Why a healthy relationship starts with the ability to receive

Els van Steijn
Mar 24 · 7 min read

What exactly is the difference between giving and receiving in relationships? According to Els van Steijn (50) — coach, family & organisation constellation facilitator and author of the book ‘The Fountain, find your place’ — the ability to receive is essential to be able to connect with another person. In healthy relationships there is a constant settling of giving and receiving. If this is out of balance for a while, it’s not a problem. But at a certain point, the balance must be restored again.

You can give to someone in all kinds of ways: in the form of practical household support, buying a bunch of flowers for someone, taking over work for a colleague or donating money. Also realise the impact of non-material ‘gifts’, like coming to the rescue at a critical moment, fully focusing on the here and now with the person you are talking to, that look of understanding, the encouragement so the other person manages to keep at what he’s supposed to do. Giving is also offering your genuine apologies, keeping to the agreements made when you’d secretly rather be doing something else, and displaying loyalty to someone not present. You don’t only give positive gifts. You also project things non-verbally, that can sometimes be a little unkind or perhaps telling. You also give your anger, your arrogance, your impatience or even your absence or disinterest. Because giving often feels more comfortable than receiving, we decided to talk about it with Els. But why is that? Els believes that when you’re not able to receive, it’s nearly impossible to have a fulfilling romantic relationship.

WHAT DOES RECEIVING MEAN IN RELATIONSHIPS AND FAMILY SYSTEMS?

Els: Receiving is the ability to receive everything that is there. So, both the positive and the not so positive, including everything you so long for but do not get. You receive a wonderful gift, the farewell speech when leaving, a love letter, signs of friendship and the love of your nearest and dearest. For some people, accepting a compliment is an enormous challenge. You also receive things you’d rather not receive, such as a cancellation, gossip, a stab in the back, being ignored, being rejected and sometimes people overstepping the mark. The art is to receive everything that is there, so that it doesn’t infect your life like a bad wound. Always leave what belongs to the other person with them; that nasty comment, the aggressive behaviour, the addiction etc. Of course, you may always give feedback about the behaviour of the other person and if needed, set boundaries. You leave the responsibility for the behaviour of the other person with him or her. You are, however, always responsible for dealing with what you unwillingly get thrown at you. You may feel hurt, lonely, small or unseen. These feelings belong to you and you need to process them instead of hiding them away. Otherwise, a difficult situation may well fester for too long. And as I described in my last article, ‘what you don’t carry will be passed on’.

WHY IS RECEIVING SO DIFFICULT?

Els: Imagine that your partner says to you, ‘You’ve been working, and I see you need some rest. I’ll do the shopping, cook, clear up afterwards and throw some laundry in the washing machine.’ It’s remarkable how many people have difficulty accepting positive things. In theory, you’re lounging on the sofa while elsewhere in the house things are being organised for you. This makes a lot of people feel really guilty, meaning they don’t truly accept what is being given to them. Feeling guilty detracts from being able to relax and accepting your partner’s gift. Often you won’t be able to stick it out, and despite everything, still clear out the dishwasher or do some other household chore. Your partner will perhaps become irritated, because he or she really wants to give, and the gift is not now being entirely accepted. Think about how much you like it when someone else accepts something from you. You wouldn’t like it either, if the other person refused to accept what you’d like to give to them lovingly and willingly…

WHAT IS THE EFFECT OF GIVING AND RECEIVING ON RELATIONSHIPS?

Els: What I’ve realised, through trial and error, is that relationships are established on the ability of both involved to receive, and not in the giving. Take a look at your partner, or your friendships. What are your strongest and most precious relationships? The relationships in which both you, and the other person, can receive. I used to think that as long as I gave, there was a relationship… and strangely enough, people would keep leaving me. Back then, I was unable to receive. And if you can’t receive, a healthy person will ultimately walk away from you. Because it’s not possible to keep receiving and not give anything (as it’s not accepted). Eventually then, the other person will also stop receiving. If the partner is ‘needy’, he or she will keep hanging on to you as they like receiving a lot and having to give little. Sooner or later you will run empty. In nurturing and healthy relationships, there is a constant settlement of giving and receiving. It’s not a problem if it’s out of balance for a while, but at a certain point the balance does have to restored. Only with parents and children should there always be an imbalance between giving and receiving. Parents give more than children can ever give back. The children pass what they have received through to their children and society in general.

BUT WHY THEN DOES ‘GIVING’ FEEL SO GOOD FOR A LOT OF PEOPLE?

Els: Giving is generally held in higher regard than receiving. Whilst receiving is actually much more difficult and braver than giving. Giving is easy and safe. The other person owes you something meaning you have a certain influence over them. This makes you feel good about yourself and you experience a feeling of ‘innocence’. The other person, who can receive, will start to feel guilty because of the receiving, and so will give back. If you accept this, the other person then feels free again, but you feel guilty and in turn will give again. And so it goes on. Creating a wonderful ‘turnover’ of giving and receiving, back and forth. Because you ‘like’ each other, you give a little more each time meaning a rich, lively exchange takes place. This also happens with the negative. If you have something nasty done to you, you’ll often give the other person something unpleasant back. The other person then feels justified to again do something unpleasant back, and so it continues until, in extreme cases, world wars are unleashed. This pattern could stop if you ‘pay back’ the other person slightly less harshly than how they’ve treated you.

WHAT IS THE ADVANTAGE OF BEING ABLE TO RECEIVE?

Els: Being able to receive gives you fundamentally nurturing relationships. Moreover, you can only give something (on) if you yourself have received and accepted. After all, you can’t pass on what you haven’t got. As child, you have to accept from your parents otherwise you cannot grow up. If you can’t receive from them (and thus reject them), you will lack the ability to truly receive. In my book, you can read about how you can learn to receive. In essence, it is accepting (receiving) your parents completely for who they are, including everything: the positive, the less positive and also what you so long for but will not get. It seems that only if you accept them as your parents, and they are allowed to have you as their child, are you truly able to deeply accept all the good that is available to you in other (business) relationships. If you receive plenty, you also have plenty to give on.

ARE THERE EXERCISES I CAN DO TO LEARN TO RECEIVE?

Els: Tricky question. Firstly, you have to be aware of when you give and when you receive. You sometimes think you are giving, whilst the other person doesn’t experience it as such. Of course, there are ‘tricks’ you can use to make the act of receiving easier. For example, accepting a compliment by looking someone in the eye and genuinely saying ‘thank you’. Subsequently, you’ll experience how that compliment feels in your body. But in order to do so, you need to be able to inhabit your body. If you’re a ‘wandering head’, you’ll have less access to your body anyway. Or when receiving unpleasant things, it’s advisable to really allow your feelings in (thus: be able to receive) so you’re able to process them instead of pushing them away, covering them up or denying them. How you can do this, is explained in my book about the fountain. The skill of receiving is only truly available when you ‘accept’ your parents. Only when you can do this, will receiving in other relationships also become easier.

WHEN DO YOU KNOW WHEN YOUR OWN BALANCE BETWEEN GIVING AND RECEIVING IS IN HARMONY?

Els: Every person has a kind of equilibrium organ in this area. This sense indicates exactly the status of the dynamic balance between giving and receiving. You feel innocent if you’ve given and guilty if you’ve taken (received). Be careful that you don’t go too far in the so-called ‘good little girl/boy syndrome’. Making yourself guilty is part of life. If you always want to remain innocent, then you’ll remain a child and not grow up. Remaining a child is not good for you, or the world. Sometimes people have the feeling they’ve fallen short. They’ll then demand this from the other person or ‘rescue’ others in the hope that they will get back what they themselves have missed out on. Cancelling out your ‘deficit’ in this way is doomed to failure. To give up the false hope that a deficit will ever be settled and accept ‘your loss’ is often much more effective and healthier. My experience is that reality is the most healing, no matter how hard it sometimes is. Saying ‘yes’ to that gives you strength and dignity.

For more info and the book ‘The Fountain’, visit www.elsvansteijn.com

Els van Steijn

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Els van Steijn (1969) is specialised in the systemic perspective. She is a coach, family- & organization constellator, (bestseller) writer and keynote speaker.

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