Every day we make countless choices, some consciously and many unconsciously. Do we look at our motivation? The consequences of the countless decisions that affect our relationships? Through them, we are forever balancing closeness and distance, self-interest and that of the one whom we love. What do we need and want? What does the other person need and want?
With the transition to parenthood, we learn to set aside our own needs for a while — to “delay gratification”. An infant is dependent on its caretakers who can usually rise to the challenges. But as a child grows, it becomes more able to give back, to enter into a relationship of caring for and taking care of another. He or she becomes a participant in decision-making and can choose to make others happy. In adolescence, independence takes a leap forward. Teens can see their own power to make someone else pleased for them, concerned, miserable. By appreciating their potential to affect others, teens hopefully learn to use it responsibly, with an awareness of consequences.
Choosing to show love includes making choices that show you understand another’s needs, to show that you trust their own competence to meet those needs (at least most of the time), and to create an opportunity to nurture the relationship, to assign it a priority.
When it came time to choose where to live, what David would have chosen had he been alone was one thing, where I would have gone another, and where we wound up a third. After weighing many possibilities, we selected what might best nourish our then four-year old relationship. A few years later, after eighteen months of a long commute to a job I loved, we chose to move again — this time in agreement that what would be best for me was also best for our now-married couple and that we could both benefit in the new location. The condo meant relief from mowing grass and shoveling snow and gave us both easier access to airports.
Choices can be challenges but they are also opportunities to move towards a life and lifestyle that you consciously want to live. They can foster appreciation that factors that affect one person in a relationship can profoundly influence the other. They can allow us to craft an identity visible to ourselves and to others. In Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, the wise fox who asks the Little Prince to be his friend informs him that he must first “tame” him — create an attachment — and then warns him that “you are responsible for that which you tame”. To be responsible involves responding to the welfare of the other. Making choices is a mechanism through which you can show that commitment.
What do we decide?
- Simple choices. We decide when to get up in the morning and go to bed at night. We choose when, where and with whom we eat what — and how often. Consciously or unconsciously, we decide where to put our time, money and energy and how to replenish them. We are forever balancing our own needs and wants with those of others we love. True, a baby screaming from hunger in the middle of the night may give the decision a powerful nudge, but we still have considerable discretion over where we place our attention.
Critical choices. Not all choices are equal. Some amplify or restrict what must or can come next. Taking a low-paying job in an activity you adore can affect an entire family in complex ways. Similarly, choosing work that brings great financial rewards but leaves you with no time to spend with people you love has consequences. Does the family bend to needs of individuals, giving up family dinners for soccer practices, volunteer meetings and Mom’s Night Out, or are those activities pushed to the back burner for group participation that is considered sacred? As Kantor and Lehr have pointed out, different family organization styles based on different core values lead to different choices through different processes.
- Priorities. Implicit in choices are priorities. Do I spend my money on high quality fruits and vegetables or on piano lessons for a child? Do we hire a baby sitter to have a romantic evening out, to attend Parents’ Night at schools, or only when required for a critical event? Examining possible uses of time, money and energy forces us to acknowledge that, although love, affection and humor may not be limited, other resources are and their use reflects what we value (Chris Argyris’s “theories in use”) .
- Dependence and Independence. I am profoundly dependent on others as I manage my life, everyone from the mechanic who tends my car to the team who does my surgery — but most of all I am dependent on my closest relationships for understanding, support and affection. I need to allow them to give to me when they can and to give them the pleasure (and pride) of being able to help when help is genuinely needed. When my husband and I choose to share household tasks or accompany each other to medical appointments, we acknowledge yet another value we bring to each other.
Coordination. Choices that involve more than one person require coordination. Is the extra time necessary to compare calendars, decide on allocation of funds, and agree to commitments for activities and projects worth it? This aspect of being in a relationship is an essential part of respecting the other person.
- By the head. Very often a decision is based on information that can be gathered from a range of sources that contribute to a rational process such as comparing pros and cons of differing options. These are choices made by thinking.
- By the heart. Other times, choices are made regardless of rational reasons that might argue against a particular decision. A feeling-based attraction can help point attention in one direction or another.
Personal style affects how one makes choices. As decades of research with the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator show, people have a relatively stable approach to making decisions. Some gather great amounts of data; others decide quickly based on gut instincts. Some people are prone to head-based choices that come from thinking through an issue; others tend to decide with their heart what attracts them or feels “right” to them. And some people are more intuitive while others base understanding on sensory information. Differences in style need to be understood and allowed for so that choices can be made with respect for each person in a relationship.
Why are choices important in relationships?
- The different needs of different people require attention. If unmet over too extended a period, people will take those needs outside of the relationship or bury them within. Both outcomes do damage to long-term maintenance of a love relationship as well as to the individual.
- Varying needs and desires want attention. People yearn to have them recognized, even when they cannot be fulfilled immediately or directly. Transportation and food are needs with multiple solutions — that is, they require attention. Our desires also yearn for expression. A convertible might be a desire when a bicycle or a carpool offer alternate solutions. The underlying need that the convertible represents is not about transportation. It may be about freedom or a touch of luxury or identity or perceptions of other people. Whatever the source, those underlying needs would appreciate recognition (and perhaps a more feasible solution) within a relationship.
- Harder to accept, we often need to let go of roads not traveled. Once a choice is made, we need to be able to let go of the “unfinished business” of making it. Lost dreams may need to be mourned so that we can move on. Alternate selves or relationships or lifestyles that are closed off because of choices previously made must be acknowledged. The paths one might have taken can, perhaps, be imagined, but ultimately they must give way to what is, so that future choices can help the individuals and their relationship grow and flourish.
Have you made decisions whose impact on a key love relationship you applaud or regret? What motivated you to chose as you did? Has that choice guided you in making other choices? Do you tend to look at internal information, that which you get from another person, or information from external sources? How flexible is your decision-making style? How have you reacted to choices made for you, perhaps out of love, by another?
Argyris, Chris (1976). Theories of action that inhibit individual learning. American Psychologist, Vol 31(9), Sep 1976, 638-654. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.31.9.638