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*Warning: naughty language ahead!
The young woman sat on the worn suede sofa in her living room—alone.
It was a hot summer night.
Her legs tucked under her, she wore a white cotton mini skirt and a dusty pink camisole top. She ran her fingers through her shoulder length highlighted hair and downed her glass of Prosecco whilst sighing deeply.
Blue Kohl was smudged faintly beneath her brown eyes, washed away by tears. “If only I’d been a bit more patient with Rick,” she thought. “If only I hadn’t overreacted to some of his antics. We had a good thing, and by getting as nervy as an Ascot race horse each time he said or did something I didn’t like, I’ve ruined something that could’ve turned into the real deal.”
Here are the mindset changes needed to either save your relationship or find (and keep) your soulmate:
1. Know that certainty is an illusion.
Having relationship problems? Don’t decide one way or the other or move on too quickly.
I’m not suggesting that we allow our boundaries to be trampled all over like the field at Glastonbury. But, in this individualist capitalist culture of hyper-consumerism, which includes swiping right, summoning dinner to our doorstep within minutes, and buying cheap clothes to return as quickly as they arrive, the implicit message we get is “judge quickly and move on fast if the ‘fit’ is not quite right.”
“Is Your Date a Narcissist?” “How to handle an Avoidant Partner” or, “10 Ways to Know if He is The Person for You” are headlines I read when scrolling through relationship blogs on social media. Of course, it’s important to be aware of potentially harmful individuals; however, in the current sociocultural context, there is a huge need to label everything and everyone. And it’s not necessarily helpful.
As a Gestalt therapist, I am wary of labelling. Gestalt Therapy asserts that “the self” is a process which is constantly recreating. To diagnose is to objectify “the self.”
In some cases, a diagnosis can be helpful; however, I suspect that labelling our partner as a narcissist, an avoidant, or “fucked up beyond repair” helps us feel temporarily more secure and nothing more. We get a convenient reason to leave or blame or feel superior because our partner is “wrong”—not us.
Relationship questions are never black and white. Any security derived from judging the other quickly is an illusion to avoid normal feelings of insecurity when getting closer to someone. And that insecurity will stick with you into the next and next relationship like a fly to a piece of shit.
2. Think: “How can I practice my relationship skills now, whatever my current situation?”
Flabby relationship muscles, like a cat that’s had eight litters of kittens—that’s what we get when we label individuals too quickly and avoid commitment. After the initial three month honeymoon period is over, it’s usual for the rose-tinted glasses to fall off and the quarrels to start.
Some of us want to leave; more of us wish our partner were different and try to change them. Others try and “fix” ourselves to put up with their flaws. Neither of these solutions are helpful. If we keep on leaving when the going gets tough, then we’ll keep on leaving till we don’t have enough strength to lift our Zimmer frame through the doorway.
“They” become the problem when we focus on how “narcissistic,” “avoidant,” or depressive they are, and refuse to see how we are also contributing to the problem. I’m not saying we should stay in a relationship where we mostly feel unsafe or unhappy. But the fact is that every single person we date will hurt us and disappoint us at some point. That’s because we’re all flawed human beings.
If things are really bad, then we should absolutely leave the situation. But if we are not leaving because we “love them” or because we hope things can improve, or because the good still outweighs the bad, then we are at least partly responsible for the dynamic because we are choosing to stay.
3. Find compassion for their “issues.”
Disidentify from their “stuff.” We can bet that if someone has commitment issues, communication issues, anger issues, or whatever other “issues,” they had them long before we came along. Therefore, their issues are not a reflection of our worth, and we do not need to overreact to them.
If we do, then that is our issue! If they don’t call when they said they would, if they forget our birthday, if they say they are too tired or depressed or anxious to join us at our best friend’s party, it’s not because we are “not good enough,” “unworthy,” “too fat,” or whatever other bullshit our critical voice is throwing at us.
Let’s see instead if we can find some compassion for their struggle. After all, if this was our best friend, wouldn’t we show empathy and understanding? Why is it that we lose that compassion and empathy when it comes to our partners?
We can still communicate our hurt, our annoyance, or whatever it is we’re feeling, but we don’t have to start screaming, shouting, swearing, threatening, blanking, avoiding, or any other type of reactive behaviour.
When we muster up that compassion (and I’m not saying it’s easy, but try imagining that they’re your best friend), we disconnect from their “stuff” and no longer allow it to trigger own “stuff.”
The magical bonus of extending compassion toward our partner is that we start to develop that same empathy toward ourselves.
4. Regulate your emotions.
If we take offence because our date didn’t call for four days, it’s because our own stuff about being abandoned is triggered. We start to obsess; our mind runs catastrophic movies about them in bed with someone else. We react disproportionately to the current situation, since they are only a love interest at this time, even if we’ve fantasised them into a future husband.
So, we have a choice here. We can practice behaving differently and soothe the part of us that’s terrified of being abandoned. We can imagine the young girl who was rejected by a parent and imagine surrounding her with love and care. We can visualise an alternative, ideal parent who provides constant and secure love. We can incorporate some bilateral tapping during this process. This is a technique taken from EMDR which helps to “install” a new experience to overwrite the unhappy abandonment script.
We can sit with our feelings of anguish or fear whenever they arise. This is what Tara Brach teaches in her RAIN technique. We notice the distress in the body and feel it without doing anything about it. We observe the feelings intensify and then ebb away. We realise that they aren’t going to overwhelm us or plunge us into an abyss of despair, that we can bear them and that they don’t last forever.
5. Challenge your thoughts and assumptions.
We can use our current relationship or dating distress to challenge our catastrophic thinking and tendency to make assumptions about the other without bothering to reality check them. We monitor our thoughts and notice when we’re imaging the worst. We ask, “What is the concrete evidence for that thought?” When we find ourselves assuming they’ve gone off us, we think of other reasons they may not be texting, which have nothing to do with us—for example, they may feel tired, depressed, or anxious we’ve gone off them.
Running movies about the other person’s behaviour whips up anxiety and anguish quicker than a Vitamix blender whizzing up a banana smoothie. We end up pushing the other person away, which is exactly what we’re most scared of.
Thinking differently is a win-win. Regardless of the relationship outcome, we’ve honed a new skill; we’ve added a new tool to our collection of relationship building tools. Either we will transform this relationship, or we’ll feel more confident heading into the next one with a smaller car crash of relationship fuck-ups behind us.
6. Express yourself transparently without judging, accusing, or threatening.
Being transparent is crucial. We can’t expect the other person to “mind read” us and know what we need and want as if they were our parent (and even parents don’t always do a great job of that).
How can we expect to be fulfilled in our current relationship if we don’t communicate what’s really going on for us? So often in my own personal therapy and as a therapist to my clients, transparency comes up. I ask, “Have you told him that you feel hurt by his behaviour?” Or, “Have you told her you feel anxious when she doesn’t call?”
Often, we shame ourselves for our vulnerabilities and stop ourselves from expressing them. There is nothing shameful about yearning for someone or feeling insecure about someone. These are human experiences. If we don’t express them, then we tend to blame, accuse, criticise, and threaten instead.
We try to manipulate the other and this always backfires. If I tell you I’m going to dump you because you don’t seem interested in me, then you will probably feel threatened and retaliate with something like, “Go on then, if that’s what you want.”
I end up alone when that’s really not what I wanted.
Actually, if I’d communicated the whole of my experience I would have said something like, “When I don’t hear from you, I start to imagine that you’re no longer interested in me and I feel sad and anxious.” This language is more likely to soften the other person and leaves an opening for them to respond without getting defensive.
It’s the usual stuff about making “I” statements and owning our experience without making accusations.
So, we make ourselves a bit vulnerable, what’s the worst that can happen? We’re no longer a child under 10 who can’t protect themselves. The world will not end, and we will not die by being honest about ourselves. Actually, by expressing our true inner experience, we feel empowered because we’ve just honoured and validated ourselves, regardless of how the other responds.
7. Practice setting healthy boundaries.
Any relationship, whether we sail off into the sunset or capsize dramatically, is a great practice ground for setting boundaries. In order to set boundaries, we have to know what we need. Boundaries signal what is negotiable and what is nonnegotiable.
This is a great question to consider because so many of us, myself included, ignore our needs as if they were extra toppings at the ice cream parlour—indulgent but not necessary. Getting our needs met is fundamental in order to keep on going without having a breakdown.
In our current relationship, we can start to evaluate whether our partner’s behaviour encroaches on our needs, or whether we can bend a little like a willow tree rather than being as rigid as a toddler having a tantrum. When they forget our birthday we can ask, “Do I need them to remember?” It sure as hell would be nice, but I don’t need them to remember my birthday in order to keep on thriving. Nor do I need to react by sending a flurry of nasty texts or ignoring them for two days to punish them. I can decide to be curious about their reason for forgetting, and at the same time, express my hurt and disappointment.
On the other hand, do I need to be in a relationship with someone who is honest? Yes, I do, otherwise I find it difficult to trust. If I find out they are lying three months after we’ve been officially in a relationship (as opposed to dating when a few half-truths are not uncommon), I’d seriously consider ending our liaison.
When we get really clear on our needs and express them, then we can choose which behaviours we’re going to make a big deal out of and which ones we are going to be more flexible about. I’m not saying we just accept that our birthday has been forgotten. We express our feelings and we try to understand why they forgot, but we don’t overreact. That invariably backfires and leads to more “forgotten” birthdays, other passive aggressive behaviour, or no one around to forget our birthday the year after.
8. Learn to be okay with difference.
Differences are the most difficult relationship issues to manage. For example, we expect to chat to our love interest on a daily basis and feel disappointed and hurt when we only hear from them every few days. Or, we are tee total and they like to get dead drunk every weekend.
We might cajole them into doing what we want. When that doesn’t work, we try to manipulate them into it by promising something in return. If that doesn’t work and the stakes are high, like wanting different holiday destinations, we try to force them into choosing what we want. This ends with our partner agreeing, but secretly teeming with resentment that shows up in passive aggressive ways like losing their libido, being on their phone when in our company, and coming home later from work. Or it can lead to a blow-up argument and stalemate, or we “give in” but punish our partner with a wall of silence, “losing” our libido, or other stroppy behaviour.
We cannot accept that our partner is just different from us. Their difference does not make them worse than us, nor are we superior because of our choices. There isn’t necessarily anything to do but be curious about their difference and understand and appreciate them more for the unique human being they are.
Hopefully, in turn, they will appreciate our differences. We can also ask ourselves whether the disagreement is about a need of ours. Going on holiday with our partner may be wonderful, but is it necessary? Is it worth potentially throwing the relationship away for that?
If we are willing to try these practices (and they aren’t easy), we might come to find that our hasty judgement of our partner was inaccurate and that they are a lot more complex and interesting than we thought.
We’ll gain freshly honed relationship skills to transform our relationship without any need for couples counselling.
And if things don’t work out, we’ll feel more confident going into our next relationship. Regardless of how good a fit the next person is, no relationship is protected from shoddy behaviour, so you better start upping your game now—with this one.
If you’d like some professional help putting any of the above tips into practice, I’m happy to chat with you about how we could work together.