I’ve never met someone who doesn’t have wonderful memories or stories to relay about the first weeks or months of a relationship. Everyone is in the throes of lust and passion, caught up in the surge of emotional bliss that the romantic phase of love can provide. And although some of us would never openly admit it, when we're in that phase, we think that maybe, just this time, the beginning won’t end. It will be like this always. And if that's the case, we'll never need to work on ourselves because the relationship and the person we love will do the hard work. They will make us, like Jerry Maguire so foolishly pointed out, complete.
If you've ever subscribed to that fantasy, you know it doesn't tend to work out very well. And yet it's easy to fall into this trap over and over again. There’s a quote by life coach Anthony Robbins that I love. He says, “If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten.” So how do you do it differently?
The best way to avoid relationship déjà vu is to resist throwing yourself into the next relationship and instead take a good, hard look at yourself. Who do you become in a relationship? What are your patterns? What you want to do differently next time? Here are some things we should all know about ourselves before we partner up:
What Makes you Tick
Although most of us grew up thinking that a partner would make us whole, take away any hurt, make us happy, and generally fill our existential void, that isn’t how relationships work. In his book Getting The Love You Want , Harville Hendrix, Ph.D. writes, “…you learn that the only way you can truly recapture a sense of oneness is to develop the hidden traits within yourself.”
By knowing what lights us up inside, we can access feeling good at any time, meaning we don’t have to rely on our partners to make us happy. I know that if I’m feeling down what makes me feel vibrant and alive is dancing, whether I'm out with friends or alone in my room with the music blasting.
If you don’t know what makes you smile or gives you feelings of overall warmth, try seeing the world as your test kit. Try out a new fruit you’ve never tasted or volunteer at a local food bank. Maybe journal in a notebook or doodle on the page. The more you tap in to what makes you tick, the more you can rely on yourself for love and support.
What is and is not Your Responsibility
We are only responsible for ourselves; we can’t make decisions for other people, or expect them to make decisions for us. If I want to get a new job, it’s nobody else’s responsibility but my own to find that job. If I want to get healthy, nobody but me can do that. It’s a lot easier to put the responsibility of getting our needs met on to others, but the reality is that we’re the only ones who can truly give ourselves what we need.
Hendrix says, “We don’t want to accept responsibility for getting our needs met; we want to 'fall in love' with a superhuman mate and live happily ever after.”
In a woman’s group in New York, I learned to think of my life as my side of the street. It was my job to keep my side of the street clean and healthy, making sure that it was well tended to so that pieces of it weren’t crumbling or cracked. If another person enters the picture, they have their own side of the street as well. So they are tending to themselves, just like I am to my side. If we share the road in the middle, then we both tend to only what we share, but our individual sides still remain our own responsibility.
How to express what you Need
Starting in eighth grade up until two and a half years ago, when boyfriends asked me, “What’s wrong?” I always said, "Nothing," even though something always was wrong; in one way or another, my needs weren't being met. And my resentment toward the boyfriend of the moment would just build. In his book Nonviolent Communication Marshall B. Rosenberg, Ph.D explains, “We are accustomed to thinking about what’s wrong with other people when our needs aren’t being fulfilled,” which doesn't tend to get us anywhere. “If we express our needs, we have a better chance of getting them met.”
What you deserve
Many times I have stayed in relationships past their expiration date. I stayed because I didn’t know enough about who I was or care enough about myself to leave.
In A Woman’s Self-Esteem, author Nathaniel Branden writes, “For women and men alike, if we do have a realistic confidence in our mind and value, if we feel secure within ourselves, we tend to respond appropriately to challenges and opportunities. Self-esteem empowers, energizes, and motivates. It inspires us to achieve and allows us to take pleasure and pride in our achievements.”
The higher our self-esteem, the more we feel we deserve happiness, which is what we need to be open to the possibility of love — and to walk away from a dynamic that isn't right.
How to appreciate life
Coming to a relationship knowing how much you have in your life is important. Gratitude makes it almost impossible not to smile or feel vibrant and alive. Watching birds dart across the sky, making a cozy meal, talking on the phone with friends and family — appreciating what you already have makes a relationship the cherry on top of the sundae, an added bonus to an already amazing life.
Gratitude also makes it easier for you to remember how grateful you are for that relationship as it progresses. In her book The Myths of Happiness author Sonja Lyubomirsky writes, “…if we continue to be grateful, appreciative, and aware of our new spouse — if she frequently pops into our minds and inspires strong emotional reactions in us — we will be able to resist taking her for granted.”
The more we learn to appreciate what we have, the easier it is to continue to see and focus on the goodness in our lives and relationships.
How to let others be who they are
I think one of the most difficult things I've had to learn is how to accept others for who they are, as they are. The fact that I would rather read a book than sit on the couch and play video games doesn’t mean you have the same preference. Even though we all want the same big things — to be loved, seen, and heard — we all aren’t the same. We don’t all know the same things or have the same tastes or experiences, and that's a good thing.
There’s a quote I love by author and motivational speaker Leo Buscaglia. He says, “Don’t smother each other. No one can grow in the shade.”
The more we learn to accept others, the easier it is to see that there isn’t a wright or wrong way, just different ways to live.
How to be open
Being able to see criticism as an opening for growth is a crucial part of a successful relationship. When you are open in this way, “Instead of seeing your partner’s differing views as a source of conflict, you find them a source of knowledge,” Hendrix writes.
In Getting the Love you Want , Hendrix describes a couple who can’t see eye to eye. He has them listen to classical music and form their own interpretations of the piece. When they express what they heard, their descriptions are very different. Then he asks them to listen from the other person’s perspective. “By listening to the music from each other’s point of view, they had learned that the sonata was a richer piece of music than either of them had first perceived,” he recalls.
Being able to listen and see the other person’s point of view keeps us from shutting down and moving inward. By seeing where the other person is coming from, we can react positively to criticism and enrich our relationships.