I stand before you on this Valentine’s Day, immensely grateful for the wisdom I found rather late in my life. I turned 40 this year. And if I could tell my 20-something self that I would be 36 before getting married, I probably would’ve lost my marbles. Or more likely, I wouldn’t have believed it, because I was blind to the relationship truths I’m going to share with you today…
- You must be better to yourself, to be better in your relationships. If you care less about yourself than you do about the person with whom you’re in a relationship, one of two things is going to happen:
Your significant other will make the logical observation that they can take more than their fair share in the relationship….and they will.
You’ll unwittingly mix-up the things that are your responsibility, with things that are your significant other’s responsibility, like your happiness, your fulfillment or your relief from pain during moments of stress. If you aren’t caring for those things, they are needs that aren’t being met. Your happiness and fulfillment are in your hands, and yours alone.
- If you want a fulfilling romantic relationship — Be and have a true “partner”.
So far, I have intentionally avoided the more efficient term of “partner” for a reason. If you care more about anyone else than you do for yourself, you can’t have a partner. You will have relationships with people who can morph between a fantasy or scapegoat, but not a partner. You want a teammate, not a savior or a validator. Power differentials can be fun in short playful bursts, like flirting, but they should not be the bedrock of your time together.
- Remember: You always have power and it’s your duty to use it.
You don’t get to fall apart or abdicate the job of owning (taking responsibility for) your feelings on a regular basis. Yes in some cases (job loss, death, child melt down) you deserve to lean on someone…even spill on them a little bit. And that’s a wonderful resource between partners. But it can’t be daily habit.
This is something I must work hard to do in my closest relationships at times. It’s the birthplace of the “bucket” idea. Thinking of my bucket helps me remember that I can be close to those I love, but I still must contain myself, and own my feelings. When I’m stressed, I can get to a place of believing that my feelings are everybody’s truth. But they’re not. My truth is separate from my partner’s. They both deserve space, and by giving it, they each get respect.
- You are most open to connection when you contain yourself.
When I was searching for my partner, there were many moments that I really felt powerless. The whole process felt out of my control, because I had no way of containing (i.e. feeling and directing) my power. In my relationships, I incorrectly believed that the power was in the hands of my significant other. So I wasted lots of energy trying to exert the other person’s influence instead of my own.
My happiness felt out of my control, because my power was invisible to me. I needed to take oversight of myself and my power to act. Relationships won’t give you happiness. That’s for you to create and own… over and over again. When you do a good job with that responsibility, other people have every reason in the world to connect with you. When you aren’t containing yourself, you can end up disrespecting your partner by demanding more influence than you’re entitled to. That can push anyone away. Healthy connection happens when you respect and celebrate the space between you and your partner.
- Don’t be different than who you are – Be more of who you are, and own it.
This takes practice if you’ve been too focused on other people for a while. If you are more connected to your moment-to-moment truth, yes it will mean you feel the difference more. You will be more aware of when and how you may be having a different experience than someone else. And yes that means you may feel distress because of it. But owning and responding to that distress is exactly how you hang onto your power and ability to choose.
Here’s a personal example: For years I held resentment at my husband’s messiness and lack of urgency to address disorder, like a sink full of dishes. I tried being patient, hoping that he would someday join me in my aversion for clutter and messiness. That never happened. So I would periodically succumb to angry outbursts proclaiming how unfair it was that he didn’t care the way that I did.
But that was exactly it. He didn’t care about clutter. A Zen home was not his priority – It was mine. I was the one who valued it. That value was part of who I was, not him. When I finally owned that difference, it was an incredible relief. It unblocked my power. Instead of being stuck in anger, I was free to feel healthy entitlement to pride about the housework I contributed to our home. That let me feel more entitlement to ask for contributions from him in other areas. It was the beginning of a true and healthy give and take between us.
To wrap up, I have just one final thought. Abusive relationships are of course the exception to all of the previous points. Relationships must be assessed before you invest. Staying visible to you lets you do that. You simply must assess a person, before you try to team up with them. If they don’t respect that you both are separate and valuable people, who each deserve space and respect, that person is looking for a servant or a mirror… and you deserve more than either of those things.
Jessica is a psychotherapist, relationship and addiction expert, and creator of The Visible Self ® and VisibleU™ system. Over the last 17 years she has helped hundreds of busy adults create healthier habits and more satisfying relationships.
Jessica received her Master’s in Applied Psychology from New York University, and completed mediation training at the Columbia University School of Law. She has held numerous clinical roles, managed clinical operations for a national EAP, and advised executives on employee-relations concerns at Fortune 1000 companies. She lives in St. Louis, Missouri with her husband and a master instructor of mindful living …their Border Collie/Pointer-mix “Abby”.