I spent years having conversations with friends and my therapist and my parents about how to find a partner who was a good match. My friends and I discussed the pros and cons of online dating, dating apps, meeting someone through friends or out and about. We discussed what we wanted in our partners; the degrees we wanted them to have, the careers they were pursuing, their political and religious beliefs, and personal characteristics. We vented our frustrations about the emotional ups and downs of dating; matching with someone on a dating app, chatting for a week, getting excited about a date, only to be disappointed when meeting in person. We cried together about relationship disappointments and how we might be able to choose better next time. What strikes me now, is that through all of these conversations, rarely did we discuss how we wanted to be as partners; the question of whether or not we were ready for the type of relationships we longed for was rarely asked or addressed. When I got into my relationship with my current partner I realized that I had spent far too little time preparing for the kind of relationship I wanted and reflecting on what it would look like for me to be a good partner.
When I started dating my current partner, I was caught off guard by how honest and straightforward he was. I was pleasantly surprised that he proactively planned dates, communicated that he liked me, expressed his desire for a committed relationship, and generally did what he said he was going to do. I was so used to not getting what I wanted in relationships that I struggled to be present and just enjoy our budding relationship without looking for things that were wrong. Upon reflection, I began to understand that I had become so accustomed to working to get past partners to commit that I was not used to just relaxing into a relationship. What I have concluded after growing in this relationship for over a year is that I had not spent enough time preparing myself for the kind of relationship I really wanted. I had been overly focused on trying to find the right partner and had not spent enough time thinking about how to be the kind of partner that would enable me to have the healthy, deeply committed, and intimate relationship I was longing for.
Is my story similar to yours? Have you spent a lot of time thinking about how you can find the right partner and what you want that person to be like, while neglecting to think about how you want to be as a partner? Have you failed to consider whether you are ready for the kind of commitment and relationship you are looking for? If this feels familiar to you I hope you will find my suggestions below, about how to prepare for the relationship you want, to be helpful. One thing that I have learned over the last year and a half of my relationship is that being the kind of partner you want to be is an ongoing process. I am continuing to grow and learn about myself as a partner and to identify ways that I can be a better partner to my fiancé. The suggestions below are intended to be ongoing practices that you revisit throughout your time dating and in a relationship.
Set a Vision and Practice for the Partnership You Want
Many of us spend more time thinking about the external qualities that we want in a partner (degrees, salary, height, style etc.) than the internal qualities that we would like our partner to have our how we would like our relationship to feel. Additionally, we may also spend a lot of time thinking about what we hope a partner will do for us without considering what we hope to contribute to our relationship. I encourage you to spend time setting forth a vision of what a healthy, fulfilling, partnership would look like for you. Once you have created that vision for yourself, reflect on the type of partner you need to be in order to bring that vision to fruition. If you want a partnership characterized by generosity and love, maybe you need to practice being more generous and loving. If you want a partnership characterized by joy and deep connection, maybe you need to practice gratitude and being emotionally open with yourself and with others. If you want a partnership where you and your partner encourage each other to grow and develop, maybe you need to learn to set healthy boundaries and ensure that you are not over-function for other people. If you want a partnership characterized by unconditional love and acceptance, maybe you need to practice loving and accepting yourself and the people in your life right now.
One thing I’ve learned as a couples therapist is that acceptance is an essential aspect of healthy relationships. In the beginning of relationships, partners often focus on their similarities, however, over the course of the relationship, as the infatuation wears off, differences emerge and tension can begin to arise. Many times the things that we appreciate most about our partners (e.g. that they are spontaneous) come with qualities that can frustrate us the most (e.g. that they don’t like to plan ahead) and the challenge we have as partners is to practice accepting all of our partners, the things we love and the things that frustrate us. Practicing acceptance can be a challenge (at least is has been for me) but it helps to relieve tension in relationships and guides us to focus on the things we appreciate most about our partners. It is important to note that practicing acceptance does not mean tolerating poor treatment. However, I believe an important part of leaving an unhealthy relationship is accepting the problematic dynamics of relationship; this acceptance can prompt you to make a decision to leave in contrast to trying to overlook harmful behavior, which might make you think it is okay to stay in the relationship.
I encourage you to prepare for the relationship you want by practice self-acceptance; the more you are able to accept yourself, flaws and all, the easier it will be to practice accepting a partner. You can practice self-acceptance by letting go of of self-criticism and judging yourself every time something you do isn’t perfect. See if you can acknowledge mistakes without shaming yourself for them. These practices will not only help you to feel more at peace with yourself, they will enable you to be a more loving and gracious partner.
Practice Understanding Other Points of View
I’m an opinionated and outspoken person and one challenge I have experienced in my relationship is making space for my partner to disagree with me without getting frustrated. Living pretty much independently for the last 11 years has helped me to develop a strong sense of self and confidence in my opinions and the way that I live and see the world. Generally, I think this is a healthy way to be and I’m happy that I was able to develop as an adult before entering a serious partnership, and not practicing understanding and making room for other people’s ideas and view points has made it more challenging for me to show up as a partner who is willing to hear my partner’s wants and needs, which are sometimes different than my own. Just as I want my partner to listen to me and try to understand where I am coming from, it is important that I do this for him as well. One practice that is helpful for me in working to understand my partner’s opinions and points of view is holding my own opinions lightly. This does not mean I throw them out of the window as soon as my partner disagrees with me, it means being willing to be wrong and being curious about where my partner is coming from. If you are not in a relationship, you can practice trying to understand other people’s points of view by being curios when someone disagrees with you, make an effort to understand where they are coming from and let go of trying to convince them that you are right.
Work to Overcome Insecurities and Heal Emotional Wounds
Many of us fantasize that if we find the perfect partner they will erase all of our insecurities and heal our past traumas. Our partners can help us to heal but ultimate we need to be the primary drivers of this healing. Going into a relationship looking for your partner to heal you is a set up for an unhealthy and potentially co-dependent relationship. It also can set up a parent-child dynamic in the relationship, which can kill sexual desire. I encourage you to work on overcoming your insecurities by cultivating unconditional self worth. Healing emotional hurts is an ongoing process that may involve therapy and working through past traumas that you have experienced. A key aspect of this healing is integrating what has happened to you into the larger story of your life, which helps you to recognize that the harm you experienced does not define you or make you less worthy of love and care. Working on these things will enable you to be in a healthy place emotionally and help you to create a mutually supportive partnership.
Practice Being Emotionally Vulnerable
Many of us have experienced disappointments in our relationships; we may have been disappointed by partners, family members, or friends. Heart break and relationship disappointments often prompt us to close ourselves off emotionally. While this may be an initially protective response to being hurt, if we stay emotionally guarded it will be difficult to open up and connect emotionally with a partner. In addition to my aforementioned recommendation to work to heal emotional wounds, it is also helpful to practice being emotionally vulnerable. You can begin this practice with yourself: when you are experiencing a difficult emotion, respond to yourself gently and with compassion, allow yourself to feel your feelings and offer yourself emotional and physical comfort as you are experiencing these emotions. You can also practice this with loved ones that you trust; share something you feel vulnerable about with someone who you knows cares about you and allow them to be supportive. As you share, be willing to sit with the discomfort you may feel when being vulnerable. Emotional intimacy is an important element of healthy relationships and getting more comfortable to be vulnerable emotionally will help you to do this in romantic relationships. To understand why practicing vulnerability is important check out Brené Brown’s TED talk on the topic: The Power of Vulnerability.
Practice Gratitude as a Way of life
Research has shown that gratitude to leads to happiness; despite this evidence, it is easy to think that things (a new partner, a new car, a new condo, a new job, a vacation etc.) will make us happy in a lasting way. It is so easy to get caught up in complaining about life, particularly when we are dating and struggling to find a partner. Unfortunately, being in a negative mental space and feeling frustrated about the world is not a great place to start a relationship and most people don’t find irritability and resentment to be attractive qualities. If you have found yourself falling into this trap I encourage you to practice gratitude. Practicing gratitude will not only increase your feelings of joy in your own life and make you more attractive to a potential partner, it will also help you to feel more joy once you are in a relationship. If you are accustomed to complaining about everything that is wrong in your life, you may end up looking for and complaining about problems with your partner and relationship, this will ultimately lead to unhappiness in your relationship. Identifying and articulating what you appreciate can help you to feel more satisfaction and joy with your partner and relationship. To start practicing gratitude, I encourage you to identify and write down five things you are grateful for every day. If you want to take it a step further, communicate to people why you are grateful for them similar to this Experiment in Happiness.