The traditional education system didn’t ever offer Healthy Relationships 101 or a How to Build Your Self-Esteem course when I was growing up.
I learned how to sew potholders in home ec. and made a gumball machine in wood shop.
We haven’t really been taught how to build healthy relationships. We are sadly, woefully uneducated about it, without any sort of map or rule book. We’re not really taught how to build a healthy, loving relationship with ourselves, either.
Even if we had a stable family upbringing that modeled what healthy partnerships could look like, it doesn’t always guarantee relationship success later in life. If we never had loving relationships shown to us, we may long for it even more later in life.
What is a healthy relationship? How do we define one?
One of my relationship coaching clients explicitly asked me this question, so we dissected and openly talked about what a healthy relationship looked like and felt like for her.
The truth is that navigating the complex world of intimate relationships is tough, and it takes an incredible amount of investment, time, and willingness to commit. To show up and choose each other, day in and day out.
Having the relationships we want is an inside job, and balance begins within. Easier said than done.
Balance is not necessarily sexy or cool to advertise. Clients are always surprised when a significant amount of our time together is spent creating and discussing routines, mindfulness habits, and the how-tos of setting boundaries around their time and energy – all to facilitate more balance.
I explain to them that their ability to stay with themselves amidst uncomfortable feelings and to notice and observe their thoughts serves their relationships in a profound way. The ability to be present with someone and pay them exquisite attention is what actually allows for real intimacy and depth. When we’re not present and balanced, we run the risk of being reactive and taking things out on our partners.
Our relationships will always provide us with a mirror to reflect back how we feel and show us parts of ourselves we aren’t willing to look at.
They can be our best opportunities to learn about who we are. Is your partner acting weird, unresponsive, distant, or apathetic? It could be a reflection of how you really feel or a sign that you’re not feeling present enough yourself. If we aren’t able to look within, we end up projecting these feelings onto another person and risk blaming them for their behavior.
What do we do when things take a turn and we feel our relationship is off track?
1. Increase your level of attention instead of using pressure.
It may feel tempting to exert a lot of effort or force an outcome or decision to be reached when you’re feeling disconnected from your partner. I’ve certainly been there, wanting an answer, wanting to find something we could do to feel more resolved and get back to feeling happy again. Especially depending upon our attachment style, it can feel like it’s do or die when we’re left in flux and we no longer feel that level of connection we’re used to.
The solution is the opposite of what we’ve been taught, considering our achievement-oriented, fast-paced culture.
We need to learn how to slow down, get curious, and bring mindfulness into the equation. Before jumping to conclusions, trace back. See if you can find the exact spot where you started to notice the disconnection widening. What was happening? What had just been said? What was going on? Were you actually unresolved about something earlier in the day and it was now being brought into this conversation?
Over the summer I was feeling disconnected from my boyfriend. None of my texts were landing, I could feel he was withdrawn, and I genuinely didn’t know what the issue was. Jumping to “What’s going on with you?” felt accusatory. Instead of applying pressure to him, I widened my attention. I traced back to when we stopped feeling as in flow as usual. In my reflection, I realized it first began a couple days prior, so I tried to remember what we were talking about.
During that conversation, I had just shared with him about a group program I was wanting to launch. He jumped in to give advice and asked a bunch of questions about my plans for the group – which made me annoyed and defensive, closed me up, and made me regret sharing my plans with him. Knowing what I now know about men, in my reflection of the event days later, I realized that his questions were his way of expressing love. He was trying to help and give me a solution; he wanted to be included in my life and feel a part of it.
I didn’t realize it in that moment, but in my reflection, I could see that it was in that conversation that I closed off to him. With this new reframe of our relationship, I was immediately filled with appreciation and love for this man. I reengaged with him with a new sense of presence, and later that day, I thanked him for his input. He wasn’t the enemy and my defenses dropped. After that, we were back to being connected and our relationship felt in flow again.
Use your attention. Slow down. See if you can feel into what your partner is experiencing. What are you experiencing? Are you tight? Are they tight? Are they withdrawn? Might there be something they need to express or that they’ve been avoiding speaking up about?
In my example above, ultimately, I had withheld love and appreciation for my partner and wasn’t actively trying to understand him.
If we don’t use our attention, the deeper thing may not get revealed. Allow space to come in so that everyone feels seen and heard.
2. Ask yourself: Have you stopped being honest and are you actually seeing each other clearly?
Many times when we’re at a standstill or impasse with our partner, it’s because we’ve stopped being honest with each other and ourselves.
When that happens, when we’re not willing to see ourselves in our own vulnerabilities, we’ve also lost the ability to see our partners for who they are, too – in their humanity and in their own specific needs.
In my last relationship, I was so disconnected from myself that I was trying to fill my need for attention, love, and connection in all the wrong ways. I couldn’t see that it was right in front of me, that my partner was trying to love me. I couldn’t find love within, I didn’t feel deserving of love, and I wouldn’t allow myself to receive. It was damaging my relationship, and in that process, my partner and I became increasingly disconnected. We kept getting into the same exact argument again and again and again. Ultimately, nothing he ever did was good enough. No matter how many things I asked him to help with or provide, they never made me feel loved enough by him.
The truth: I was using him to fill a hole of love I couldn’t fill myself. I was using our relationship for the wrong purpose and I wasn’t being honest about that fact. I was quite literally using him to make myself feel better, and it was entirely manipulative and unfair to him. I couldn’t admit how much I was struggling at the time, so he couldn’t feel or see me in this process.
It was infuriating, and we were in a never-ending fight because neither of us were willing to be honest and we felt powerless about how to get back on track. I stopped seeing him as a loving, supportive partner and kept sending him further and further away. It was my inability to receive love and the lack of honesty we had with each other that derailed our loving connection. He stayed connected in a way that no longer served him, and he wanted to be more outside the relationship. His own guilt and my increasing demands to get us to feel close again clouded his reality and judgment.
When you find yourself in a constant feedback loop of total defeat and disconnection, try to retrace. Where are you out of alignment? Where are you making assumptions or projecting falsely onto your partner – for example, thinking “They don’t love me” or “They can’t get anything right”? Where are you pushing for an outcome or objective that doesn’t really want to be met? It may feel incredibly uncomfortable to turn and look at it, but ultimately, that’s the way back to the truth.
3. Make an agreement to stay connected no matter what.
When deciding to be in a committed adult relationship, establish an agreement that even when your partner drives you absolutely nuts, you will do your best to stay connected and hear each other out. This might look like having an argument right before work, leaving for the day, and saying, “I know we haven’t found a solution yet, but I love you and I’m here and I’m connected and let’s revisit this when we both get home later.” This communicates to your partner that even though things don’t feel great, you’re not going anywhere, and you want to hear them out.
When the threat of abandonment, leaving, isolating, and disconnecting is off the table, you can establish a baseline foundation of trust to venture into deeper spots of intimacy together.
If you know that you can be honest and tell the truth, even when it feels confronting or ugly, and the other person isn’t leaving, it will be a more open and honest connection. When you know you can express emotions and be vulnerable in the presence of your partner and you can ignore that inner voice telling you that you seem needy or “too much,” you’ll invite someone in to see you in places others never have. That shows trust.
Decide to be in it for the good, bad, and ugly.
This doesn’t have to be a lifetime commitment, but decide that if you’re both investing time, attention, and parts of yourself into a relationship, be kind to each other and be willing to ride through the discomfort. There is so much expansion, depth, and growth on the other side.