Relationships - 2 key principles
Relationships are our greatest source of joy - and often our greatest source of pain. When counselling my clients to make better and wiser choices in their relationships - romantic or otherwise - I've mentioned to them two key principles that they have found useful. These two principles do not exhaust all of the things to take into account when reflecting on a relationship, but they do help clients to stick to what is essential to evaluating how they are relating to a significant other.
Principle one: How do you feel about being you when you are with them?
One of the most important considerations when contemplating the health of a relationship is how you feel about yourself when around your partner. This seems such a simple point - and perhaps it is - but people get together for reasons that aren't always compatible with feeling good about their own (evolving) identity. For example, you may choose a partner that you share quite a bit in common with, but they might be quite materialistic (in contrast to your bohemian viewpoint) and so you end up feeling that a core part of you is invalidated. In this case, it is neither person's fault; still, that still doesn't mean that you won't end up feeling a dislike for who you are.
A useful way to think about relationships - and one that isn't necessarily consistent with the 'opposites attract' viewpoint - is that your partner is like a mirror to you. Now I don't mean that your partner should be used to serve your narcissistic self, nor do I mean that they should completely match you in every respect. When I talk about 'mirroring' I mean that your partner should ideally reflect enough of your key interests and especially your values; if they don't, then it is likely, although not inevitable, that you may come to feel your own self-worth plummet as your self is not being validated enough by your partner. Of course, this does not mean that there aren't cases of couples who vary widely and still love one another. The point I wish to make is that if you don't feel good about yourself when around your partner, this may be a temporary blip or it might be reflective of deeper clashes of perspective and of values.
Principle 2: The golden rule of ethics
Clients are often unsure about their own culpability for the problems in their relationship and that is one of the main reasons that they come to talk to people like me. Indeed, when there have been heated scenes with their partners and emotions are running high, it can be difficult to work out the rightness and wrongness of what they are doing; likewise, and less dramatically, if they have fallen into certain relationship patterns over the years, their style of thinking about what they do can be subtly influenced by these patterns.
To simplify for the sake of clarity, relationships tend to fall into two key groups:
1) a relationship where both parties mistreat one another, even if the extent differs;
2) a relationship where one is starkly the 'giver' (the caretaker) and the other is starkly the 'taker' (the narcissist).
In both of these cases, the Golden rule of ethics can provide some much-needed perspective and objectivity on how each side is treating the other. The golden rule is essentially this:
If it isn't right for person A to treat person B in a certain way, then it is isn't right for person B to treat person A in that way unless there are some mitigating circumstances.
So here's an example:
If a caretaker type is wondering if they are right to feel upset and critical about their partner failing to encourage them in their Open University studies, they can ask themselves this: Would they have ignored their partner in this way by failing to encourage them in their education? The answer is likely that they wouldn't think it was right. And now knowing this, they can feel that they are on firmer ground than before to talk this issue through with their partner in a non-accusatory fashion.
Ultimately, we and our partners are special people to ourselves but we are still fundamentally people. The golden rule sets a standard of good conduct that fits for anyone and that's why it is so useful in eliminating distortions about right and wrong that can accrue through relating to people through the lens of past unhelpful relationships.
Working with a therapist using these principles:
If you still find that thinking about your relationship on your own has not been enlightening enough, then the process can be deepened by working with a trained counsellor. Indeed, one of the reasons that a therapist can be so helpful is that since the therapist is not immersed in your life, they can see it from a more impartial perspective and help you get a really good idea about the overall effects your relationship is having on you.
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