How to Find Balance in an Imbalanced Relationship

Marriage is for losers.

When two people choose to make marriage a contest to see who can lose the most—and create a household culture of mutual surrender—marriage becomes a radical rebellion, transforming the world through sacrifice from the inside out.

But a healthy relationship of losers requires balance.

Two people dedicated to sacrifice and selflessness and vulnerability.

Relationships with one constant-loser and one always-winner are sad, degrading, and usually abusive. The always-winner dominates and controls through emotional or physical coercion. And the constant-loser sacrifices and forgives and gives grace, but nothing ever changes.

Nothing ever changes because the constant-losers aren’t giving enough grace.

They aren’t giving enough grace to themselves

Balance in Marriage

Photo Credit: MissMarPol via Compfight cc

When Sacrifice Feels Abusive

School’s out for summer and the neighborhood overflows with bikes racing and trampolines stretching dangerously close to the ripping point, and every stick is a gun or a light saber, and the sidewalks are chalk-scratched rainbows.

As the rays of the summer afternoon sun scorch the still green grass, I hear the back door slam. My nine-year-old son crashes in and his face is wet with sweat and sadness. He agonizes aloud about an injustice happening out in the yard.

It isn’t the first time this scene has played out.

My son tends to be a peacemaker, and he’s been stretched to the limit—he agreed to play soldiers instead of Star Wars, and then football when he really wanted to play basketball, and then he let the other kids jump first on the trampoline.

He’s upset because he has given and sacrificed and compromised and now he simply wants some balance.

What Options Do We Have?

In this situation, I think my son has the very same four options any constant-loser has in an imbalanced or abusive relationship:

First, he can simply endure the imbalanced relationships. He can be quiet, keep giving and sacrificing, and try to be happy with it. For constant-loser, this is usually the default option. And it’s not a bad option—sacrifice is a beautiful thing. Until it’s not. Until it becomes abusive and constant-loser realizes he’s a person, too, and it’s perfectly okay for him to receive good things, as well.

Second, he can fight to change everyone else. He can try to make the other kids compromise. He can plea and beg and get angry and maybe punch someone if he gets frustrated enough. When pushed to the limit, constant-loser will sometimes resort to coercion. It makes relationships a violent and ugly place. And it’s hopeless anyway, because if always-winner doesn’t want to change, all the fighting in the world won’t convince him or her to do so.

Third, he can change himself—he can become as uncompromising as his playmates. He can stop sacrificing and stop giving grace and he can create a kind of cold, subtle standoff. When constant-loser chooses this option in a relationship, the gulf between lovers is like an ocean and constant-loser grows bitter and ages quickly and sometimes has an affair or two.

Or, fourth, my son can create an entirely different kind of balance in his friendships. Instead of settling for imbalance, coercing others, or becoming ungracious himself, he can choose to give himself as much grace as he gives everybody else.

Restoring Balance to Ourselves

Grace isn’t just for other people. We must also extend grace to ourselves. In fact, I believe grace, by its very nature, is intended for everyone in equal parts. The question is: Are we giving ourselves the same grace we would give to others?

And so my son stands before me, angst written upon his face, and I say to him, “I love that you have been so kind and forgiving to the other kids. Are you ready to be that kind to yourself? If you saw another friend being treated the way you have been treated, what would you tell him?”

The angst gives way to comprehension and he smiles and he says, “I’d tell him he doesn’t have to keep playing with those kids if he doesn’t want to. I’d tell him there are other kids to play with, or he could have fun by himself.”

And I ask, “Do you want to follow your own advice?”

We’ve had this conversation a handful of times. On a given afternoon, I have no idea what he’ll do next. Sometimes he returns to play with his peers. Sometimes he invites other friends to play. Sometimes he curls up with a book on the couch. Sometimes he puts on his headphones and rejoins his friends in his own way.

I think he does whatever allows him to give the same amount of grace to everyone, including himself.

Because grace is a balancing act—it’s intended for everyone in equal parts.

Enough Grace to Go Around

We must give our partners grace, but we must learn to give ourselves grace, as well. In the saddest of imbalanced relationships—in marriages fraught with domination and abuse, for instance—restoring the balance of grace within ourselves shows us the way forward.

You see, marriage is the place where we learn to love—both others, and ourselves. When we give as much grace to ourselves as we give to others, our marriages become a training ground for love.

We learn we can’t show true compassion to anyone else until we’ve learned to do it for ourselves.

We learn to set healthy boundaries—the kind we would recommend for others but rarely give ourselves.

We learn to quit punishing ourselves for our mistakes; we learn to forgive ourselves.

We learn marriage isn’t just the training ground for loving another person. We learn it is the training ground for loving every person.

Including ourselves.

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Since I wrote “Marriage is for Losers,” countless constant-losers have expressed to me their helplessness about being in a “Type 2 marriage.” I addressed the concern, in part, in my eBook. But also I wrote this post for them. I don’t have all the answers. And this post should not in any way be taken as encouragement to divorce. It is encouragement to every constant-loser to care for yourself as much as you care for everyone else. Talk to a friend. Ask your spouse to go to marital counseling. If they refuse, see your own counselor. But we should never settle for loving ourselves less (or more) than we love anyone else. We need to find the balance. 

Disclaimer: This post is not professional advice. It should be read as you would read a “self-help” book. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor, who can become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. Counselors can be located through your insurance network or through your state psychological association. If you are in a domestic violence situation and in immediate danger, you are strongly encouraged to contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

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Comments: You can share your thoughts or reactions at the bottom of this post.                

Free eBook: My eBook, The Marriage Manifesto: Turning Your World Upside Down, is available free to new blog subscribers. If you are not yet a subscriber, you can click here to subscribe, and your confirmation e-mail will include a link to download the eBook. Or, the book is also now available for Kindle and Nook

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Anna

    Hi Kelly –

    I appreciate the thrust of this post but I am concerned with your use of the words “abuse” and “abusive.” An abusive relationship is not a safe place for any person and those who are being abused do not need to offer grace and sacrifice to their abuser. Abuse is not caused by a lack of giving or sacrifice in the person being abused.

    While you seem to be concerned that some readers may think you are advocating divorce, you didn’t make it clear in the post that those who are being abused should find the safest way possible out of the relationship.

    I would respectfully ask you to add an additional disclaimer regarding abusive relationships, and link to the National Domestic Violence Hotline at hotline.org.

    • Jonathan C Dickinson

      Hey Anna,

      I think “neglect” may have been a more appropriate word to use; “abuse” as defined in the dictionary carries many more meanings than the moral/violent definition. Either way I am sure Dr. Kelly will elaborate on what he meant.

      • drkellyflanagan

        I’m hesitant to weigh in on this discussion, for fear of ending it, so I hope people receive this comment as my initial reaction and continue to move this thread forward!

        Generally, I think the common understanding of an “abusive” relationship is under-inclusive and actually results in the enabling of continued mistreatment. In other words, I will often hear, “Well, they don’t hit me or scream at me so they aren’t abusive so I don’t have any option but to accept it.” I think we need a more inclusive definition of “abuse,” and perhaps it could go something like this: any behavior or pattern of behavior that strips away the dignity of another person. I believe relationships in which there is an always-winner and a constant-loser deprive people of their dignity. In this sense, they are abusive, and I think identifying them as abusive can be motivating and encourage change and transformation in the constant-loser. The always-winner is, of course, unlikely to seek change because the status quo is serving them pretty well.

        I also think you make a great point, Anna, and I will add the resource you mentioned to the “Disclaimer.” Thanks for your comment and that contribution.

        I had a feeling this post would spark some conversation and it is indeed meant to be a something to get us thinking, rather than a final solution, so again, I hope others will continue to comment on this thread!

  • Catherine

    I needed to read this today. Thank you!

    • drkellyflanagan

      You’re welcome, Catherine!

  • Diana

    I like that you always choose to get inspiration from your life experience with your kids.

    I would like to share an idea related to your post: I think that in many cases, one of the two in a relationship tends to accept the unacceptable, sometimes considering that if s/he does that, the other will be better, will offer better in return. This is the unhealthy relationship based on the idea of giving for receiving and for me this is not love. Although I have need through those stages myself and until recently I felt I was loved before the other one wanted something, expected something. Only recently I have tasted the super flavour of being loved full stop. But it took me a while to believe in it and not reject love for fear and for not being able to understand what that person REALLY wanted from me. It was nothing, but in a consummerism world this is a bit rare :).

    Other times, the always-loser gets used to this, to losing, to be the one in mistake, to be the one who needs to change for the other to accept him/her. And this role of victim strengthens the ego. The persons identifies herself with this role and will have trouble finding again who s/he really is. Eckhart Tolle speaks about it in the “Power of now” and “A New Earth”. And I totally agree. Once you have the same behaviour for 20 years, I think you need a serious earth quake to regain yourself. Either a serisous far away travel, or changing the work place or something which would just shake the “normal” to help one see other alternatives and open mind and soul.

    Anyway, I like your Wednesday posts :).

    • drkellyflanagan

      ANNOUNCEMENT: EVERYONE READ THIS COMMENT. : ) Diana, I think you cut to the quick of it. Well said.

  • Diana

    Anna, I think that abuse is not necessarily meaning violence.
    Besides that, the way I understand Kelly’s statements and relate it to you phrase “those who are being abused do not need to offer grace and sacrifice to their abuser”, I think he wants to say that the the abused needs to love himself enough to get away/out of this abusing situation, harmful situation. This is why he also states that he is not encouraging divorce, because getting out might mean this as well.

    But I agree with you that Kelly should be more precise on the term “abusive”

  • Ana

    I started therapy two years ago as a means to “recover” myself after 5 years of a Type 2 marriage. My husband came to a few visits with me, but then decided it was a waste of his time and refused to keep coming. We separated in January of this year and are still deciding whether the next step will be divorce or not. There is an ingredient to our problems that is not discussed in your ebook, nor in posts I have been able to read so far, which is the fact that we both have children from previous marriages and we have just not been able to make it work. He has issues with my children, as I with his… and of course, our children are not very fond of us either. Have you had this in your practice? Thanks! Ana

    • drkellyflanagan

      Ana, I’m sorry to hear about your situation. You are definitely not alone. We refer to families like yours as “blended families,” and they are incredibly challenging and I do see many families in my practice dealing with such issues. I will certainly consider writing a post around this topic and its challenges, yet I think you are probably already doing the most important thing, which is getting help from a professional. Keep working hard at it.

      • Ana

        Thank you very much! I am certainly looking forward to reading about this in a post.

  • Carol C

    I am in the middle of a mess.. 🙂 The mess of an imbalanced relationship with my daughter… She’s young.. young enough to still believe she has all the answers.. She just had a baby 8 weeks ago.. Her pregnancy was brutal.. nausea 24/7 for 8 solid months.. sciatica…heartburn.. pain.. plus other complications at the end. I live in their basement suite.. sometimes just a little too close. There were times that we could have easily had a few big fights.. but I chose to be the the “loser” I was pretty sure that the hormones raging in her pregnancy were throwing her emotions into turmoil.. the inability to control the symptoms of her pregnancy were causing her to try to control those of us around her. Not an excuse.. but understandable.. as her mother.. I didn’t want to increase her stress, so on those occasions, I disengaged. Only I think it created a pattern or built upon a pattern. I think she mistook my disengaging for my surrender. I think she started to believe she needed to take charge of my life. So we saw a therapist together and we talked it out. She had her issues and I had mine.. it was tough.. but it was good.. I think I have my life back.. now to keep it. I can see that I need to now extend myself the same grace that I extended to her.

  • ZOE

    I contacted drlawrencespelltemple@hotmail.com in regards of getting my husband back and he guarantee me that in 3days my husband will come back home i waited patiently,to my greatest surprise my husband came back home in the 3rd day as Dr Lawrence had promise in the beginning.i just want to use this medium to thank him for all his efforts i really do not know what i would have done if not for you doctor,thank you drlawrencespelltemple@hotmail.com

  • Emma

    I read your post today and the comments and it really spoke to me and I wanted to say thank you. I have been in an imbalanced relationship for a while now. I also feel as though that I personally struggle with the concept of abuse and your definition of “anything that strips another person of their dignity” really resonated with me. My relationship isn’t physically abusive, or even by the traditional definition of emotional abuse. But it has left me feeling beaten down. I am the constant loser, and have tried the top three approaches in my current relationship to no avail. I finally decided to walk away to give myself enough grace – and its sad that my significant other STILL does not understand this decision. He doesn’t understand that I feel as though I constantly lose, and because he doesn’t understand or empathize we unfortunately have no place to go after 5 years together. I suggested counseling and he said we had no problems and would not go. So here I am, moving on to give myself grace in a situation that he doesn’t comprehend.