Are You ‘The Ken’ in Your Relationship?

In the cinematic world of Barbie, Ken would do anything for Barbie, and his life revolves around securing her time and attention.

The Kens are just Kens, and the Barbies are “everything,” a thought-provoking satire of our reality where these gender roles have been reversed for centuries.

There is some deeper wisdom to be found in Barbie and Ken’s dynamic. Being a “Ken” can have the positive connotation of being a supportive and uplifting partner, someone who is not threatened by their partner’s success and can step back when it is the other’s time to shine.

However, if you are always “just Ken,” or exclusively playing the role of the giver in your relationship, irrespective of your gender identity, it can lead to deep-seated anger, resentment, and even an existential crisis regarding your sense of self. Relationships in the real world tend to struggle under the weight of extensive self-sacrifice by either partner.

Here are three reasons why you play the role of the giver a little too often, and how you can create a more balanced and loving connection.

1. You Are in a Power Struggle With Your Partner

Who holds the power in your relationship is a question that can make or break your bond. A 2015 study found that the more power you hold in a relationship, the less likely you are to make sacrifices for your partner. Thus, an imbalanced power dynamic can spawn the roles of a perpetual giver on one hand and a partner who rarely reciprocates on the other.

This can happen in multiple ways. Notice, for example, how differences in gender, age, level of education, occupation, and financial status affect your relationship. When one partner holds less power in any of these areas, they could be sacrificing a lot more, possibly due to feeling like they are not at the same level as their partner, which elicits the need to do more to be good enough for them.

To correct this imbalance, assess its origins. You can then address it openly in your relationship to find new ways to operate more fairly or use this knowledge to create a more equal partnership in the future.

It is also important to develop your personal sense of power because it enables you to seek out partnerships that you deserve, where both partners are willing to give and receive equally.

2. You Have Lower Self-Control Than Your Partner

Research has found that individuals with low self-control are more willing to make sacrifices in relationships than those with high self-control.

A 2016 study further discovered that having greater self-control allows you to create more of a balance between what you need and what your partner needs, ensuring that you are not always just being a giver at your own expense. This balance leads to greater personal and relational well-being.

A good starting point to build more self-control is to reflect on the following questions about where the need to over-give comes from:

  • Is this something that you have learned to do as a result of your childhood or other life experiences? Does it continue to serve you as an adult?
  • What are you trying to gain from constantly being a giver, and what do you lose?
  • How does continuous giving impact you and your relationship?

Learning that it is OK to be the receiver and setting boundaries with yourself around giving can help you exercise self-control. It may also help to pause and reflect on your intentions before making a sacrifice.

3. You Want to Avoid Conflict With Your Partner

A 2012 study shows that “willingness to sacrifice” and “accommodation” are pro-relationship behaviors. Accommodation refers to making compromises, being flexible, and adapting to changing circumstances in relationships. However, the motivation behind these acts determines their true impact.

The study found that the intention to avoid pain, conflict, or undesirable outcomes (avoidance-motivation) leads to more sacrificial behavior, whereas accommodation is a result of seeking out positive relationship outcomes such as greater intimacy and closeness (approach-motivation).

Further, only approach-motivated reasons led to greater personal well-being and relationship quality while avoidance-motivated behaviors proved to be detrimental to a relationship.

One example of the benefits of approach-motivation can be found in individuals who are highly motivated to respond to a romantic partner’s needs. They tend to experience positive emotions while making a sacrifice when it comes from an authentic, willing place.

On the other hand, anyone who gives too much will inevitably burn out. It is natural to experience negative emotions due to incurring personal costs after a sacrifice, and it is best not to hide them. Research shows that concealing these emotions from your partner leads to poorer relationship quality.

Thus, when it comes to giving in your relationship, being honest with yourself and your partner is the way to go. Instead of avoiding conflict or unpleasantness, you can learn to approach with curiosity and acknowledge what each partner needs, allowing the relationship to grow in a fruitful direction.

To create healthier relationships, embrace the fluidity of roles you can play and take turns being both Barbie and Ken. Should you find yourself perpetually cast as Ken, you may need to address your power dynamic with your partner, cultivate self-control, and engage with conflicts sincerely.

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