Having a strong relationship requires both people to be able to keep themselves in a strong and resilient state. If you are burnt-out, overworking, neglecting your self-care either emotionally or physically, dealing with your stress in unwholesome ways like using a lot of alcohol and drugs, food, social media etc, then the chances are you aren’t in a fit state to offer your partner or relationship very much.
If you are not looking after yourself then you are more likely to behave in a stressed, grumpy, irritable or depressed way. You are likely to have a shorter fuse or be shut down and withdrawn. So often the first step for couples wanting to improve their relationship with each other is to improve their relationship with themselves. Often people need to develop some energy reserves and steadiness to be able to give quality time and energy to their relationship. Most of us know that we need to give our kids or our business or career time and energy if something good is to develop, yet we sometimes are surprised that our relationships are not working very well despite us giving them virtually no quality time or energy.
There is a saying in the relationship field; “You can’t have a deeper relationship with your partner than you have with yourself”. The implication is that love and care starts with self love and care. If you neglect yourself, or want to avoid how you are, then you will very likely be limited in how able you are to be open and vulnerable with your partner. On the other hand you may be so busy ‘collapsing’ and recovering or barely stumbling along through each week that you have nothing left over for the relationship. You may come across as so stressed and ‘touchy’ to your partner that it feels too ‘dangerous’ to get close to you or to engage with you much, the risk of you blowing up may seem too great.
I want to make a special mention about alcohol and drugs. Our culture really normalizes using them to deal with stress and unhappiness. But so often the short-term relief they give is outweighed by the long-term harm. In my experience there is a spectacularly strong association between couples having unpleasant upsets and fights and one or both of them having drunk or drugged. I advise all the couples I work with to cut back on their use of alcohol and drugs if they are having a lot of upsets. This simple shift can lead to quite a dramatic improvement in the conflict levels couples experience.
We owe it to ourselves, our relationship and families to take good care of our own well-being. Knowing what soothes, nourishes and nurtures us and making sure we do enough of it. Noticing when we are not feeling OK and knowing what to do about it. This kind of self-responsibility is the foundational requirement for us to be in a fit state for relating with those we love. Taking good care of our bodies and energy levels and being kind and loving in how we think about ourselves is important. Checking on things like our self worth and our self-talk is vital. And if our negative attitude toward ourselves is pulling us down, then doing something about it.
In couple therapy I have found that it does not work to give people who are already exhausted and overwhelmed a list of tasks or things to try to improve their relationship. It will often just add to their overwhelm and may even push them into feeling even worse about themselves when they fail to find the time and energy to do them. They may end up feeling that they are not only ‘failing’ at their relationship but they are also ‘failing’ at therapy.
So if you are on this page looking for help with your relationship – have a think about how you are treating yourself. It might be that the first thing or the simplest thing you can do to improve things with your partner is to improve things for yourself.