most recently and finally decided to put myself first and share what I really wanted in a relationship. That’s when my boyfriend of 12 years ended things. He didn’t understand why things had changed. I finally had the courage and conviction to put myself first. It’s sad it’s over but he wasn’t the right person for me and now I truly know.

    • Walker Thornton
      Posted at 12:20h, 23 August Reply

      I’m so sorry. And at the same time I’m glad you found the strength to do so. I’ve found a sense of confidence with each shifting of priorities, I wish the same for you.

  • Laurie Stone
    Posted at 12:36h, 23 August Reply

    So wonderful. As you wrote, women are socialized to put our needs on the back burner. Love that simple question — what do I want today? It holds many answers.

    • Walker Thornton
      Posted at 08:03h, 24 August Reply

      It really does. I started thinking about that question around sexual pleasure but it became clear to me that far too often we act automatically w/o really considering what we need in any given moment.

  • LisaWeldon
    Posted at 19:10h, 23 August Reply

    I often think of the Bible verse “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” We were always taught the second part…to love our neighbors. I don’t ever remember being taught to love myself. If you look at the structure of this sentence, it is using self-love as the standard on how we should love others.

    • Walker Thornton
      Posted at 08:04h, 24 August Reply

      Fabulous comparison. I don’t recall any lessons around taking care of myself throughout my life. I’m so glad that the focus has shifted.

  • Linda Johnson
    Posted at 19:27h, 23 August Reply

    Beautifully written! “Why did I settle for something far less than I deserved?” or, “Why did I stay so long?” You could be telling my story! I can’t tell you how many times I have asked myself these questions. The only thing I can come up with is that, as an introvert, I lacked the confidence to walk away. I was fairly insecure until I grew into the wisdom I now possess. My ex and I were like two peas in a pod in so many ways, but the exact opposite in some really important ways. We have been divorced for 25 years and we remain good friends. Our connection is very deep, but we make much better friends than we ever did spouses, a realization I wish I had acquired much sooner.

    • Walker Thornton
      Posted at 08:05h, 24 August Reply

      It’s hard to shift from that marriage mode and all the ways we’re taught it ‘ought’ to be. I’m so glad you and your ex-husband have found a new path. As for your story–obviously I’m there too–I think many women are and our job now is to model a different way to live. Thanks so much for reading.

  • Carol Cassara
    Posted at 09:46h, 24 August Reply

    I think we’ve all done this. Honestly, I think a good marriage is a matter of luck. And also personal maturity of course. I haven’t always fared so well in this regard.

    • Walker Thornton
      Posted at 10:10h, 24 August Reply

      I hear ya! I’m open to a relationship but I can’t imagine being married again–too much of my freedom that I enjoy at this point. But one never really knows until that right person appears, right?

  • Claudia Schmidt
    Posted at 10:01h, 24 August Reply

    Beautifully said. It literally took me having breast cancer before I started putting myself first. I wonder how life will be for this generation of women. They seem much more aware of their worth (or at least my daughter, and her friends do).

    • Walker Thornton
      Posted at 10:09h, 24 August Reply

      I also hope this next generation has a different, easier path forward. Isn’t it a shame that it takes some of us a ‘big event’ to see the pieces of our lives. And , three cheers to you and to me and all the other women who have made beneficial shifts.

  • Kathy @ SMART Living 365.com
    Posted at 12:40h, 24 August Reply

    Hi Walker! Great and provocative post! You ask some extremely important questions that I think we would all do well to at least attempt to answer. While I do consider myself lucky to have created a great marriage, I also still struggle with feelings of “too muchness” with friends, family and even Thom at times. Any time we try to please others at a cost to ourselves we do the same. I tend to believe that asking ourselves daily your question about what we want to do today is a good one. And then anytime we feel the urge to speak or act but hold back, I think we need to look at that closely and make sure that we aren’t compromising our own needs just to “keep the peace.” Thanks for your insights. ~Kathy

    • Walker Thornton
      Posted at 08:11h, 25 August Reply

      Thanks Kathy, I agree, we all could stand to look more closely at how we show up. That “too muchness” as you call it is something I am familiar with!

  • Is this necessary?
    Posted at 14:22h, 24 August Reply

    It’s not just women who find themselves in “dead shark” relationships. Loss of communication is definitely the problem. Maybe women are conditioned to tolerate discomfort as a part of their upbringing. Maybe this is especially true for southern women. Is this different than being taught to, “be a man” and “big boys don’t cry”?

    I was in a 40+ year marriage. The first 2 years were wonderful. The 20 years after that were pretty good. The 10 years after that were okay and the last 9 years were hell. My wife became an alcoholic. She hid it very well. We had children and were also doing elder care of her parents. It was “all hands on deck” and we had responsibilities. We got through it.

    As time passed, old age removed the parents from the scene, The children became self-sufficient and then my wife died of liver failure. Today, I’m in a 4-year relationship with a widow who was married to a fellow with an addiction to cigarettes. I’ve never been happier in my life. Her three grandchildren (10,7 and 3 years-old) live next-door. We see them everyday and babysit 3 to 4 times each week. (Usually with at least one overnight stay.)

    Constantly, I ask myself what is different about this relationship and my 40+ year marriage. Why is this relationship bliss, while the other one was hell. Here is what I know from my experience.

    1. We make love – a lot. Both of us were in sexless marriages for at least 10 years. (We have had lots of pent-up demand.) We’re both in our 70s but we’re having more sex now than at any point in our lives. Sex = communication. It helps to have time, no career responsibilities, child care responsibilities or fear of pregnancy. We have what Kim Anami calls “Gourmet sex”, Look it up.

    2. Our estates are not intertwined. We don’t rely on, or “need” each other. Today, we’re living in her house and I contribute to the monthly expenses. Both our estates were documented and defined with the deaths of our spouses. We know that “old age” will eventually win. When either a mental or physical situation condition overtakes one of us, our families will step in and handle our affairs. They know who owns what. We might we able to stay together, or we may not. This takes a lot of stress out of our relationship. We live for each day and don’t worry much about the future. Being a widow and a widower, we know how the script unfolds.

    3. We work at staying healthy. We walk, ride bicycles, garden, and do home maintenance projects. We don’t drink alcohol or do things that could become addictions (except for sex). We stay active. Again, not having careers, family responsibilities or debt are huge in achieving this.

    4. We meditate together. All of our sex sessions end with meditation. Mediation = communication.

    5. We know where we differ (she leans towards conservatism while I’m a tree-hugging liberal), respect each other’s opinions and life experiences and let-it-go. We laugh at our differences and move on. We don’t pick fights. We’re not going to convert each other and become the same person. We don’t get angry with each other because we don’t think the same way. Diversity is good.

    A person in their 30s cannot live the lifestyle of a person in their 70s. (Maybe robots and artificial intelligence will change that in 20 years.) If we pay attention, we can learn from our experiences. My life was miserable, now it is wonderful. I didn’t know how to fix it, I just kept following my bliss and hoped for the best. Joseph Campbell on Following Your Bliss

    If my upbringing as a boy instilled a faulty life value system, that did not serve me, it must have been my life task to understand, fix it, then try to help others in the similar situations. That would be the purpose of my life. Joseph Campbell’s “Follow You Bliss” is echoed by Mike Dooley’s , “Thoughts Become Things” tut.com
    Having positive thoughts will help you find your bliss.

    We are the author of our life’s story.

    • Walker Thornton
      Posted at 08:10h, 25 August Reply

      Nice to hear that you’ve found a relationship that works for you.

  • Kim Acedo
    Posted at 17:26h, 24 August Reply

    Outstanding Walker! And welcome back to the blogging world 😉

    • Walker Thornton
      Posted at 08:08h, 25 August Reply

      Thank you, thank you!!!

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