In my quest to support people to create healthy, happy and lasting relationships, I've come across certain relationship strengths and pitfalls which seem to make ALL the difference. In my 15 years of working with couples (AND learning from my own relationship failures), I have developed a strong opinion about what I believe to be the #1 Relationship Skill. What do you think it is?
It's not Conflict Resolution, Problem Solving or Communication, though these skills are most definitely at the top of the list. It's not Biting Your Tongue or Forgiveness or Not Going to Bed Angry, though there's a need for those things sometimes too. It's a skill that precedes everything mentioned; a skill that makes all the other skills work and without it, the others will NOT work despite our best intentions. What is it?
It's Personal Responsibility. Personal Responsibility, as a stance or a way of being, is VITAL to the health of any relationship. Why? Because absence of Personal Responsibility leads to Blaming and Resentment, which are both TOXIC to relationships. I see it in my work as a therapist everyday. And I've unintentionally slipped into those patterns myself.
Something unconscious and unhealthy often happens in relationships when "I" and "You" become "We". Healthy Boundaries can get blurred through the process of bonding, creating intimacy, prioritizing and supporting each other, becoming a team. Falling in Love is a Beautiful experience, right? This is why being in a relationship is so Powerful; it is here that we experience the strength and ecstasy of deep connection and as a result we feel UNSTOPPABLE!
But if we're not paying close attention, we will slip into old patterns -- patterns we've been running our entire life; patterns we watched our parents and other adults run. This is our Relationship Programming, and it's littered with Blindspots.
It shows up in our EXPECTATIONS. Having expectations is not the problem; but unspoken expectations are problematic because they create resentment when they go unfulfilled. The saddest thing about this is that your partner never even had a chance to honor your expectation if you didn't communicate it!
And we might not be communicating our expectations because we're unaware of them ourselves. This is where Personal Responsibility comes in; we need to honor ourselves by checking in, giving ourselves permission, owning our expectations and needs and communicating them directly-and-respectfully to our partner in a way that they are most likely to hear and understand.
Boy, I have learned this the hard way in past relationships, especially in my 12-year marriage. I fell into default-mode; focused externally and spent too much time and energy trying to adjust, accommodate and do what I thought I should do without really taking the time to draw boundaries and make requests that could have kept connection strong and my heart open instead of slowly shutting down. Have you experienced this? It's Painful. Death by a thousand cuts.
Sometimes we are semi-aware of our expectations and needs but automatically suppress them because we believe deep down we don't deserve to have our needs acknowledged and met. If this is the case, I encourage you to give yourself permission to own them. They are yours, and not only will they NOT go away simply by ignoring them; but they will also continue to create an issue in the relationship every time the need goes unmet.
Every. Single. Time.
If you ARE aware of your expectations and HAVE communicated them directly, I will still challenge you to reflect on HOW you have communicated them. Let's pivot to Personal Responsibility again; did you communicate the expectation or need in a way that was respectful and non-blaming or did you communicate from a place of frustration and contempt? This happens when we stuff our feelings until the pressure builds and we BLOW. Consider the difference between "You NEVER wash the dishes! You ALWAYS leave them for me!" & "I really need more help with chores around the house, can I make a request?"
How did you feel when you read the two previous examples? Which one would You most likely respond positively to? I have to be honest here, if someone comes at me with "You ALWAYS...!", I'm probably going to fight back, resist and launch a counter attack. Even if they are right. It's human nature to defend ourselves when feeling (or actually BEING) attacked, so let's take a sacred pause in these moments of upset and put a little more thought into how we communicate. I-Statements. Requests. Seeking New Agreements. These are tools that maximize Personal Responsibility and Personal Empowerment. They also maximize Relationship Satisfaction as a result. If we CONSCIOUSLY engage when it's important to get the communication right, we won't wear down the relationship by having the same arguments over and over.
What does taking more Personal Responsibility in my Love Life even Look Like?!? Start by answering the questions below.
If you’re Single:
~Are you Intentionally Single?
~If not, at what stage of readiness are you to take action to change that?
~Are you clear about how to recognize a highly-compatible partner?
~Where have you gotten stuck in past relationships?
~What’s ONE thing you can commit to doing differently that would create a shift in your negative patterns or beliefs about relationships? (ex. read a book, hire a therapist, start journalling, intentionally look for positive models of happy couples in your life, etc...). Start small so you don’t give up!
If you’re Coupled:
~What are the recurring patterns in the relationship that aren’t working?
~What Unmet Needs could those issues be pointing to, for you? For your partner? (If you can't answer that second one, ASK your partner what they need from you, and let them know in turn, how they can support you.)
~What strengths and past successes can you both draw from?
~What is your Shared Vision?
~What’s ONE thing you can work on to create a positive shift in your relationship dynamic? (ex. Be more responsive to partner's requests or bids for attention; read a book; express one appreciation to your partner each day, find a therapist, etc...). Start small so you don’t give up!
Self Reflection is required for Growth. Answering questions like these helps us to take that sacred pause so that we may re-evaluate where we are in relation to our goals. From there we can develop clarity around what course-corrections are needed to get our CHOICES and our VISION into alignment.
Taking more Personal Responsibility doesn't mean taking on the Lion's Share of the chores or entirely taking the blame for things that aren't working in the relationship -- these choices can lead to feeling victimized and building resentment.
Personal Responsibility is an Empowered position to Step-Into and Inhabit. When we show up with a renewed Willingness to do what is in our power to do and when we recognize that Our happiness = Our responsibility, we can begin to seek out a new approach from a fresh perspective, while honoring Ourselves and our Boundaries in the process.
Easier said than done FOR SURE. But how do you want to live your one and only life?? The partner we choose is one of the most IMPACTFUL CHOICES we will make and the relationship we create together LARGELY DETERMINES the quality of our life. What would it feel like to create and experience your Ideal Relationship -- or even an Improved Relationship? And what ELSE is possible for your life if you are able to get there?