How often do you hear someone say, “If my partner really loved me, they’d never…” followed by whatever “crime” their significant other has committed?
Sometimes it seems that human beings just can’t help themselves from testing the commitment of those they love the most. It’s a habit that can easily destroy an otherwise great relationship and something we need to avoid at all costs.
I recently overheard a young woman at a bus stop telling her friend that her partner couldn’t possibly love her because he had to ask her the date of her birthday.
I held my breath, waiting for her friend to say something reassuring about how some people have terrible memories, but instead, her friend responded, ‘That’s so disrespectful. There would be hell to pay if my husband did that!”
The two women then proceeded to verbally lacerate this terrible man who had deliberately gone out of his way to upset his partner, by failing to remember this “unforgettable” date in the calendar.
Of course, it’s disappointing when we feel that the person we love doesn’t value something that is important to us. But let me stress, it wasn’t that her birthday had happened and he’d failed to acknowledge or celebrate it. No. His misdemeanor was that he was filling in a form that required both their dates of birth and, apparently, he’d remembered the year she was born in and the month, but he couldn’t recall whether it was on the 15th or the 16th, or something close to that.
Now I was bound to empathize with the absentee partner because I have a dreadful memory for anything that has to do with numbers. Remembering dates, ages, or anniversaries of any kind has always been difficult for me—my brain just doesn’t work that way, and my friends and relatives are kind enough to recognize that I’m not “doing it on purpose.”
But I’m relieved to know that I’m not the only one who struggles in this way.
In a recent survey study conducted by OnePoll, in conjunction with an online party company called Evite, one in three people confessed that they have actually forgotten their partner’s birthday, and it seems that men are twice more likely to make this mistake than women. Nobody is saying that it is a good thing, but it simply shows that the brain of the sexes work differently, and, to no big surprise, individual human brains work differently too.
During an online discussion about this topic, I was amused to read one man’s comment: “Okay, he forgets your birthday. But I bet he never forgets your tyre pressure, which is way more important.” As someone who can never remember where I wore down my tyre pressure, I agreed that he had a good point.
So back to our young woman and her friend at the bus stop. How much better would it be if her friend had acknowledged and empathized with her disappointment, and then reassured her that human brains aren’t computers—not to mention to encourage her to think about the other things her partner does to show her how much he cares about her. But instead, her friend supported her in “whipping up a storm,” which possibly may have led to an argument in that relationship on that night.
Perhaps that sounds a bit far-fetched. But according to the survey study mentioned above, one in five couples had a fight as a result of a forgotten birthday, and, far more worryingly, 12 percent had broken off a relationship because of this. Maybe many of those weren’t the strongest of relationships in the first place, but it is also possible there’s someone out there wondering, why did they break up with the only person who woke them every morning with a kiss, a croissant, and a cup of tea?
Here are seven things to remember before we set our partner up for failure:
1. Our brains are busy.
In many cases, our partner’s tendency to forget our birthday or some other anniversary or detail that is important to us is the result of a stressed-out and busy mind. It might be anxious about the upcoming appraisal at work, concerned about that website the kids managed to get into, worried about the mortgage, noticing a strange noise coming from the car, trying not to forget to starve the dog before its visit to the vet, wondering if their sister is lying when she says she’s not worrying about the results of those tests…and a whole heap of things which are part of everyday living, and take up so much room inside our heads.
So unless you are in a relationship with a narcissist (and if you are, please don’t delay reaching out for support), it’s highly unlikely that your partner deliberately set out to forget something that means so much to you.
2. We aren’t our partner.
We need to remember that our partner is a separate person. They have their own priorities, their own interests, and their own unique way of seeing and of being in the world. They may love us to bits but not be into the same things that we are.
We may laugh at their obsession with their favorite band, their football team, or TV show, but meanwhile, they’re quietly thinking, “If my partner really loved me, they’d remember to record that for me,” which may simply never occur to us.
If something really matters to you, don’t turn it into a test. Tell your partner about it. If that’s your birthday, make sure they put it into their diary and on their phone, that you write it on the kitchen calendar, and give them reminders well in advance. Keep it light and a little jokey, but help them get it right for you. And don’t forget to ask what really matters to them—that way, it’s a win-win for both partners.
3. Recognize different reactions.
You may have grown up in a family where birthdays and anniversaries were treated as major celebrations, but your partner’s family may have ignored and downplayed these occasions.
Their response may be to dismiss the painful memories this conjured up by trying to distance themselves from these events. Don’t make it worse for them by adding to their distress. Lead by example by gently (and without going over the top) showing them that you like to use special dates to celebrate how much they mean to you.
4. Learn about “love languages.”
You may have come across the concept of the Five Love Languages, but if not, there’s plenty of information about them online and you can even take a quiz to find out more about your partner’s and your own love language.
They were defined by Dr. Gary Chapman who researched the different ways individuals show love and how they like love to be shown to them. For many couples, discovering that their partner has a different love language to their own has been a real eye-opener and has saved many relationships.
5. Avoid comparisons.
I used to envy a colleague whose husband organized big parties and surprises for her birthday until I discovered that their marriage was shaky and they had bitter rows on the remaining days of the year. He came from a family where big birthdays were an important tradition regardless of the state of the relationship, and he was still arranging her birthday party while she was talking to her lawyer about leaving him.
6. Don’t get mad. Get generous.
A client once told me that his husband had forgotten to buy him an anniversary present, so he wouldn’t bother buying him a birthday present either. When I asked my client, “Do you love your husband?” he seemed surprised by my question. “Of course I love him!” he told me, but he needed to make a point. I asked, “And just what do you expect him to ‘learn’ from that point?” He thought about it for a moment, then gave a small laugh before replying, ‘That I’m a petty person. That I always have to be the one who is right.”
I asked him what he was going to do about it, and he said he was going to buy tickets for his husband’s favorite band, which he eventually did, and, apparently, they had a great time. My client seemed considerably happier the next time he spoke about his relationship.
7. Choose kindness.
We always have choices about how we respond to other people’s behavior. If we choose to judge someone’s love for us based on the frailty of the human memory, or the different priorities we each give to the same traditions and events, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment. Instead, let’s choose to be kind to ourselves, to our partner, and to our relationship.
Let’s put empathy, awareness, and forgiveness at the top of our priorities.