Schemas, the core beliefs we develop as a result of our early childhood interactions, can inform the way we approach our romantic relationships. For example, individuals with a self-sacrifice/subjugation schema have been conditioned to be hypervigilant of others’ needs while either downplaying or ignoring their own needs. In a romantic relationship, they may be unaware of the level to which they accommodate their partner’s needs at the expense of their own, and may ultimately be left feeling resentful and alone.
Schemas draw us towards partners with whom we have “schema chemistry,” partners whose core beliefs reinforce our own. Individuals with the self-sacrifice/subjugation schema are often drawn to partners with an “entitlement/grandiosity schema” who consider themselves worthy of special rights and privileges and prioritize their needs over those of others. These two schemas each reinforce and strengthen the other—the self-sacrificing partner’s belief that his/her needs come second is reinforced by the entitled partner’s belief that his/hers come first.
At The Bay Area CBT Center, we work to break this cycle of entitlement and self-sacrifice to facilitate a relationship that is positive and uplifting for both partners. We help couples develop effective communication, healthy boundaries, and self-care consequences so the relationship feels more fair, reciprocal, and collaborative. Before we turn to some of the specific strategies we teach in our practice, let’s look more closely at the characteristics of these two schemas.
Individuals with a self-sacrifice/subjugation schema:
• Feel overly responsible for other people’s feelings and often neglect their own
• Take responsibility for other people’s behaviors
• Feel guilty or selfish if they make their own needs a priority
• Fear dismissal, abandonment, or even retaliation if they advocate for their own needs
Individuals with an entitlement/grandiosity schema:
• Know what they want in the moment and feel entitled to getting it
• Engage in selfish, controlling, covertly manipulative behaviors to get what they want
• Believe rules don’t apply to them and they should be able to say/do whatever they want
• May be overcompensating for deep feelings of shame and dependency
• Experience themselves as victims and expect to escape accountability
Partners with an entitlement schema are drawn to individuals who sacrifice their own needs and don’t challenge their partner’s entitled stance. In a relationship where the needs of the partner with the entitlement schema are always prioritized, this partner may not have any incentive to change the dynamic (as his/her needs are always being met). It is critical for individuals with a self-sacrifice schema to learn to assert themselves and set appropriate limits and boundaries in the relationship. Here are some examples of techniques that we encourage these individuals to implement.
• Express your feelings and needs by making clear requests using nonviolent communication: “When ______, I feel ______, I need ______, would you be willing to ______?”
• Clarify your needs and wants. Identify your needs and recognize them as non-negotiable, while also recognizing your wants as negotiable and becoming more flexible with your requests.
• Practice saying “no.” No matter how small a request is, practice saying “let me think about it” or “maybe, I need some time to give it a thought.” Give yourself more time to explore whether it’s something you’re willing to do or whether you are agreeing out of fear or guilt.
• Clarify and prioritize your needs. What is most important to you in a relationship—honesty, affection, encouragement? What is non-negotiable—respect, safety, fidelity? Be flexible with your wants and requests, but never let go of important needs.
• Create self-care limits. Setting limits with others is not a punishment; it’s not used for the purpose of retaliating against your partner, teaching them a lesson, or making them feel bad. Rather, constructive self-care limits function to protect yourself, create safety, and meet your own need.
• Be willing to end the relationship if you find that you continuously fall into intolerable situations and you are not able to negotiate win/win scenarios.
For example, let’s say an individual with a self-sacrifice schema has a need for consistency from her partner. Her partner has agreed to call her at 8 PM, but regularly misses this appointment and calls as late as 10 or 11 PM. In order to assert her needs and establish a boundary in her relationship, she can tell her partner: “I will be available to chat with you between 7 and 9 PM, but I won’t be available to talk after 9 PM.” In this, she clarifies and prioritizes her need within the relationship by establishing a self-care limit (being unavailable after 9 PM) in order to meet her own need for consistency. If the behavior continues she may need to assess whether her underlying need for consistency is being met in the relationship or whether she finds it intolerable to continue the relationship. This helps break the negative cycle of her needs coming second or being ignored.
Just as individuals with a self-sacrifice schema can modify their behaviors to create positive change in their relationship, the partner with the entitlement schema can follow some of these tips:
• Engage in reflective listening and validation skills. Work on actively listening to your partner, taking care to emotionally connect and empathize with the experiences he/she shares.
• Accept when your partner says “no.” Do not punish your partner or act in a retaliatory manner. Accept that your partner’s needs are equally valid to your own, and that he/she has the right to set limits and establish boundaries in your relationship.
• Practice compassion for your partner. Validate the feelings and needs of your partner, and work on identifying the costs of entitled behaviors in your relationships. Be mindful of not allowing your partner to fall into a situation that is intolerable.
• Become more flexible with your wants. Underlying needs are non-negotiable, but there are many ways to meet those needs. Learning to distinguish between your wants and your needs will help you become more flexible with your wants, while also not compromising your most important underlying needs in relationships.
For example, if you recognize that the underlying need behind wanting a kiss is a need for affection then you have more flexibility to negotiate a win/win scenario by being willing to accept a hug, or holding hands, or a massage, or cuddling rather than becoming rigid and demanding a kiss. You can recognize that there are many ways to meet your need for affection and be more willing to negotiate an agreement that feels acceptable to both you and your partner.
Ultimately, individuals with a self-sacrifice schema can learn to clearly express their needs and establish patterns of behavior to ensure that those needs are met. In turn, the partner with the entitlement schema can learn to practice compassion and flexibility, and the relationship dynamic may gradually shift to facilitate equality and collaboration.
In couples therapy, we help partners clarify the values they wish to bring to and emulate in their relationship. We teach interpersonal skills that lead to behavioral flexibility, we help couples disengage from negative interpersonal dynamics, and we assist partners in identifying and then modifying the behaviors that are detrimental to both themselves and their relationship. To learn more about how we can help, you can click here to book an appointment online. We have office locations in both San Francisco and Oakland.