The Best Thing You Can Do For Your Relationship: Work On Yourself
Ready for a tough truth?
A lot of what isn’t working in couple relationships comes down to individual work one or both partners need to be doing.
Any person, with any of the following individual issues, would improve their relationship dramatically by doing their work on that issue.
The list below, by the way, isn’t even close to exhaustive. These are issues that came to me off the top of my head, I spent almost no time trying to brainstorm more after I had written the list below in its entirety, and it took three-four minutes. Any halfway decent relationship therapist would undoubtedly be able to come up with a list of their own that is almost as long, perhaps while repeating very few of the issues on my list below.
Individual problems that cause difficulty in relationships
- Not feeling worthy of love
- Taking others for granted
- A critical/sarcastic nature
- Not knowing how to give/receive love
- Humorlessness/taking one’s self too seriously
- Rigid/outdated ideas about gender roles
- Tendency to too quickly locate problems outside one’s self instead of inside (“everything is my fault”)
- Inability to admit mistakes and/or apologize
- Very low self-esteem/self-worth
- Tendency to respond not to what people say to. them, but to one’s own feelings about what they say (not recognizing the difference)
- Inability to apologize
- Boundary problems
- Resistance to therapy (which often, though not always, reflects a resistance to look closely at one’s self)
- Not being able to grant that views other than one’s own have validity
- Not knowing how to manage money
- Lack of basic self-control
- Wandering eyes/lust
- Chronic defensiveness
- Difficulty talking about emotions
- Difficulty listening to partner talk about emotions
- Ungrieved losses
- Tendency to yell or “talk down” when angry
- Inability to ask kindly and clearly for what one needs
- Difficulty managing time
- Unrealistic expectations of partner
- Not being able to express gratitude and appreciation
- Substance abuse
- Does not keep commitments
- Does not understand the importance of sex
- Does not understand the importance of romance, especially after marriage
- Expecting help but demanding things be done one’s own way
- Difficulty giving consistent and whole-hearted compliments
- Not understanding that one’s personal time, like everything else in marriage, must be a shared resource
- Lack of personal hobbies and interests beyond one’s partner
- Too harsh with the children
- Too permissive with the children
- Having to have one’s way/inability to compromise
This very incomplete list doesn’t even include clinical issues like untreated anxiety, depression, ADHD, OCD, etc.
Objection: “But my partner keeps triggering this stuff in me!”
That may be the case, but what comes out of you, under all circumstances, is your responsibility. In couples therapy we address the ways partners are triggering/activating each other and that’s important, but even in that context, each partner has to accept full responsibility for, and do the work on, all of their behaviors under all circumstances.
The simple fact is that there is nothing you can do to improve your relationship more than working hard on yourself and constantly raising your game as an individual.
Does this negate the need for couples therapy?
Of course not.
But what I hope you take from this is the very good news that, even if your partner isn’t on board with going to therapy with you, you have much more power than you may realize to affect the relationship positively. And don’t forget that when you take this individual work seriously and heal where you need to heal, the changes in you will also be healing to your partner.
Doing your own work is the best way to open your partner to seeking couples therapy with you. There’s no downside, because even if they ultimately don’t, you have addressed issues that are keeping you from being who you need to be and, as a result, you are a happier person who is more at peace, and you can now see both yourself and your partner more clearly than ever before.
You cannot not benefit hugely from taking your own work seriously and getting down to whatever business you have that only you can do.