The process to achieving a healthy relationship starts from within.
Relationships are one of the most rewarding and challenging parts of our life. There are types of personal development that we are unable to do unless we are in relationship and there are ways that relationships push us to do work that we would not be otherwise motivated to do.
One of the greatest challenges in relationship can be our boundaries, maintaining a connection to ourselves, being open with another and caring for the relationship that exists between us. We can run into challenges like losing ourselves in the relationship, over-caretaking, shutting down, passive aggressiveness, or saying things that are hurtful and can't be taken back. Any of these sound familiar?
In the 1980s Melody Beattie wrote about co-dependence. This is the pattern of behavior that a person develops when relating to a loved one who has an addiction. However, Beattie's writing hit a chord with most people whether they were in a partnership with an addict or not. Chiefly, she focuses on understanding what is ours to deal with and what is another person's. This level of clarity is essential for other relational skills to develop. It is impossible to create healthy connectedness if we lack the ability to hold onto ourselves.
Holding onto ourselves is the ability to stay connected to what we think, feel and want while being in a relationship with another person. This is particularly important when that person is under stress or in a crisis. In intense situations, it is easier to get consumed by another person's experience. Even sexual intimacy, as positive as it might be, requires not only that we can deeply connect and even merge with another but that we can come back to ourselves as well.
The truth of the matter is, when we do not know or understand something, our ability to be in relationship to it is limited. This means we need to be able to see ourselves, or in other words be aware, to "hold onto our self." The less we are aware of ourselves, the harder it is for us to know when something is us and when it is not. So, this is one of the many ways that personal development work serves you. The more that you know the easier it is to navigate relationships.
It is necessary to know ourselves to be open to a relationship in a healthy way. Being open in a relationship is both about the ability to connect and to disconnect. However, primarily it is about being able to choose when we want to connect and disconnect. This allows us to be consciously open or to consciously choose not put up a boundary when something is not healthy.
However, what I often hear people struggle with is determining what is healthy or not healthy for them. I have said that self-care is anything and everything that is affirming of the entirety of who you are. It comes up here again because determining what is healthy or not healthy is guided by the same concept. Does it affirm or support who you are? If it does then it is healthy for you even if it is difficult. If it is does not, then it is not healthy for you.
Of course, the greatest gift that we can give in a relationship is our willingness to be as respectful with that other person as we have learned to be with ourselves. This desire to support another person in honoring and caring for themselves and learning and growing in their capacity to know themselves is a beautiful gift of a relationship.
The relationship is the third part of the equation. Relationships take care and time to be able to flourish. It is not enough for people to just invest in their own awareness and growth they also need to invest in the relationship. It becomes another member of the relationship and requires selflessness as much as anything else. What can you give to the relationship? How do you give to the relationship?
Developmentally, we are not able to give to the relationship until we have learned how to take care of ourselves. We are simply too immature to really be able to give what is required. That is why we need to start by doing our own work and understand what it is that supports us as we go through life. When we have done this work, the act of giving selflessly to a relationship is an additional joy rather than something that creates imbalance.
If you find yourself in a relationship and you are questioning your knowledge of your own needs or understanding of the different aspects of who you are, don't worry too much about it. We are all in a continual process of growth. As you move forward in your relationship you will be called to focus on different aspects of the relationship: you, the other person, and the relationship itself. This process, if you choose to engage in it will be both challenging and deeply rewarding, ultimately offering you one of the most beautiful experiences that life has to offer.
Just about everyone struggles with their boundaries from time to time—if not chronically! Join Dr. Kate this week on Real Answers Radio where she will begin by exploring the subtleties of co-dependent relationships and then share how you can handle co-dependent tendencies when you spot them so you can keep connected to yourself while connecting to others.