Individuals come to a relationship with many needs: physical, emotional, intellectual, and sexual. It is a sign of maturity to form a personal identity and become aware of your specific needs. Acquiring self-esteem is also essential to having a healthy identity. Feeling esteemed means viewing yourself as a person of worth, a person deserving of love.
Practicing “Me + We”
Dr. Daniel Siegal, a psychiatrist and director of the Mindsight Institute, describes healthy relationships as being a “mwe,” which stands for me plus we. The individuated self can survive and thrive in the mwe. It becomes okay to want what you want. In relationships that honor the mwe, you can advocate for yourself while also loving your partner.
Focusing on yourself exclusively can create a relationship imbalance. Dr. Stan Tatkin, founder of PACT couples therapy, suggests couples operate from a two-person psychological system based on the needs of both parties. You recognize your partner as a unique human being with needs of their own. In a two-person relationship, partners value mutual influence. You and your partner honor your relationship by making a decision that is good for each of you and good for the relationship.
In secure relationships, partners will face situations where it makes sense to lean toward selflessness, as it may preserve couple harmony. If you are facing demands of work, home, and kids, you may discover that your partner is rarely on your radar. As a couples therapist, I find that partners don’t think of their significant other often enough, and the needs of their partner become an afterthought, taking lower priority.
Your relationship can benefit by placing your partner’s needs above competing interests at times. Adding an element of selflessness to your relationship is not as hard as you may think.
[Read: “Why Your Attachment Style Matters.”]
4 Ways to Shift From Self-Focused to Partner-Focused
Express interest in who your partner is, not just what they do for you. You may appreciate your partner’s role as co-parent, lover, financial contributor, and faucet fixer. But who are they beyond their relationship to you? Keep in mind your partner has personal opinions, feelings, worries, desires, and interests that may be different from yours. Be curious and try to understand and appreciate their unique self.
For example, does your partner live to play basketball, while you find basketball a royal bore? Stop sitting out on their life. Instead, focus on what fascinates your significant other. Be all ears when they talk about the shot they made that won the game or suggest a date night to attend a professional game and watch your partner’s face light up.
Become your partner’s cheerleader. Having your partner on your radar involves encouraging them in their endeavors. Perhaps your partner is vying for a management position in a top company. You can show your support by taking a fresh look at their resume or offering to participate in a mock interview. When you look at your partner with admiration or express pride at a task well done, they feel seen by you. They recognize you have their back, freeing them up to be their best self in the world.
[Read: “A Letting Go Ritual for Couples.”]
Tackle a “Honey-Do.” Just getting through your day may feel monumental. Being able to cross off an item on your list of things to do likely gives you a sense of self-satisfaction. On those rare days when you have an ounce of extra energy, how about checking your partner’s to-do list and see if there is a honey-do request on it. Your willingness to go out of your way to cross something off that list validates how much they matter to you.
Advocate for your special person. Recognize that your partner’s needs are as important as your own. If you disagree over an important issue, switch places and argue for what your partner wants. How does it feel to walk in their shoes? Maybe you can be generous and support your partner’s position this time. When you’re tempted to get your way, it may be helpful to remind yourself that mutuality is an important component of secure love.
If you do give up something for your partner, try to avoid lording it over them. Reminding your partner of all the times you sacrificed for them is boastful and annoying. It tarnishes the luster of your gift.
Alternating between advocating for your needs and the needs of your partner hits the sweet spot of healthy, secure functioning in relationships. Just as we need to balance the energies of yin and yang for the health of our individual self, we need to balance the polarities between self and other for the health of our relationship.
Want more on love and relationships? Read: “What to Expect When You’re In Love With an Empath.”