To understand why our relationships may or may not be going well, it can be useful to critically evaluate our beliefs about what makes a good romantic relationship.
One of the most important beliefs I often try to deconstruct with some of my clients is that “it is my partner’s job to understand me and meet my needs”. Of course, this would be incredible if our partner somehow could just understand us, read us, and know our every need. But this is typically not realistic.
In fact, Romantics (i.e., those who adhere to the philosophical movement of romanticism [think of a Disney princess conception of love]) would say that that if a partner cannot somehow deduce our exact thoughts, needs, and desires then it must be proof they are not the right person for us. I call bullshit. Nobody is this person. Nobody can be this person. It is, in fact, OUR job to shape our partner and give them the tools into becoming the best version of our partner, as it is their job to shape us into their version of the best partner. To do this we must understand our “stuff” – the beliefs and expectations that shape our feelings and interactions about/with our partner. Only then can we appropriately communicate those needs, in the hope our partner will at least try and meet them.
So here are some questions to first ask yourself, and then to ask your partner. If your partner is happy to play along then perhaps describe what you believe your partner’s answer might be before they tell you. This can be a great way to start to understand how your partner sees you and how you see your partner.
Importantly, the purpose of these questions are not to start a blame or criticism game. If you are going to discuss and ask these questions with and to your partner, start by making a pact that you will be open-minded and kind in hearing your partner describe some difficult things about you. If they get some things wrong, thank them for giving it a go before gently letting them know how your reflection is different.
- In what ways [note plural] are you a difficult person to be around or live with?
- In what circumstances might these attributes be a strength or be useful?
- What are the things that you find most difficult to ask for in a relationship?
- What are the things you find most difficult to give in a relationship?
- How do you believe people show they care about someone else? What do they do or say? How often do you need to do these things?
- What do you believe are “good enough” ways to communicate your frustrations or problems in a relationship? Is this typically how you go about communicating your concerns or problems in a relationship?
- How did your parents go about communicating and solving problems? In what way have you been influenced by that?
- How did your parents show affection? In what ways have you been influenced by that?
- What are some of the most important things you’ve learnt about yourself from previous relationships? In what ways have you not changed (for better or worse) from those previous relationships?
- When you see other happy couples, what are the things that are most different about them compared to your relationship?
- What are the things that you do well as a couple?
- What are the strengths you bring to the relationship?
- What are the attributes you find most valuable in a partner?
- Which, if any, of these questions have you found most difficult and easy to answer and what do you believe it means about yourself?
So what now?
What do these questions mean about you and your beliefs and expectations about a relationship? I want you to start to reflect on and perhaps discuss with your partner how you can work together to enable each other to overcome any unhelpful beliefs or expectations you may have.
For example, if you recognise that you find it very difficult or awkward to ask for alone time, away from your partner or kids (obviously not because you don’t love or care for them, you just also need some “me” time), you could discuss how you could make this a regular part of your weekly/monthly routine.
Or, perhaps you recognise that, just like your parents, you believe that when a problem arises it must be sorted out immediately (because you can’t possibly go to bed angry, right??), even though you or your partner are rarely in a calm enough state to talk about it calmly, therefore creating more problems than solving. You could decide together that if either of you recognises that things are too heated to solve in the moment, you will agree to raincheck the discussion for 1 / 6 / or 12 hours. In this way, you’re communicating that you believe that this problem needs to be solved but similarly recognising you aren’t in a place to do justice to it, yet.
Have a think about what else you may want to change. Are there ways you can help your partner communicate their needs? Is there something you do to remind yourself to show affection in the way your partner values? Can you set up a regular date to continue these discussions?
I hope this has been helpful.
Dr Daniel J Brown