I wish I’d discovered them sooner.
May 28, 2023
I’m a psychotherapist. You’d think I’d have mastered relationships before I jumped into this line of work.
But it has taken me two marriages pre-psychotherapist career change and countless years of navel-gazing and working with others to figure out what it takes to make a relationship/partnership work.
As they say, if you want to learn something, teach it.
Here we go.
1. Understand that the only person you can change is you.
When I accepted that, other puzzle pieces fell into place.
I stopped waiting for them to change when I realized why I wanted them to change.
I didn’t want it solely for their benefit. I wanted just as much or more for them to stop doing whatever it was I didn’t like so that I could stop feeling uncomfortable.
I stopped believing that something is true just because I think it.
All my thoughts represent my (or someone else’s) ideas and opinions. They’re not facts or immutable truths.
I stopped assuming it’s someone else’s fault when I feel uncomfortable.
As I gradually got better at shifting my attention from seeing ‘them’ and their behavior as the problem, I could look at my role in the deterioration of relationships.
I stopped wanting them to be clones of me.
I started appreciating our differences. Differentiation is supposed to happen in our teens when we realize we are our own person, with our own thoughts and feelings, separate from our parents. Unfortunately, most of us struggle with that into our adulthood.
2. Create a sense of safety that allows your partner to tell the truth to themself and you.
I won’t kid you. This one’s tricky.
After twenty years of marriage, who wants to hear that their partner wishes they’d waited to get married so they could have sown some more wild oats?
Or they no longer like how you kiss and want you to try something new.
Working with couples has taught me that we never stop changing. Nobody stays the same unless they’ve given up or they’re underground.
If you remember nothing else from this article, remember this:
Other people’s behavior is information about them. My reaction is information about me.
As hard as it is to believe, it’s not personal!
As Don Miguel Ruiz explains in The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom, the agreement not to take things personally respects that everyone has a unique worldview that alters their perceptions and that the actions and beliefs of a person are a projection of their reality, not a ‘truth’ about the world or someone else.
My partner and I are learning together the value of using questions as entries into each other’s inner worlds, not to be intrusive but to get us as close to understanding each other as possible.
That old therapist trick of asking, “Tell me what you just heard me say,” has been invaluable.
A couple I worked with struggled to express their love for each other. Finally, she said she didn’t feel loved, and he exploded with, “I’ve brought you damn flowers every week for twenty years — what more do you want?!” And she said, “They make me sad. I don’t like that the flowers die every week — I want to hear you say, I love you.”
He never asked her what would make her feel loved, and she never offered it.
Your partner’s thoughts, dreams, preferences, or quirks are not personal attacks or statements about your desirability. It’s all information about them that can help you meet them where they are, not where you think theyshould be.
Working on creating safety in all my relationships has strengthened my sense of self, and my need for external approval has lessened.
Not taking things personally doesn’t mean you should put up with disrespectful or harmful behavior. It allows you to distinguish between helping someone feel safe enough to be honest with you vs. allowing someone to inadvertently or knowingly behave harmfully.
3. Get Comfortable with Discomfort
I had a session recently with a client needing help understanding this concept.
Because, like most of us, he believed that feeling uncomfortable meant something was wrong.
But I’ve come to understand that two-thirds of life (give or take a third, depending on your phase) will be uncomfortable. So please sit with that idea for a moment before dismissing it.
Regardless of your view, discomfort is bound to show up when you’re thinking about significant issues like climate change, immigration practices, gun control, mass shootings, or escalating mental health issues.
Or take trivial discomforts, for example. I get really uncomfortable when I’m at a social event, starving, and they offer me rubbery chicken and mushy broccoli.
Your kid starts talking back.
Your partner (or the mailperson) looks at you funny.
It’s uncomfortable to feel powerless over so much.
Even though we spend much of our lives feeling discomfort, we continue to resist having that experience. We act like it will kill us if we don’t somehow get rid of it RIGHT NOW.
To get rid of it we pretend we’re okay, aggress against whatever it is, suppress it, or find someone to blame — anything not to feel what we’re feeling.
Much of my work with clients is around this third shift in perspective — to get more comfortable with discomfort.
Not to become passive and disinterested. But to manage discomfort so they can experience the fullness of who they are.
To sum it up:
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying I have magically transformed into a perfect but robotic AI version of my former self by adopting these basic relationship guidelines.
I still go on autopilot and point a finger or two occasionally. I still get my feelings hurt. And sometimes I shut down in the face of discomfort.
But when I notice I’m taking someone else’s behavior personally, zipping it for a moment until I can return to my right mind is helpful.
When I’m uncomfortable, asking myself questions keeps my attention on managing myself:
- Am I trying to change someone else?
- Am I taking someone or something personally?
- Am I creating safety for others so they can be honest with me?
- Am I running away from discomfort rather than facing it?
Finally, when I feel poked, whether it seems intentional or not, I try to remember that someone else’s behavior is about them, and my reaction is about me.
If someone triggers me intentionally, I need to rethink that relationship. If it was unintentional, I need to get over myself.
But in either case, I am in charge of and responsible for my emotional well-being, and that’s pretty empowering.