Sarah and Jack have been dating for just over a year, and their relationship has generally been problem-free. In the early stages, Sarah was pleasantly surprised by Jack’s nurturing behavior; it seemed he was constantly surprising her with flowers, picking up her favorite foods on trips to the store, and leaving notes for her to find. More recently though, Sarah has begun to question what drives Jack’s considerate actions.

Sarah’s concerns surfaced when she made a New Year’s resolution to lose ten pounds. Over the holidays, she had put on a bit of weight and wasn’t thrilled about it. She expressed this to Jack, letting him know that she would be working hard to watch her diet and would appreciate his support. He agreed, and for the next few days Sarah did her own shopping, prepared meals, and stuck to her plan. Jack even researched and cooked healthy recipes for dinner a few nights.

On day 4, Sarah arrived home to find a package of her favorite cookies sitting on the kitchen counter. When she questioned Jack, he became annoyed that she wasn’t more appreciative of his thoughtfulness. He liked how she always made a big deal over his loving gestures; what was the problem now? The same thing happened several more times over the next few weeks, and Sarah was frustrated that Jack wasn’t supporting her resolution as she’d asked. Even worse, he would become sensitive and moody when she avoided his treats.

Sarah appreciated how Jack could see her responses as rejection, but she’s wasn’t rejecting him; she just didn’t want to sabotage her efforts. For his part, Jack saw his acts of kindness as altruistic expressions of tenderness.  Sarah struggled to figure how she could help Jack separate the selfless acts that she so appreciates from those she doesn’t like without hurting him or having to swallow her own feelings.

Clinical Considerations:  
Selfless acts can make us feel good about ourselves. This, of course, introduces the question: how selfless is any action, really? Jack likes being appreciated.  Of course he does!  Over time, however, his gifts became more about his need to be recognized as a loving partner than about cherishing Sarah.

When Jack’s care-giving transitioned into care-taking, his outward-focused gestures were replaced by an inward-focused desire to feel valued. Jack’s frustration at not having his emotional needs met clouded his ability to see how his actions were failing Sarah.

Love supports empowerment, and outward-focused gestures that reflect love are those that are in your partner’s best interest. While it’s always wonderful to feel appreciated in our relationships, when it comes to acts of kindness, we must remember to ask ourselves: who will feel the greatest benefit from our gift?

Situations like these can help us to explore our true gift-giving intentions and to remember how much hearing, respecting and responding to our partner’s needs and desires are among the great gifts of loving.

Happy Valentine’s Day!