Reality Check: A Sustainable Relationship

Sustainability. It’s a popular word now, and its relevance is not limited to trees and trash.

Thinking about sustainability implies thinking long term. For example, consider a sustainably-harvested woodlot. What do you see? Some trees ready for harvest, some left standing for future growth, and some deadwood left for bird and animal shelter. Sustainably managed, a woodlot can continue producing indefinitely.

How might the principle of sustainability apply to relationships?

Mary has a new stepson and is trying to find ways to connect with him. It didn’t take long to learn that he likes shopping with her, providing she buys things for him. Essentially, the relationship is, “I’ll agree to love you as long as you agree to buy me stuff.”

Is that sustainable? In choice theory terms, that behaviour is called “bribing to control.” Both parties are choosing manipulation rather than true connection, and if the bribery ends; the relationship will likely end (if it hasn’t already.)

If Mary is putting the family finances in jeopardy in her attempt to build this relationship, that’s even more troubling, and could result in negative consequences that spill over into her other relationships.

While that is pretty clearly unsustainable relationship behaviour, unsustainability can be more subtle.

Before they married, Jacob and Julia agreed that Jacob would concentrate on career and Julia would raise their children, care for the home, look after the finances, etc. Both agreed that’s what they wanted.

Jacob works hard, but he also makes a good salary. So when he’s not working, he likes to relax. “Let’s get a baby-sitter; go out to dinner , have a few drinks. You want a new TV? No problem; as a matter of fact, I need a new 4-wheeler.” Jacob’s view is, “I work hard; I make good money; let’s enjoy it.”

Meanwhile, Julia struggles to pay the power bill, buys groceries on her credit card, and borrows from her parents. You see, when all the bills are added up, the big money that Jacob makes doesn’t actually go all that far!

Although Julia has delicately suggested that they don’t “need” some of Jacob’s splurges, Jacob seems almost willfully blind to their financial situation.

Why is that not sustainable? It’s not just about the money.

When one of the parties in a relationship finds themselves walking on eggshells, afraid or unwilling to discuss something, that’s a good indicator that something in that relationship is unsustainable.

How might Julia approach this? Here’s an opening line: “Jacob, we have a problem and I need your help.”

I am also an advocate of basing discussions and decisions on facts. Jacob has a perception that they have no financial problem. Julia has a perception that they do. Which is it? Facts can bring clarity to the discussion without casting judgment.

If Julia chooses to get out her pencil and calculator and add up what’s coming in and what’s going out, those facts can help move the discussion from, “What is your perception?” to “What are the facts? What is our reality?”

What qualities do you think contribute to a sustainable relationship?

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