A Healthy Relationship Begins With a Healthy You

Too often, intimate relationships begin with hope and promise, only to end in heartache and disappointment.  If you’ve had too many relational crash-and-burns, the very first and most important question you need to consider is this:  Have you properly prepared yourself to have a quality, successful relationship?  Most people have not, and this article is meant to help you address this in your own life.

How Do You Hope to be Treated by an Intimate Partner?

When asked this question, most people will offer a predictable set of answers.  It seems that practically all of us wish to be treated with respect, kindness, understanding, sensitivity, interest, honesty, responsibility, etc.  Who wouldn’t want those things??

The magic question then is why, if these represent near-universal human desires, are you failing to inspire this kind of behavior in your intimate partners?  The answer may be uncomfortably closer than you think.  The next magic question then, is, how consistently do you treat yourself with respect, kindness, understanding, sensitivity, interest, honesty, responsibility, etc.? 

Something I see over and over again in my practice and in life, is nice people who just want others to be nice to them, yet who treat themselves as utterly unimportant and unworthy of quality in life.  If you’re reading this article, there’s a good chance that you’re one of those nice people who would do anything for anyone, but very little for yourself.  You don’t do things for yourself because you can’t afford it, or you don’t have time, or whatever.  I know you have lots of good reasons for neglecting yourself, and that you use none of those reasons when it comes down to what you give of yourself to others.

Many people fear that acting more in their own best interests would be selfish; this could be true if carried to an extreme and in a manner that was actively detrimental to others – probably not something you’re likely to do.  The truth is probably that you spend money, time, energy, etc on others because you love them and wish to give to them, and that you don’t spend those resources on yourself because you haven’t realized that you’re important enough to be worth it.

If this is the level of importance that you assign to yourself, then you broadcast that message to the world, whether you know it or not.  The world gets the message loud and clear, and presto – you attract people who treat you as poorly as you treat yourself.  Not convinced, yet?  Try this test:  Write a short narrative of the ways in which you treat yourself as second-best.  It may include things like broken promises, not enough opportunities for enjoyment, poor self-care, little or inconsistent effort to make your life better and nicer for yourself, etc.  Now, in that narrative, substitute a love interest making those kinds of choices about how to treat you… does it sound like any relationships you’ve had? 

Okay, so we’ve identified an important starting point.  It is essential to treat yourself with the quality you hope for from others for two reasons.  First, if you don’t, it’s much less likely that anyone else will.  Second, if you don’t, then a poor relational partner can end up looking like a hero (at least temporarily), just because they treat you a little better than the lousy way you treat yourself.  So how do you go about being more loving and caring of you, thus inspiring others to do the same?

Getting Your Act Together

If you know that you’re kind of a mess personally, this is no time to start a relationship, because you won’t want to have anyone who would settle for you in such poor condition.  Your life now is going to be about quality – having it to enjoy, having it to give, and being able to receive it from others.  Here are some tasks to accomplish which will put you well on your way to happier, more peaceful times, with yourself and with others.

1. Clean up your baggage from the past as much as possible, to save new relationships from paying the price for what’s gone wrong before.  Through therapy, self-help reading, or whatever means, learn as much as you can from your past disappointments in relationships.  What warning signs did you miss?  What could you have done differently?  What lessons have you learned?  What skills do you need to strengthen in order to do better now?

2. Create personal balance.  If you depend on a love interest to make your world right, you are putting an unreasonable burden on the relationship and putting yourself in an overly dependent position.  You can prevent or reduce this risk by consistently maintaining the following factors in your life:

a. Interests, passions, and/or projects of personal value.  A life without these is generally boring, if not outright depressing.  A person without these is often a boring and uninspiring partner, therefore failing to attract the loving involvement that s/he so craves from others to make up for everything else that’s missing.  The more compelling you make your life for yourself, the more satisfying your life will be, and the more attractive and interesting you will be to a partner. 

b. Friendships of your own, outside the relationship.  No one person can meet all of the needs of any other person.  Relationships built on this kind of neediness can feel very strong and connected at first, but usually tilt badly out of balance and eventually fail.  Having other friendships gives your partner a break because you can get some support elsewhere, and brings more energy, ideas, and novel experiences into your life, which you can then share in the relationship.

c. Educational and career goals.  Have some of these, always.  As with maintaining outside friendships, it keeps you from becoming overly dependent on your intimate relationship to meet all of your needs.  It is particularly important for women to keep this in mind at all phases of their lives, regardless of their relational status.  Statistically, the vast majority of women will spend some part of their adulthood alone, and that time will be spent much more comfortably if there is a sense of vocational identity and a basic ability to provide adequate income for oneself.

d. Good self-care, including nutrition, fitness, and effective stress management.  Everything that you wish to do, experience, and have in this life will come to you more readily and stay with you more consistently if you keep yourself in top operating condition at all times.  This will make your personal experience with yourself much more rewarding, as well as making you a much more desirable partner for others.

3. Be willing to wait for someone who fits your needs well.  It is to your great advantage to learn how to be peaceful with aloneness.  Too many people have ended up with bad relationships because they chose based on fear of limited options, rather than truly believing this was the right person to be with.  You need to learn how to deal with the risk of not finding Ms./Mr. Right for a while, so you’ll be available when s/he crosses your path, instead of you having grabbed somebody so-so just because you thought you had no better option.  There’s a great quote from The Power of Now, by Eckhart Tolle, which addresses the importance of learning to live with yourself before you try to live with someone else: “If you cannot be at ease with yourself when you are alone, you will seek a relationship to cover up your unease.  You can be sure that the unease will then reappear in some other form within the relationship, and you will probably hold your partner responsible for it.”   

The Result?  A Better You

Once you’ve gotten your act together, or at least have the project well underway, you will be enjoying yourself much more, and will have much more of quality to share with a potential partner.  This means you will automatically attract attention from higher quality people, the kind of people with whom you could actually have a sustainable, rewarding relationship. 

Doing your homework on yourself also means that you’ll have the confidence to be more selective, rather than feeling that you’d better be grateful for anyone who will pay attention to you.  It becomes easier to say no to unsuitable candidates who you might previously have taken simply because they were there, and because they were willing to have you.  You are a unique and special spirit who deserves someone who feels honored to be with you; it’s time to stop wasting time with those who don’t see this in you.

You will now be much more aware of what your various needs are in a relationship, and much better able to articulate them effectively.  This is important, because if you aren’t seeing to getting these needs met, no one else can.  How else will you get what you really want and need if you can't convey it to others?

Another great result of getting your act together is that you will no longer need someone else to complete you, because you will be a whole, vital being on your own, whose life will go from really good to even better when you find a good partner.  While the idea of “You complete me” seemed romantic at the movies, it’s a nightmare in real life. Whoever it is that needs completing (too often, it’s both people) will bring emotional neediness and/or damage to the relationship that can eventually destroy it.

Now, You’re Almost Ready…

The last bit of business before you head out into the world of dating is to get very clear about what your relational needs and priorities are.  There are two lists you should make, and yes, you should write these down…

First, make a list of items that are of deal-breaking importance for you.  This means both factors that you absolutely must have (i.e., open communication, compatible life goals) in order to be happy, and also factors that you absolutely must not have (i.e., alcoholism, emotional abuse, still involved with last partner, etc.).  This list might not be incredibly long, but each single item on it will, all by itself, have the power to rule out a relationship.  Once you’ve made these choices, stand by them no matter what your heart may later tell you.  Your brain is much better than your heart at these kinds of decisions; you’ll live a better life if you listen to it more often.

Your second list is what you might consider relational luxury items.  These are factors you’d really like (i.e., preferred height, age, s/he shares your interest in bungee-jumping, etc.), but you could live without most of them if you had to, as long as all the deal-breaking items are okay.  The catch for your “luxury” list is that there is nothing on it – even every item on it added together – that can outweigh even one errant deal-breaker.  Many people have gambled on the bet that enough luxuries could make it work despite a known deal-breaker.  This usually buys some time, which actually just makes it emotionally harder when the inevitable end comes; run these odds at your own risk.

The last thing you need to do is to honestly assess what attracts you to potential mates, and look at how this compares to what you really want in a long-term relationship.  For example, if you crave loving stability, you’ve got to quit going after the drama queens and bad boys.  If you can’t work this out, it may be time to do some self-help reading or therapy until you do.

Nothing in this article or in life can guarantee you a happy ending, but if you use these guidelines to prepare yourself, your chances for a successful relationship will be better than they’ve ever been.  Good luck, and remember that regardless of your relational status at any given time, the important thing is to always create the highest quality life for yourself that you can. 

Copyright © 2008, Elizabeth Babcock, LCSW.  All rights reserved.


Related articles:  

How to Tell When Your Relationship is Out of Balance
How to Turn Arguments into Healthy Discussions

Save Your Marriage and Keep It Strong

Self-Esteem, Part One: What Self-Esteem Means and Why Yours Matters

Self-Esteem, Part Two: Challenges to Self-Esteem as You Grow Through Life

Self-Esteem, Part Three: Common Signs of Low Self-Esteem

Self-Esteem, Part Four: Building Stronger Self-Esteem



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