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Here’s the tricky thing about relationships: we have to do them with someone else. Sure, it is very important to have a good relationship with yourself. “Know thyself,” as someone wise once said. There are a bunch of ways to do this. I’m a fan of therapy (no surprise) but pick your poison and develop the art of introspection as well as you can but don’t think it’s all figured out just because you spent a year in a cave or on top of a mountain retreat. You only know the parts of yourself that aren’t coming into contact with others. There’s more to learn! There’s no way of knowing all of yourself from the inside.
We often approach relationships with the idea that “I’ve decided something!” “I know what I want and how I want to be!” but we leave out the other person who’s experiencing us as well—along with what they know about themselves. They may will have their own thoughts and feelings about us and these are often valid.
Sure, maybe a behavior or something they feel or think is a deal breaker for a relationship with you. Perhaps it’s overly controlling, or it’s just hurtful. That toxic-ness needs to be sorted out and gotten rid of.
But if that’s not the case, we need to fully take in this person who’s experiencing us and learn about who we are in relationship; we can’t do it alone.
What roles do you fall into?
We enter relationships with some expectation for ourselves. We may not realize it, but we fall into the ideas we have internally of what a “boyfriend” or “girlfriend” or “partner” is. The person you’re in relationship with does this as well. Maybe it all matches up and you both have completely the same internal and external version of how people should be in romantic partnership.
It’s worth noting, though, whether these things work for you. If you looked deeply would you say there’s any annoyance, or even resentment, that it’s expected that you do, say, the planning for outings or that they decide when it’s time to leave a party?
And maybe that’s easy to sort out and talk about. But on a feelings level, do they get to express more of their sadness or stress and are you usually the comforter? Our aptitude toward one of these roles was probably laid down after years and years due to the role you played in your family, or the role of a caregiver that you identified with.
Without acknowledging and exploring these, you can be years into a relationship without realizing that neither of you decided that these were your roles. Somehow, they were tacitly decided and you fell into them.
And maybe that’s fine. The issue is—are you, and is your partner, ok with that?
How to Redefine the Roles
Maybe you’re feeling unhappy with what you’ve both settled into. How would you feel about having this kind of role-defining talk with your partner? You’ll need to find a way to do it that doesn’t put them on the defensive. While, of course, you won’t have control over their response, it’s important to note the difference between:
“You’re always talking about how sad and stressed you are! What about me??”
“I’d like to share some struggles I’m having too, but I’m concerned about burdening you when you’ve got so much going on. How can I talk to you about this?”
If you’re like my clients, you’re probably thinking—“Justin, no one talks like that. That’s weird.”
Maybe, but you want to get your point across in a way someone else can hear it. That may mean disrupting how you usually interact. They may be thrown by this, but they’ll be more likely to listen. And they’ll know you’re serious. Yes, it’ll take some guts, but let’s do a cost-benefit analysis—are you ok with the status quo from now until death do you part?
What we do affects our partner. And vice versa. Some people like to figure out a bunch of stuff in their head and then present it. Maybe this is how you plan a trip, try out a new sexual position, or even your own emotions. You want to know what you want before presenting it to someone else. While this may seem like a good idea it’s essentially standing on stage doing a monologue while there’s someone else standing nearby waiting to start their scene—with you! That’s a boring night at the theater. And a lonely, unsatisfying relationship.
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