Why Your Partner May Be So Hard to Please
The black hole of entitlement
Posted Sep 23, 2019
Perhaps no other clinician has dealt with the concept of entitlement like the late, famed family therapist Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy (1965). From Nagy’s perspective, what a person perceives they owe, or what is owed to them depends largely on a ledger of give and take in one’s family of origin. If the ledger is unbalanced toward either end of the continuum, symptoms may develop that can impact an individual’s future relationships and life in general.
For example, Nagy developed the concept parentification to represent a dynamic in which parents may expect adult-like or age-inappropriate behavior from a child, while they, in turn, behave like children. The roles are reversed, and the child may have internalized a sense of obligation and responsibility while simultaneously fearing the burden. Perhaps he or she will be forever conflicted about taking on difficult tasks such as a demanding managerial position at work, or even having children. Robbed of certain aspects of childhood, the parentified individual may also develop an exaggerated sense of entitlement: “The world owes me.”
The concept of entitlement is used on micro and macro levels. It is not unusual for someone to refer to a friend as entitled, or for a political leader to call an entire nation entitled and ungrateful. While understanding the concept is valuable on both levels, this article will focus predominately on the negative impact a skewed entitlement can have on couples.
Entitlement can be beneficial. If one truly deserves a promotion at work, that individual may be entitled to such. If a spouse does a great job handling a difficult task, positive reinforcement may be merited. Trouble tends to ensue, however, when the entitled partner is insatiable, manipulative, or even illogical in their demands. For example, if the entitled partner demands that you do—on a chronic basis—what he or she can manage independently and you acquiesce, consider yourself manipulated into an enabling position.
If your partner seems entitled to a fault, I would recommend that you first get a sense of the origin of this entitlement. Insight alone will not dissuade entitlement, but it does help to have some empathy for your partner so that you can more naturally balance a caring attitude with what will no doubt be perceived as harsh limit-setting. You must understand that most forms of limit setting will be perceived by your partner in a negative light; but this is only an attempt to keep you from setting up appropriate boundaries.
Once you set a fair limit or boundary you must follow through. If you give in to the pressure to return to your old dynamic, you will only set yourself up for another boundary violation. Avoid feeling guilty and remember that you probably have a history—born out of your own family of origin—of taking too much responsibility for others. Keep in mind that enabling will not help your partner or your relationship in the long run. I liken it to giving your child a foul-tasting antibiotic. The child may kick and scream as if you are torturing him or her, but if you fail to administer the antibiotic your child could become seriously ill. Allowing diffuse boundaries to linger can endanger your relationship.
Most importantly, it is vital that you see the futility of enabling an entitled partner. Why? First, the entitled are rarely satisfied, and even if your partner becomes so, it will be ephemeral—or until another need crops up. The entitled partner can be like a “black hole” of need. And second, you can never pay off a debt that you do not owe. Because your partner’s family of origin created the debt, it can only be repaid by them. An absurd concept since many of the original players will usually deny owing anything, or they may be deceased. It is up to your partner to grieve what is owed to him or her and refrain from trying to exact payment from present and future partners. To accomplish this daunting task, the collector must realize that we are all dealt a deck in life that we must learn to cope with. But to do so we must accept our fate and work hard to counter its most deleterious aspects. Sadly, many people are still trying to collect on a fantasy, and others are feeding these attempts. It may appear to be a noble endeavor, but it is often an adventure in futility.
Boszormenyi-Nagy, I. (1965). A theory of relationships: Experience and transactions. In I. Boszormenyi-Nagy & J. Framo (Eds.), Intensive family therapy: Theoretical and practical aspects (pp. 33-86), New York: Harper & Row.