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Approval seeking in relationships

Approval seeking in relationships

Approval seeking or authentic generosity?

There’s a difference between authentic generosity and approval seeking. There’s a difference between an act of sacrifice based on having much to give and an act of sacrifice that is based on your inner bereftness and desperate need for acceptance.

The trouble is that while the differences and the implications of the differences between these two sets of motivations are huge, it’s still easy to confuse one for the other. This confusion happens when we mistake our own intentions and motivations and it happens when we mistake the intentions and motivations of our partner.

Abundance vs scarcity

Authentic generosity is an act of abundance. A generous partner is in touch with their own self worth, so they are not seeking it from their partner.

Approval seeking is an act of scarcity. An approval seeking partner abdicates their own needs and desires repeatedly, in the hopes that by giving what they don’t actually have they will one day feel “good enough”.

Authentically generous partners are rich with positive self-regard, and so they can afford to make compromises and sacrifices in order to support their partner’s needs and desires.

Approval seeking partners are lacking in positive self-regard, and so have little to really give. They operate at an ongoing energy deficit, constantly giving more than they really have to give, hoping that one day their sacrifices will pay off.

Authentically generous partners are honest (with themselves and others) about their giving abilities, and they give with no strings attached. They can also choose not to give when giving would harm or deplete themselves, and they can be straightforward about their decision.

Default giving

Approval seeking partners are not honest with themselves or their partners about their giving abilities. They will bleed themselves dry, and there are always strings attached. Approval seeking partners operate in a giving default.

It’s worth noting, the kind of generosity or “giving” I refer to is broad and multiple: time, energy, attention, sex, money, etc.

Two different worlds

An authentically generous person will likely be confused and disbelieving when they discover that their approval seeking partner gives only in hopes of gaining something in return. An approval-seeking person will likely be confused and disbelieving when they discover that their authentically generous partner is able to give without reservation and without hopes of obtaining self-esteem in the exchange.

The approval seeking partner is likely also to feel bewildered at their authentically generous partner’s ability to say no when needed and to reserve their time, energy, sexuality, money or praise in times of deficit. Saying “no” for reasons of self-care is not in the approval-seeking partner’s lexicon; instead they blame their partner for their own exhaustion and lack.

Approval seekers wonder “Am I lovable?”

Approval seeking in relationships very often comes down to a worry that one is not fundamentally lovable. The approval seeking partner is constantly testing their lovability, constantly trying to prove or secure their lovability. For this individual the stakes are very high.

The authentically generous person knows they are fundamentally lovable. They do not doubt this.

When I work with couples where one partner reveals their doubt of their own lovability, the other person is often shocked. They can not imagine such a sad state. It takes some time for them to consider the ramifications, to come to terms with their partner’s view of themselves and of the world. There might also be a sense of relief; certain behaviours are finally understood.

The approval seeking partner in a relationship begins to make strides in their own development (and integrity) the moment they recognize their motives. From here they might change not only their behaviours in the relationship, but they might also confront their own inner world, their emptiness, their grief, their rage. This is important work.

Broadening the lens

For the sake of clarity I’ve sketched out one particular dynamic in its simplest form: The authentically generous partner who believes in their own goodness and lovability and is able to give (or not) from a place of abundance, integrity, and self-respect, and the approval seeking partner who constantly has to test or prove their own goodness and lovability and gives only from a place of scarcity and self-doubt.

I’ve used an extreme either/or polarized relationship dynamic here for showing contrast, and this dynamic shows up a lot in real relationships, but other variations also show up, ie – authentic generosity and approval-seeking are not necessarily hard-wired, mutually exclusive absolutes; a person may fluctuate between these two states at different times. Two people in relationship may fluctuate between these two states at different times, sometimes “tagging off” one for the other based on unconscious cues shared between one another.

Sometimes there is no authentically generous person in a relationship; both people are stuck in approval seeking mode. When the limits of this dynamic are reached the relationship implodes with a particular intensity.

The point here is to identify when you are giving from a place of true abundance and integrity, and when your giving is fused to approval seeking, with its correlated exhaustion and resentment. Consider this individually, and also have a conversation with your partner. What insights do they have for you? How do they experience your giving, and their own?

To learn more about approval seeking in relationships read my book The Re-Connection Handbook for Couples.

Have something to say about this topic? Leave a comment below.

All My Best,
Justice Schanfarber

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