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Schema Chemistry: The Entitlement/Self-Sacrifice Trap

Schemas are the core beliefs we develop as a result of our early childhood interactions. They can inform many things about our adult lives, including the way we approach romantic relationships.

For example, if you have ever found yourself feeling resentful and lonely in a relationship, a self-sacrifice schema could be at work. This is a pattern in which you tend to be vigilant about others’ needs while ignoring your own needs.

“Schema chemistry” refers to the human tendency to be drawn to people who reinforce our own core beliefs. A person with a self-sacrifice schema may notice a pattern of being with partners who view their own worth and needs as a priority in any situation—in other words, partners who have an entitlement schema. That’s because the self-sacrifice schema and entitlement schema reinforce each other. With every new interaction, both people in the relationship have their core beliefs strengthened by the ongoing dynamic.

At the Bay Area CBT Center, we want you to be able to break this cycle and enjoy a relationship that is positive and uplifting for you and your partner. We help couples develop effective communication and healthy boundaries so the relationship feels more reciprocal—a collaborative effort between you and your partner. The first step is to understand how this “schema chemistry” works and where it’s showing up in your relationship. Then you will be able to implement specific strategies to change that dynamic.

Before we describe some of the specific strategies taught to clients in our practice, here is a closer look at the characteristics of these two schemas.

Self-Sacrifice/Subjugation Schema

If you have a self-sacrifice schema, these characteristics may describe how you interact in intimate relationships:

      • You prioritize taking care of other people above yourself. You feel overly responsible for other people’s feelings and may put your own feelings aside.
      • Taking the blame. You claim responsibility for other people’s behaviors.
      • You struggle with asking for what you need. You feel guilty or selfish if you make your own needs a priority. You may be afraid to ever do this because you sense that your partner may dismiss your needs, get angry at your request, or even leave you.

Entitlement/Grandiosity Schema

As someone with a self-sacrifice schema, you may be drawn to relationships with partners who have characteristics of an entitlement schema, such as:

          • They feel entitled to get what they want in any situation.
          • They use controlling and manipulative tactics to get what they want.
          • They see themselves as special—the rules don’t apply to them.
          • They believe they are victims and should not be accountable for their own actions.

People with an entitlement schema are drawn to self-sacrificers who are unlikely to challenge the entitled partner’s beliefs. Since the entitled person’s needs are always getting met, that person has no incentive to change the dynamic.

What Can I Do to Get My Needs Met?

With the help of a trained therapist, it is possible for you to learn how to assert yourself in your relationship so that it is rewarding and fulfilling for you—not just for your partner.

Here are some of the skills that your therapist may help you build:

          • Discern between 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, try saying “Maybe, let me think about it” instead of automatically complying with the request. Give yourself more time to explore whether it’s something you’re willing to do, rather than 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? It’s okay to have one or two “deal-breaker” needs that absolutely must be met in order for you to continue in the relationship.

Remember, a healthy relationship is one in which both partners are able to express needs on an equal basis without fear of retaliation or abandonment. A trained therapist can help both you and your partner to understand and practice relationship skills that create a balanced, fair, and reciprocal dynamic between the two of you.

In couples therapy at the Bay Area CBT Center, we help partners clarify the values they wish to emphasize in their relationship. To learn more about how we can help, you can click here to book an appointment online. CBT tools available on our CBT Questionnaires page. We have office locations in both San Francisco and Oakland.