Quick Tips #30: What are my rights and responsibilities in relationships?
Question: I want to have a certain level of freedom in my relationship. I have heard you say that if you want to have freedom, you need to accept responsibility. Please can you elaborate on that?
Answer: In order for us to feel healthy and happy, both in and out of relationships, certain rights and responsibilities need to be fulfilled. Co-dependency and oppression within relationships affects our sense of ourselves, and vice versa: When we are not healthy in ourselves and when we don’t support ourselves strongly from that place of health, we attract situations and people who reflect back to us how we treat ourselves. The negative tension between our self responsibility and how we treat ourselves almost always makes us perceive that others treat us in a similarly negative way. Let me give you an example of what I mean by this: if you feel that your partner or friend is taking much of your time, and that you don’t have down time to yourself, your partner is reflecting back to you the fact that your down time needs are not being met. This can make you feel like your partner or friend is treating you in a disrespectful way, and that they are to blame for sucking up all your time. But instead, what is happening is that you have a blind spot within you to make you feel that it’s your partner is hogging your time, but in fact it is you not asking for your needs to be met that is making you feel disempowered. Continuing to self sacrifice your time without talking to your partner or friend about it, or to expect your partner or friend to know to change their behaviour without you having to say anything to them will keep you in the dysfunction. And of course, both continuing to self sacrifice and thinking that your partner or friend should just “know” will keep you tightly bound in the sense of oppression and codependency. What we are really talking about here is the most important form of responsibility within relationships, and one that many immature people struggle with: Emotional responsibility.
Dr Margaret Paul, PhD says that “When people do not take responsibility for their own feelings, they tend to try making their partner responsible for their own happiness, emotional safety and self-worth. As adults, if we are emotionally stable, happiness, emotional safety and self-worth come from how we treat ourselves and others, rather than from how others treat us. Therefore, if we are abandoning ourselves rather than loving and valuing ourselves, we will feel unhappy and emotionally unsafe, and have low self-worth. If we then blame our partner for our feelings, we participate in creating an unhealthy relationship.” So to recap, taking emotional responsibility for your part in your relationship or friendship has the power to transform the whole relationship into a more loving and close one.
Next, let’s talk about Connection
We all need connection. We need to know that we relate to something or someone outside ourselves. We need to have a point of reference to the outside world so that we don’t feel isolated and unsafe. When we take loving care of ourselves and take responsibility for making ourselves happy, we generally want to share the happiness with others around us. How we connect to others is our responsibility and ours alone.
The energy that you bring to all your interactions with your partner or your friends will largely determine what kind of interaction you will have with the other person. At this stage people usually say, well, I would be all ok, but my partner is always negative or he or she is the one who is not contributing to this situation at all. I’m doing all the work. See what you did there: you are bringing an attitude of anticipated disempowerment to the situation when you state that you are trying to change but your partner won’t. It might just be your attitude, not theirs, that is keeping you in this pattern, Try something new and see things change. Remember, you need to fail forward at least 30 times to become fluent in doing something new. Don’t just try something once and say it didn’t work. Keep focusing on what is possible, not what has been in the past. Creating a great connection where you can both relax, stay present and enjoy one another can take a lot of work, especially if there’s some old negative pattern playing in the background. Staying present and spending undemanding time with your partner can recreate a feeling of mutual trust and support. If you struggle with this, try to remember the reasons why you got together in the first place and intentionally notice when your partner or your friend is doing something meaningful for you. When you make it your business to see the positive in the person, you’ll see much more of the positive, and your physical, as well as emotional, connection has an opportunity to transform to something very special.
Many laugh when I say that one of the most amazing things you can do for your connection is to spend time apart. In healthy relationships, partners can enjoy being together, but their well-being is not dependent on being with each other. Emotional dependency is the opposite of true connection. While many of us enjoy being with our partner or friends all the time, to continue our personal journey of independent development, we need to make sure to take time to be alone as well. This time alone allows introspection, self care and self support, and you won’t be the only person who will benefit from alone time. Your partner and friends will also benefit from not being around you constantly. They, too, will have an opportunity for introspection, self care and self support, and when 2 or more rested people come together, amazing things can happen. Another benefit of spending time apart is that it gives us an opportunity to miss our partner. The same way that we start taking driving for granted within months of getting our driver’s license, we can become accustomed to having our partner around all the time. This can lead us to taking our partner for granted, and let’s face it: nobody likes being taken for granted. Spending time apart gives us a chance to embrace our partner as the amazing individual that they are. Some of us simply enjoy being with our own friends or pursuing different interests. In a healthy relationship partners can offer this support for each other, even with dissimilar interests. If you are not already doing this, learn to support your partner’s independent interests. After all, it is what makes them whole!
Now, let’s talk about Communication
Relationships thrive when both partners are kind, accepting, compassionate and empathetic. The communication with partners should reflect on this approach in relating. It’s amazing how often this occurs once you both have learned to be kind, accepting, compassionate and empathetic toward yourselves independently. Remember, people treat others only the way that they really treat themselves. They may seem like they only care about themselves, but you can bet your bottom dollar that if people treat others in disrespectful ways, that they treat themselves at least equally badly, if not worse. This may give you insight and understanding about what your partner or friend is going through, and it may release some previous points of friction and deepen your relationship onto a new level.
Dr. Paul says that “Healthy relationships have a system for learning from their conflicts and resolving their conflicts in ways that work for each partner. Healthy partners are able to listen attentively to each other’s points of view and do not get stuck in having to be right or having to win. A healthy relationship is an evolving relationship — i.e., each partner is learning and growing through the relationship, and often through the conflicts. Conflict can provide fertile ground for learning when each partner’s intent is to learn, rather than to control or avoid being controlled.”
Because the basis of a healthy relationship is continuous evolution, communication with your partner or friend is key. Here are some exercises for you to work on - do these exercises either with your partner or a friend if you are single:
Emotional responsibility: When conflict arises, instead of getting defensive, try taking responsibility for your part in the conflict. It may be that you made a passive-aggressive or an annoyed comment that took your partner or friend over the edge. It may be that you didn’t enforce appropriate boundaries with your friend or your partner early enough, and now the situation escalated into something much bigger than the issue in hand. The bottom line is that if you find yourself in a place of conflict, you have contributed to it in some way. What can you take responsibility for without taking all of the responsibility?
Make a point of spending an hour or two of undemanding time with your partner or friend. Observe your response to the situation. Are you feeling like you should do something? Is it feeling awkward? Would you rather do something else? If you get too uncomfortable, ask your partner or friend some questions about them. What new things did you learn or observe in your partner or friend?
In a situation of conflict, take a moment to gather yourself and try taking a more empathetic approach to what your partner or friend is saying. Are you actually listening to them, or are you just waiting for them to stop talking so that you can make your counterpoint. Try listening to him or her and validating their point of view with sentences such as: “I see what you mean”, or “I can tell this is very painful for you”. This way you are validating where they are coming from without necessarily having to agree with them.
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