Relationships aren’t just a two way street, sometimes they can look more like one of those knotty highway interchanges in LA. The way you interact with your partner is obviously pretty important to the health of the relationship, but the way you interact with yourself is just as crucial and the two are in fact often interconnected.
Often in relationships, the patterns that play out between ourselves and our partners point to something going on in our relationship with ourself. As an example, often when one partner is very critical or spends a lot of energy nagging their partner, they are also holding themselves up to impossibly high standards and being critical and derisive when they fail to meet them. This could be around any number of things including body image, work, parenting, finances etc.
In relationships we are only able to control our own behaviour, and the best thing we can do is reflect on the way we are behaving and make changes if it isn’t in line with who we really want to be. So with that in mind, here are five tips for how to bring your best self to your relationship!
Self-soothe – taking responsibility for our own upset feelings is crucial to healthy relationships. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t get a cuddle and some loving words from your partner – you should! What it means is that when you feel yourself getting upset, angry or scared, you take a moment to acknowledge how you’re feeling, check in with what’s going on in your body and practice your favourite self-care strategy: maybe taking three deep breaths, or imagining being at your favourite beach, or placing a hand over your heart or your belly and just breathing into the discomfort. From there you’ll be better able to connect on an emotional level with whatever is going on.
Ask for what you want – if you notice yourself feeling resentful, this probably isn’t happening. Sometimes this is about something happening that doesn’t feel good for you, so next time, instead of jumping into criticism or flopping into victim mode, try the ‘I feel/about what/I need’ formula. An example of the formula is: I feel unsupported when you leave the dishes on the counter, I need you to wash them up. It feels a little unnatural when you start but tends to go down better for all involved than some combination of criticism and huffiness! The trickier part of asking for what you want relates to those deeper things that you might not have realised are missing, like more connection, more one on one time, more support. Journaling can be a good way to identify some of these.
Flip your perspective – research into couples has shown that when unhappy couples are asked about their partner’s character traits, they assign a whole load of negative traits to their partner while assigning a whole lot of positive ones to themselves but when they are happy, the partner gets positive traits too. This shows that this tendency is not so much about stable character traits as it is about our perspective in the moment and it does not help us in resolving issues in relationships. So next time you are thinking of your partner’s negative traits, try this little exercise for shifting up your perspective: think of the trait you have assigned to your partner, for example, selfishness. Now think of an example of your partner having been the opposite of selfish. Next, think of a time you have been selfish, and then a time you have been the opposite of selfish and just notice how it feels before diving back into the interaction.
Take responsibility – this one goes hand in hand with perspective. Next time you find yourself in an argument with your partner and feel yourself being criticised or blamed, stop, revisit point 1 and self-soothe, then have a look at the situation to see if there is some little part of it that you can take responsibility for. This isn’t about saying that everything is your fault, but rather about recognising that relationships are complex and taking responsibility for your part. For example, let’s say you were late home from work because of a big project and that made you both late to a social event that was important to your partner and he or she was very angry. It would be easy to flip into defensive mode and shout back about your responsibilities and stress at work, however an example of taking responsibility might be saying “I’m sorry I was late, I know how important this is to you, I should have phoned you to let you know what was going on”.
Practice appreciation – healthy relationships are ones in which there is a culture of appreciation and respect, and this starts at home! Try a daily practice of journaling. You can start small, with just three things: one thing you appreciated about yourself, one thing you appreciated about your partner and one thing you appreciated about something or someone else!