On a plane ride recently, a woman and I got to talking, and at one point, she gave me a very valuable piece of information: that the most important concept to hold on to while maintaining a serious relationship is to give continuously. She said even if you don't always receive what you need from your significant other, you must never stop giving because loving someone means doing just that.
It was a wonderful insight, which seemed to be reinforced during a lecture by Sara Rigler, titled "The Secret to Happiness," that I attended soon afterward. Although I'm not sure I agree with everything Rigler said, she provided an equation that really made me think: giving equals love equals happiness.
Can this be true? Can such a simple equation really lead to happiness in love? I'm not sure that the answer is so simple; however, the idea does have substantial merit.
I thought about a story that a friend, Leah, 25, told me. She explained that at the beginning of her newest relationship, she was not quite sure her boyfriend was as committed as she was. She knew he was not seeing anyone else, but she also knew that his career goals involved extensive traveling, and that these plans came well before her.
Though she debated ending the relationship, she decided that he was worth an attempt. She continued to give him a lot of her time and emotional attention, to prove he was a priority.
"I had strong feelings for him from the moment we starting dating. Although I had my doubts that the relationship might work, the only way I knew to show how much I cared was to give him as much as possible. I did his laundry when he left it at my place because I knew how much he hated doing it. I made sure to have his favorite foods in my fridge when he came over, and I brought him dinner when he didn't have time to make it.
"These are all things I still do for him today. Every time I see him, I try to come up with something special in the hopes of surprising him. It makes me so happy to know that giving more and more to someone I love not only makes him happy, but it makes me happier within myself."
Leah told me that the more she gave her boyfriend, the more he gave her in return. The couple has now developed a strong pattern of giving, and she said there came a point in their relationship that she knew it would likely succeed.
Knowing the Other's Needs
I talked this whole giving idea over with some of my friends at dinner recently, and here's what some had to say.
"If you want a healthy relationship, you better know [his or her] needs, and you should fulfill them as best you can," said Jason, 27.
"Giving is knowing what the person wants before you ask for it," said Melissa, 40. Jason asked Melissa, "How do you know what someone really wants?"
"It's like having a baby. The baby cries, you need to figure out if they are hungry or need a diaper change. It's the same for a significant other; you kind of just get to know the person from being with them for so long that you know them better than they know themselves.
"For example, if they had an upsetting day at work, would you badger them as soon as they got home? Not if you knew that person needed decompressing time. Instead of asking what's wrong, you give them space and time. You need to learn what the person needs and wants, and you need to know it may not be something tangible."
I then asked Melissa, "What if you just met the guy? How do you know he's a giving person?"
Melissa explained that she's very particular about the way she likes to be kissed. So, a good indicator for her is how a guy would react if she tells him she doesn't like the way he kisses.
"If I try to show him the way I like to kiss — and if he's receptive to that — then I know he'll be receptive to other things. But if he's not, then most likely he won't be receptive to my other needs. Basically, if he can't do this one simple thing, then he's gone!"
Avoid Being Bitter
The topic then moved to those who have long passed the age when they had hoped or planned on getting married. How do you tell a person to give when someone is not happy with being single? Jason suggested that maybe a good way to prevent yourself from becoming jaded or bitter in regards to dating is to just "give more."
"When you allow yourself to become jaded, all you think about is what you're not getting and how terrible your life is. If instead you choose to give, you become outside of yourself and therefore don't think so much about what you need," said Jason.
Will the giving equation really work?
Adam, 34, also sees the importance of giving.
"I do believe that if you care about someone, you should do things for them that they like whether it makes sense or not. For example, if she asks you to get something at the store and you think it's a waste of time or money, but you do it anyway because you know it's important to her. I really believe the more you give the more you care."
Julie, 31, thinks that giving involves a physical and emotional side. She's often bought boyfriends items they wouldn't think to buy themselves. But she also focused on the importance of nontangible giving.
"On the emotional level, giving means being honest with your partner. When you're in a relationship, you're not only giving your heart and mind, you are giving someone your true self — who you are today, and who you want to be tomorrow.
"Sometimes, that means letting yourself be more vulnerable or, if you are normally an intense person, it means not being intense all the time. Giving means breaking the barrier of your comfort zone because you are truly giving your self."