There are millions of pieces of relationship advice. “This is what a healthy relationship should be like and this is what it shouldn’t be like. This is bad and this is good. Do this but don’t do that. If someone does this, leave them.”
A lot of it is conflicting. A lot of it is black and white and does not account for the human condition. It does not consider our frequent changes in thought and feeling, our fluctuating moods, our own development and growth. It does not account for the relationship dynamics at play or the past relationship patterns we so often innocently and unconsciously recreate that lead to a lot of relationship conflict and emotional distress.
Consequently, most of us feel that we fail in our relationships. If it’s not always happy, if it’s not always respectful, if it’s not always passionate, then we are clearly failing. Because the internet says so …
I write about relationships. I work as an attachment-focused therapist and all my work is based around love and relationships. And so, I hold my hands up and must admit that I contribute towards the avalanche of information overload.
However, what I try to do differently is to simplify what I understand to be true about relationships in the hope that it will help others gain a different understanding too. Because if our understanding of something changes, so does our relationship with it. So do our behaviours towards it. So do our expressions from it.
Through my research, my studies, my professional work with clients, and my own personal experiences, I have discovered that there is one simple way to make a relationship work and thrive that is available to everyone. It does not require special skills. It does not require any sort of degree.
It requires just one thing. Something we already have, something we were all born with, something we are all made of. Love.
Now, this may sound like an obvious, airy-fairy, wishy-washy, new-age, snowflake kind of answer you don’t want to hear. ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah …”. I hear you!
Before I lose you, let me put it in practical terms! Let me summarise and give you the answer straight away.
A relationship works and thrives when we help the other person feel good about themselves and they do the same for us.
When we feel good about ourselves, we are happy. We feel loved and safe. There is peace and contentment. Any sense of threat or tension is absent. It’s easy to be present. When we are with someone who helps us feel good about ourselves, we feel comfortable with them. We appreciate their kindness and words of affirmation.
This does not mean that we depend on others or should expect them to help us feel good about ourselves or maintain a healthy sense of self-worth and self-esteem. Doing so means entering unhealthy codependent territory.
Rather, it means that we co-create a healthy cycle of affirming our worth in each other’s eyes while strengthening our bond at the same time. Win-win.
Self-esteem wins. The relationship wins.
We Are Each Other’s Mirrors
We exist as mirrors for each other so that we can learn and grow.
Children grow best when their parents reflect back how wonderful they are, when their innate worth is reflected back at them. This happens when parents respond lovingly to their children, when they pay them attention and give them their time. It happens when they value and respect their children and treat them with consideration and kindness. This helps us to feel liked, loved and wanted and we learn to like and love ourselves.
When we grow up feeling good about ourselves, we take risks, we experiment, we thrive, we learn and we contribute our growth and happiness to the world. We learn to take good care of ourselves and as a result, we are great company for others. It also allows us to see the good in others. We are familiar with what’s good about us and so we easily spot it in others.
The main characteristic in all romantic and unromantic successful relationships is mutual liking. Both people see the good in each other and reflect it back. This creates a foundation of emotional safety. We feel safe to be emotionally open and available to the other person. We feel safe to express ourselves authentically and be lovingly received by the other person.
It’s a perfect system for happy and successful relating that benefits both people and our overall evolution as a special.
We feel good. We grow. We evolve.
Why Relationships Fail
Relationships are unsuccessful when we fail to create a positive cycle of relating. Instead of seeing the good in each other and reflecting it back, we come from a place of insecurity, suspicion and threat and reflect this back to the other person.
Whereas in a positive cycle, we see our worth, lovability and happiness reflected back, we now see doubt and fear about us. If we struggle with feeling good about ourselves or have an insecure attachment style, it will arouse feelings of self-doubt and insecurity. We may believe this to come from the other person but all that is actually happening is that we see our fearful thoughts about ourselves reflected back at us.
We cannot create a positive cycle of relating when we struggle to connect to our own sense of self-worth because 1. we cannot believe that someone else can see something we believe not to be there and 2. something we don’t believe to exist cannot be reflected back to us.
It’s like trying to have a meaningful relationship with someone who does not understand the language you speak and you don’t understand theirs. You might believe that you cannot have a relationship with them because of the language they speak when really you do not currently have the language skills necessary to communicate effectively with each other.
You do know that they cannot give you their language skills. You know that they can’t make you speak their language. You know that you have to learn it.
And it’s the same with our sense of self-worth: it does not come from the outside. It cannot come from the outside. It is nothing that can be given to us from anyone.
It is something we have to rediscover and reconnect with so that it can be reflected back to us by people who are open, able and willing to do so. And yes, people can help us! We can seek their support. But no one can do it for us.
If we did not grow up having our worth reflected back at us enough so we internalised it, we need to find it ourselves. And we can do it! We are fully capable of doing it. It is not too late. It is never too late, this I promise you.
We must then also seek out others who can see the good in us and themselves so that we can co-create positive relational cycles. Because that is what makes a relationship successful. That is what will make it a mutually beneficial and happy experience.
After almost a decade of in-depth work and research this is what it all boils down to: can you co-create a positive cycle of relating or not?
Can you respond lovingly to bids of connection? Can you see what’s good in you and your partner? Can you reflect it back at them? Can you see it? Can you maintain your sense of self-worth during times of conflict or temporary relationship challenges? Can you give your partner the benefit of the doubt?
Or do you try to get your sense of self-worth from your partner? Do you strain the relationship by needing your partner to respond a certain way so you can feel affirmed and good about yourself? Do you interpret everything your partner says or does through a lens of insecurity suspicion, mistrust, and fear?
Are you really looking for all the ways in which you believe that you are lacking? Because we can only find what we seek. And if we seek out what we fear is wrong with us, then we will interpret everything through that lens and it will look like it’s coming from outside of ourselves when really the outside only ever reflects back what is already on the inside.
The Two Ways of Being in a Relationship
In sum, there are two ways of being that dominate a relationship and determine whether being in that relationship is a happy experience or an unhappy one: co-creating a positive cycle of relating or co-creating an insecure cycle of relating.
That is it.
Sure, there are many different components to it and there are individual differences, dynamics, patterns and attachment styles to consider but when it all boils down to it what matters is how we feel about ourselves and how well we can support each other in feeling good about ourselves.
Because conflict arises every time when one of two partners feels devalued, unloved or rejected by the other. We can discuss and analyse all the millions of ways in which this can happen but the overarching problem and solution will always be whether the way we relate to each other helps us feel good about ourselves or not.
So how will you choose to support your partner in feeling good about themselves?