This article first appeared on Huffingtonpost.com.
Early on in my work with women, helping them live life with purpose and engagement, I was struck by how those who were in unhappy romantic relationships failed to make progress in pursuing their goals.
We would talk about dreams and aspirations, about motivation and practical steps, but our conversations invariably turned to their partners, to the frustration of waiting for them to change, to the anger at their lack of cooperation, and to the bitterness of emotional disconnect.
This was all the more surprising given that many of them were also in couples therapy. They were learning how to communicate better, how to express their needs, and how to listen while their partners spoke.
But there was one thing that was missing. They were not developing the strength that comes from knowing your inner world. They were not learning the reasons why their needs were important to them. They were, in essence, not becoming empowered to ask for what they wanted from a place of centeredness.
Instead, they seemed to stay stuck in victimhood. They were handing over their own happiness to a person whose behaviors they had little control over. And they were wasting away their mental energy in trying to change the other, whose stubbornness was only growing as a result. No wonder they were unable to focus on their life’s purpose.
Perhaps you may know that pattern well. It may begin with a decent enough request like “Don’t change that channel” and before long the two of you are caught in a shouting match at which point you simply walk away with “You’re impossible!”
Neither of you talks about it again – its shoved under the carpet like all other arguments – but it continues to consume you and grow like a raging fire. And even when you do manage to pluck it out of your mind, it seems to have shifted something in your relationship that continues to drain you of life’s joie de vivre.
Sooner or later, you begin to regret chances not taken, opportunities left unexplored and potential barely allowed to shine. Sooner or later, a little voice begins to question what you did with its life. Sooner of later, you desperately wish for a second chance.
That chance is now, if you decide to change your focus.
Ask yourself “Do I take 100% responsibility for my life?” Unless you’re convinced that you do, you’ll continue to waste mental energy on who is right and who is to blame in your relationship. Of course it takes two of you for the relationship to work. But it often takes only one of you to change your pattern of behavior and thus create the space for transformation to begin.
Beware of the voice that comes up with reasons why you’re correct in an argument. Reason is simply slave to emotions – and works hard at proving that our emotional reactions are justified. Step back and think whether your anger, stress or unhappiness is distorting your thinking. Are you seeing your partner in black and white? Are you engaged in mind-reading, comparisons or catastrophising? What can you do to help yourself see the full picture?
Grasp the Opportunity
We’re wired to avoid unpleasant events. Which is why conflict initiates the stress response and makes us fight, flee or freeze. But given that we are two autonomous individuals, with our own experiences and desires, its natural for conflict to arise. It provides us with the opportunity to understand our partners, to appreciate their perspective and to arrive at a win-win outcome. But more than that, it offers us the opportunity to understand our own needs and beliefs, to challenge them if untrue or unhelpful, and to grow in our own consciousness.
Eckhart Tolle once said “Relationships make us conscious, not happy”. As a positive psychology practitioner, I think relationship can make us both conscious and happy. Not only because positive relationships calm our fears and bring us joy, but also because growing in consciousness is what true happiness is all about.
Working on your relationship is more about your life than it is about your relationship. And that’s perhaps the most important reason to work on it.