“Creating a healthy relationship often means confronting ourselves, not the other person.”
– Charlotte Kasi
It’s easy to know what your partner is doing wrong, to see all the ways he/she is letting you down and making mistakes. From the outside, it’s simple to see how the other person is missing the mark. It is only during rare moments of insight that we get clarity on what we ourselves have been doing to perpetuate the problems in the relationship. Lots of us come from dysfunctional families with less than healthy role models in communication or have a history of broken relationships as an adult. It’s only when we decide to get honest with ourselves and recognize our own short-comings that we are able to improve our relationship for the better. Pointing the finger at your partner is almost guaranteed not to work and cause tension in the meantime.
Here are the most common ways I see people unknowingly keeping themselves stuck:
1.) Expecting your partner to read your mind and anticipate your feelings/desires. People often tell me that their partner should “ just know, especially after all of this time.” Nobody, and I mean nobody, reads minds. If your partner is not reacting to you the way you want, think about how you are expressing the need or desire you want acknowledged. Try asking for what you need instead of hoping the other person is going to be able to guess through hints and context clues.
2.) Not being upfront about your emotions and/or seeking distance to feel better about conflict. This includes things like the silent treatment, intentionally ignoring your partner (by talking to others to avoid him/her or engrossing yourself in an activity so that you’re inaccessible.) If you don’t openly express your disappointment, fear, etc., he/she will have no idea what’s bugging you, much less how to resolve it. If you just skip from tension to peace without any real resolution your problems aren’t getting solved, they’re just being (temporarily) submerged.
3.) Talking to your friends or family, rather than your partner, when you are upset with him/her. While we all talk to third parties from time to time to get a better perspective or in an attempt to get help it’s when we do this instead of talking to our partner about problems (rather than in combination with), that I becomes problematic. This is especially common with people that are uncomfortable with conflict or disagreement. I often see people who will spend hours on the phone with their sister or best friend analyzing their partner for hours, but never actually speak to him/her directly about the issue. This lets them release some tension temporarily, but perpetuates the problem. The only person with whom you can resolve an issue is the person you actually disagree with. And in the long run resolving problems builds emotional intimacy.
4.) Using humor, sarcasm or anger to avoid expressing any vulnerable emotions. Humor and anger are tricky things. They are both ways to avoid the discomfort of being vulnerable. It can feel empowering, self-righteous and justified to be angry. But, underneath anger there is always sadness or fear driving it. Sarcasm is the union of humor and anger; it’s usually intended to be funny or entertaining, but often ends up being hurtful. Even if you justify it with morality or judgement, it’s not genuine. Anger also cues people to put distance between themselves and you, which sabotages resolution. Humor can be entertaining, but if you use it to evade difficult conversations it can come back to bite you in the butt; the real issue will keep surfacing and the other person will eventually run out of patience. Until you can openly speak from the underlying feeling, you’re hiding. This is the one I used to struggle with the most.
5.) Not understanding the difference between compromising and deal-breakers. This is incredibly common. Being flexible and understanding is crucial to having a good relationship, but feeling taken advantage of breeds resentment and contempt. It boils down to self-awareness and self-respect. Know who you are, what you want, what you’ll accept and what you won’t. Don’t be afraid to say “no,” when the other person is not respecting your bottom line. Otherwise you’ll start to feel disrespected or inauthentic.
If you really want a good, healthy relationship, you must hold yourself accountable. You cannot change your partner, but you can improve yourself. And every personal change you make inevitably has an impact on the relationship. You deserve the best, so go ahead and do it already!