Dear Barb,

Like many women, I was trained by my family and culture to always put others’ needs first. I was taught that sacrificing my own wants and needs was a virtue, and that my adult identity should revolve around my romantic partner (and possibly children). I was also taught to trust others’ judgment above my own, because I was automatically more “irrational” because of being a woman. How can I stop this unrealistic and untrue identity? Is it too late to rebalance and restart my relationship? 

Signed, Deceived

Dear Deceived,

Most of these messages weren’t communicated directly to you, but indirectly in a thousand subtle ways through expectations and microaggressions as we grew up. They get through to women very clearly. The way women are socialized to prioritize others first impacts all of our relationships in adult life. Men as well as women need to apply these basic relationship rules whether you are dating again, married, in a casual relationship, asexual or sexual the rules remain the same – especially for women. 

I strongly suggest you read these “rights” over, internalize them and stand up for them in every relationship.

You have the right to ….

Say what you need and have your partner consider how best to support you. There is a huge difference between saying “After talking it over and exploring different options, I don’t think I can do that for you” and saying “No, I’m not interested in expending my energy to support you.” Listen, consider, explore then decide.

Expect a balance of give and take. Whether it is being supportive for an evening after a bad day, for a few days when one person is sick or for months or years through a long-term illness. This also would include depression, unemployment, disability or grief. Women in particular often find that they drop everything and silence their own needs when a partner is struggling. And then, when they are having a hard time, that partner barely makes tiny adjustments to take care of them (often while expecting lots of credit). Your partner can “step up” for you, even if it takes some work and adjustment for them to learn how to do it. 

Enjoy interests and relationships outside your partnership. The rest of your life doesn’t go away when you get into a relationship. The balance of time you spend on things may shift but you still get to maintain your friendships, family relationships, interests, and activities. This also includes your fashion style. A partner who complains when you see your friends or belittles the interests you have because they don’t share it, could be exhibiting their insecurities or have some learning to do about boundaries. This could be a precursor to abusive or controlling behavior. Life outside of your relationship should be supported by your partner. It is essential!

Be consulted on decisions that affect the other partner. Married or partners who live together, consider themselves highly committed or share finances and are playing house, should make big lifestyle decisions with the input of the other partner. Even if the decision is ultimately only one partner’s decision to make; for example, staying in their current job or look for a new one before handing in their notice of resignation.

Be shown respect both privately and publicly. You can disagree or be irritated by your partner; but never ever in public. By mocking or belittling in a way that feels hurtful you can do a lot of damage. They should not act like they’re ashamed of you or put you down in public. They should treat you like an adult and an equal, not like a child or an employee. Sometimes a partner teases because they feel awkward or maybe just in fun, but if you tell them it hurts your feelings and ask them to stop, they should listen.

Grow and change. Nobody is the same person at 40 years old as they were at 20. Often one partner feels threatened when their partner starts changing in significant ways and they try to pressure them into staying the same. No one can micromanage your life or give you orders thinking they are being helpful. If you tell them to back off, they should. They may be hurt, confused, sad or even angry, but it’s not okay for them to act like you’ve done something wrong or force you to stay stagnant and repress yourself for their sake. They may need to grow and see change as nothing to be afraid of.

Feel safe in your home. Your home is your physical safe space. You should never have to go about your home worried what your partner might do. Even if they haven’t been directly violent toward you, if they throw things, punch walls, make explosive threats or leave you feeling afraid in any way it’s not okay. If you don’t live together, you have the right to set boundaries on when your partner gets to be in your home. Showing up at your doorstep uninvited or using their spare key is not being respectful. 

End a relationship that isn’t making you happy. Most relationships have their rough patches, and it’s a good idea to work on conflict management, compromise and flexibility together. Relationships take effort! But you don’t need a big reason or excuse: “I’m not happy” is enough.  If your lives are deeply intertwined, if you have children, or your partner is dependent on you, the transition may be complicated and may require maintaining some kind of relationship at least for a while. You always have the right to decide not to be romantically or sexually involved with someone any more, and you don’t have to answer to anyone for your reasons. 

The truth is, we all deserve these rights and expectations as a bare minimum in any relationship regardless of gender. 

Unfortunately, like you, too many women have lost themselves. These rights for men or women do not make you unreasonable, demanding, or too picky! Some have the notion that a marriage certificate negates any of these basic relationship rights. Thankfully our society is beginning to evolve and realize mutual respect and shared efforts is the new normal. Marriage isn’t a competition; you are both on the same team! 

Do you have a question? Barb Rock is a mental health counselor answering questions related to mental health, relationships or life issues and the published author of “Run Your Own Race, Happiness after 50.” Send your questions to If your anonymous question is published, you’ll receive a complimentary copy of her book.  

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