There’s nothing particularly pleasing about being a people-pleaser in a relationship. Your needs and desires go unmet, and all the while, your partner may start to feel like they’ve never met the “real” you.
Changing your ways isn’t easy, though, because most people-pleasers have been doing it for years, said Abigail Makepeace, a marriage and family therapist in Austin, Texas.
A child learns how to people-please by first learning how to parent-please. In relationships, they follow a similar script, developing a knack for partner-pleasing.
“After all that time, prioritizing what you need can feel emotionally risky,” Makepeace said. “Standing up for yourself may even feel selfish.”
“If you identify as a people-pleaser, it is important to know that it is normal to experience fear or even guilt when sharing how you truly feel, but it will get easier with time,” she told HuffPost.
Below, Makepeace and other therapists share five ways that putting your own needs on the back burner hurts your relationship ― and how to change that dynamic for good.
1. You may start to feel resentment from constantly putting others’ relationship needs first.
It’s a long weekend, but instead of taking it easy and recuperating from an arduous work week like you want to, you agree to a jam-packed schedule. You grin and bear it because it’s what your social-butterfly spouse wants. But eventually something’s got to give: If your partner doesn’t realize and acknowledge your constant sacrificing, it’s bound to irk you at some point, said Nicole Saunders, a therapist in Charlotte, North Carolina.
“All that people-pleasing can lead to quite an imbalance in the relationship satisfaction ratio,” Saunders told HuffPost.
The fix: The best way to change this dynamic is through honesty and open communication, Saunders said. In the above example, you would tell your spouse that Sunday has to be “you time” this weekend or you’re going to bust.
“The people-pleaser needs to make their partner aware of this challenge and ask for help in making small changes to the pattern over time,” Saunders said. “Working on the problem together can actually build a connection and strengthen the relationship.”
2. You avoid necessary and healthy conflict.
Contrary to popular belief, happy couples absolutely do fight. People-pleasers may avoid arguments at all costs, but a case can be made that the occasional argument is not only healthy, it can strengthen a relationship, said Natalie Moore, a therapist in Los Angeles.
“When couples address conflict consciously, they can improve the quality of the relationship by compromising and actively seeking solutions together,” she said. “They fear that if they confront an issue head-on or assert a need, that they’ll be seen as ‘needy’ or ‘difficult’ and that they’ll be rejected for it.”
The fix: Lean into conflict. If your mother-in-law’s involvement in your relationship has been a long-term issue, speak up. If a disagreement arises from that, don’t think of the argument as a bad thing. Instead, view it as an integral, natural part of loving your partner. (And having a relationship that doesn’t have your mother-in-law as a third wheel.)
“Remind yourself that the point of arguing isn’t to hurt or reject a partner, but to move through issues and to come to resolutions as a team,” Moore said.
3. You don’t get to show your partner your authentic self.
When you’re constantly people-pleasing, you lose out on the chance to show the real, authentic you.
“Instead, they see a ’version’ of you that solely reflects the needs of friends, family and colleagues,” Makepeace said. “True intimacy requires sharing who you truly are.”
People-pleasers often start to wonder how they can trust their partner’s feelings for them, when the version of themselves they’ve been presenting to the world is so inauthentic, said Marie Land, a psychologist based in Washington, D.C.
“I’ve worked with clients over the years that are always trying to be their best version of themselves,” she said. “As a result, they often wonder, Would my partner like me the same if they knew the real me? If you’re a people-pleaser, it’s hard to shut off that thought.”
The fix: To address this issue, Land said to “think of your natural people-pleasing on a scale of 1-10 (10 being Miss Sunshine and Rainbows), and if you’re at a 9, bring it down to a 7. Keep going as the opportunities present themselves.”
It might help to ask yourself: What would happen if I wasn’t so agreeable right now? Land also recommends that you sit down to journal and explore what those fears are.
“When you’re people-pleasing, there’s usually some type of underlying anxiety or fear,” she said. “If you find that there are really strong fears (He wouldn’t like me as much and would break up with me, for example), come up with two less extreme alternatives to your worst fear: If I wasn’t such a people-pleaser he might not care or notice. We might become closer because I’m acting more natural.”
This kind of introspective work can be frustrating and challenging, but it has major payoffs. As Makepeace explained, “it’s from this place that true communication and intimate connection with a partner can thrive.”
4. You neglect your self-care.
People-pleasers often believe that neglecting their self-care only has negative effects for one person: themselves. But when you fail to make your own needs a priority, other people suffer the consequences too, Moore said.
“If your physical health, mental health or financial health suffers, your partner is likely to feel the shock waves of that as well,” she said.
The fix: Make it a goal to take responsibility for your self-care. To start, take an honest inventory of your self-care routine up to this point and see how it’s measuring up to your needs.
“What does your sleep schedule look like? Are you eating three nourishing meals a day plus snacks? Do you take your lunch breaks, vacations and sick days from work? Do you move your body in ways that feel good?” Moore said. “If you’re falling short in any of these areas, make a commitment to yourself to improve. You deserve it.”
5. You probably have less time for yourself and your relationship.
If you’re a people-pleaser, you probably don’t just have a hard time saying no to your partner. There are the co-workers who beg you to go to every happy hour, the friends who guilt you into unaffordable girls’ trips, your parents who expect you to drop everything to come help them around the house.
Watching you cave over and over again is likely frustrating to your partner, especially if they sense there’s an imbalance in how much time and energy you have left to contribute to your relationship, Makepeace said.
“A partner wants to feel as though they have priority in your life,” she said. “It can be especially challenging for your partner to see you sacrifice your well-being in order to help others.”
For your relationship, and for yourself, it’s important to set boundaries that create more balance in your life.
The fix: “You might begin by creating days or times during the week when attending to others is off limits,” Makepeace said. “For example, you and your partner might choose to set an immovable weekly standing date. Or you could agree to stop volunteering your help, and wait to be asked before deciding whether or not to come to someone else’s aid.”
Ultimately, if you take small steps to guard your own energy and time, it will help to nurture your relationship and yourself, Makepeace said ― something that will please you and your partner.