By Amy Alkon
Q: I’m in a new relationship with the sweetest, most generous girl, but I’m hesitant to let her do nice stuff for me. In my previous relationship, every single nice thing my ex did was held against me later. I can hear her now: “Remember that time I brought you food at work? All the way across town?” Eventually, I’d wince anytime she did anything for me. However, my new girlfriend seems so happy to make me food or run an errand for me. Still, I feel uneasy. I keep waiting for her to turn into my ex and present me with a list of what I owe her.—Bad History
A: Aww, a relationship with an accounts receivable department.
Your ex’s human abacus approach—running a relationship on the, “Hey, what’s in it for me?” model—doesn’t bode well for happily ever after, and not just because it makes it hard to tell your girlfriend apart from one of those aggressive strangers who call at dinnertime, threatening to repo your car.
Social psychologist Margaret S. Clark explains that partners are more loving and generous toward each other when a relationship runs on the “communal” model (which describes love or friendship) rather than the “exchange” model (the merchant-customer relationship). The main difference between these relationship types is in the motivations for giving and the expectations in the wake of it. You give to somebody you love—like by giving your honey a massage—to make her feel good; you don’t wipe the lotion off your hands and then hand her a bill for $80.
Love relationships are often not entirely 50/50, and the payback from a romantic partner often comes in different ways and at a later date, and that’s OK. In an exchange relationship, however, people give to get. There’s careful accounting and speedy invoicing. When the mechanic fixes your bum tire, immediately after doing the work, he expects equivalent compensation—in cold, hard cash (or plastic). You can’t just kiss him on the cheek, chirp, “Thanks, cookieface!” and be on your way.
Looking back at your relationship with your ex, ask yourself something: Why did she view popping over with a lunchtime cooler—probably containing sandwiches and a Snapple—like she’d brought you her left kidney? Maybe she’s been counting in all of her relationships. Or … maybe this reflects Clark’s finding that people in relationships switch to an “exchange norm” when they notice that their partner is all take and take.
In your current relationship, remind yourself to credit your girlfriend for who she is—which you do by observing her actions and attitude—instead of fearing who she might be. You should also make sure you’re holding up your part of the giving. But give for the right reason: To make her happy—and not because you can’t bear to hear another woman yelling, “Owe, owe, owe!” during sex.
Q: I used to have a terrible temper. My girlfriend never experienced it, because I did major therapy before meeting her. Now, when I get upset, I step back, consider whether my beef is legit, and then think about how I can present it calmly. My girlfriend, who gets frustrated that I can’t always discuss things immediately, says I “bottle up” my feelings.—Formerly Volcanic
A: Rarely do you hear someone say, “So, I ran the issue by my therapist, made a list of pros and cons, meditated on it … and then went out and put a bat through the guy’s windshield.”
Admirably, instead of continuing to lose your temper, you got it a little red leather collar, and now you just walk it out of the room on a matching red leash. This doesn’t mean you “bottle up” your feelings. You’re simply giving reason first crack at your problems—which doesn’t exactly come naturally. Psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky explain that we have two thinking systems: A fast-responding emotional system and a slower rational system. Your rational system does come around eventually—typically, just in time to grab a broom and dustpan to sweep up the pieces of the job or relationship that your trigger-happy emotional system just exploded.
Because relationships are happier when those in them feel understood and appreciated, it seems that you need to give your girlfriend the details on where you were and how far you’ve come. (Whaddya know, you didn’t spend those court-mandated anger management sessions with headphones on listening to Metallica.) Explaining this to her should help her understand that when you’re mulling things over, she isn’t waiting; she’s benefiting. Maybe you’ll get speedier at the reasoning process in time, but rushing you out of your cool-out corner is a bit like saying, “Hey, let’s make conflict resolution more like drunk dialing!”