Emotional Health

Knowing Your Value: When to Stay, When to Leave

Mika Brzezinski’s book, Know Your Value helps women advocate for themselves in the workplace. She describes her own history of tolerating lower pay than her male counterparts, for far too long. She also addresses some of the issues that have traditionally made women less able to fight for their own rights.

Among them, is lack of self worth. Women are much more likely than men to doubt and underestimate themselves. If you don’t love yourself, you need to rely too much on others to feel worthy, and you may also be inviting others not to value you as well. You may already have had relationships in which you are treated badly, or may be in one now.

Sometimes, it can be subtle—something as small as not quite getting the attention you deserve.

Mary, for example, had made it clear to her family she didn’t expect nice gifts, and so she rarely got them. Her husband did not acknowledge Valentine’s Day or their anniversary, and her adult children sometimes didn’t bother with Christmas or birthday presents. They had learned “Mom doesn’t mind.” These were not selfish people, but they were busy with their own lives and had learned their lesson well, from Mary herself.

Mary reasoned, somewhat accurately, that her family would be startled and confused if she suddenly became more demanding. But as she herself learned to treat herself better, the others followed suit. She finally planned a festive party, for her 60th birthday, and with some prodding her family honored the occasion appropriately.

Mistreatment can be blatant and dangerous, as in the case of abusive relationships. But there are many ways you can give the message that you don’t count when you yourself feel that way.

As in Mary’s case, sometimes the people you are close to are kind and loving, but they have taken their cues from you when it comes to how much attention you need. But some relationships, while not abusive, as not benign or loving either.  Nora Ephron pointed out in Brzezinski’s book that women value loyalty and often tend to stay too long when they are not being valued. They also tend to doubt their future prospects. Many worry that leaving a bad relationship may leave them with no relationship at all.

If you don’t value yourself, you are vulnerable to staying too long in a bad situation. Even when you are not getting the love, approval, and support you want as someone who can’t give it to herself, you may be worried about giving up the official “endorsement” of your worth that you think marriage or couplehood provides.

I have known many women who have married prematurely in order to gain the status of being “loved” by someone. If you are lucky and haven’t chosen badly, this can work out—meaning you stay together. But for a relationship to work out well, you must choose someone who truly loves and values you and vice versa.

It also means that he or she values you for the right reasons, reasons that don’t shift with changing fortunes. “Love is not love which alters when alterations it finds,” as Shakespeare said.

Sometimes we find we didn’t really know someone well enough and love diminishes as you learn more about him, and vice versa. But the vow of “for better or worse” is not just an ideal. They are many valleys ahead for every couple, and you deserve a partner who values your essential self enough to endure those.

A fit young woman once consulted me about a very specific problem. Her boyfriend, she told me, thought she was too fat and she wanted help finding out why she couldn’t lose enough weight to please him. I told her that I couldn’t help her with that specific goal because it was antithetical to emotional health, but that I would be happy to help her understand why she tolerated such behavior.

I’m sure you know men who warn their wives they must never get fat or “let themselves go.” You are not treating yourself right if you tolerate someone who truly believes this. Not only are you depriving yourself of the opportunity for a securely loving relationship, you are putting yourself at risk. The middle-aged man who trades in his wife for a newer model is an old story.

Should you leave? When? The eminent psychiatrist Peter Kramer wrote a book on this topic in which he explored the idea that sometimes mood disorders cause bad marriages rather than vice versa. He argues that since we have a greater awareness and understanding of the prevalence of mild depression and anxiety in mostly functional people, we can now see that in some marital woes, depression may be the cause of the problems rather than the result.

Traditionally, it was assumed that unhappy marriages made people sad and depressed. In many cases that is still true, but what if one partner has an unrecognized mood disorder that influences his or her behavior? That can be the cause of many issues between couples.

For example, lack of libido is a very common symptom of depression, and it also a very common cause of marital conflict. What if your partner is not interested in having sex with you not because he isn’t attracted to you anymore (or wants someone else!) but because he is suffering from unacknowledged depression? This can make a big difference in not only how you look at the problem, but also, what you choose to do about it.

Though it may exacerbate your feelings of not being good enough or worthy if your partner is not sexually desirous or responsive, if you and he can understand it as part of an illness, one that has been shown to have significant biological aspects, it can change your perspective. But if you don’t love yourself, you may be quick to assume the fault lies with you.

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