What Giving Looks Like in Relationships
We all want to be generous, but do we understand what giving really looks like in relationships?
The benefits of altruism have been well-documented in mental health research. People who are warm and empathic, i.e. ‘givers,’ have more highly developed emotional recognition abilities. They are able to identify their own and others’ emotions and thus connect well with others. Less altruistic individuals, i.e. those who are more self-centered, seem to have less emotional recognition abilities and thus generally have more trouble forming close connections with others. One real test of giving, however, happens in close relationships, where we are often challenged to overcome personality differences and relate to another person’s perspective and habits. What does giving look like then?
One aspect of giving in relationships is what is known as ‘theory of mind.’ Theory of mind is your ability to identify your emotions, the thoughts and emotions of others, and to accept that different people can have varied, yet equally legitimate, perspectives. An important form of giving in relationships is to practice theory of mind, otherwise known as ‘putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.’ When you validate your partner (or friend, or child’s) perspective--even when it differs from your own--you are giving the gift of empathy and understanding. Such validation is a powerful way to be generous and expand your brain’s ability to connect with others.
We have all observed the polarization of our political dialogue, family discussions, and even social media interactions. Practicing altruism in relationships introduces an important and healing element to such conversations. Altruism is defined as practicing a selfless concern for the well being of others. Don’t we need more of that? When we extend ourselves and stretch our minds to see the world through another person’s eyes, we create a safer and more peaceful environment for connection and dialogue. We also develop a greater ability to connect with others by expanding this capacity in us, and by our example, in others. The more we practice theory of mind, the more easily we can validate the experience of others, which leads people to feel understood. While we may be in relationship with others, research shows that we can still feel lonely inside. Feeling that others truly understand us is an important experience that we crave.
Another important way to truly give in relationships is by championing your partner’s (or friend’s, or child’s) cause. This is sometimes called ‘carrying your partner’s flag.’ Are you able to champion the issues, needs, and thoughts that your partner holds dear? Do you stick up for them even when that person is not around? If you can become an advocate for someone else’s struggle, even when it does not match your own—and especially when it doesn’t—you give that person, and eventually yourself, the gift of understanding, empathy, and caring.
Championing your partner’s causes means you are able to describe those causes and defend them the way your partner might, even though they are not your own goals or issues. It shows your partner that he or she is important to you, and leaves them feeling deeply cared for. Championing your partner’s cause goes beyond seeing the world through his or her eyes; it is the extra step of standing up for that cause with others in addition to your partner, in speech and behavior, because it matters to someone close to you. One has to be careful to not be inauthentic with this practice, but the ability to stretch our minds into other’s causes creates a sense of harmony and love in relationships and in our communities by creating a stronger sense of connection.
Being altruistic in relationships is difficult because we all get a little selfish when our sense of peace and security is threatened by others’ perspectives and habits. When we practice generosity in those situations, however, we create a more peaceful world around us and expand our psychological performance in the process. After all, the brain is like a muscle, and when we don’t work it out, it gets weak in certain areas. Empathy and understanding are key components of that muscle and get stronger the more you use them.
This month, practice giving in these ways in your relationships. Stretch your brain a little to apply theory of mind to your interactions, striving to see equality and value in diverse perspectives and habits. That increased psychological flexibility will help you connect more deeply and allow you to have more satisfying relationships with others. You might also practice championing your partner’s cause—carrying their flag—on the issues that matter to them, and watch how awesome your relationship feels when they feel truly understood and cared for by you.
Giving can take the form of helping others materially, with our time, or financially, and those are important ways of helping our community. Sometimes the most important giving, however, is psychological—our ability to extend deep understanding, acceptance, and compassion to ourselves and others. That gift is powerful, and can change lives. Let’s be ‘givers’ this month!
John Howard and Peter Craig are psychotherapists at Austin Professional Counseling™. They help their clients lower anxiety, heal depression, improve relationships and more.