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How to Be in a Relationship — Without Losing Yourself

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Having love in our lives is important to most of us. Numerous studies show that intimate relationships are the single most important source of life satisfaction. Romantic love is a predominant factor in psychological and physical well-being.

We rate love as important to our happiness for good reason: Psychologists have known for a long time that intimate relationships help us cope with personal stress and the vicissitudes of life. It turns out that having someone to love is important — and not just to help us get through the tough times. It may be even more important that our loved one helps us celebrate and take pleasure in the good times.

Joy matters just as much as being there.

Researcher Shelly Gable at USC Santa Barbara found that a partner’s supportive response to good news was rated higher than a partners supportive response to unfortunate incidents. Gable and her colleagues suggest that although being there for a partner dealing with a disappointment or distress is undeniably important to a relationship, it may not make a couple feel joy.

Joy matters. As marriage researcher John Gottman famously discovered, when a couple’s positive interactions outnumber the negative by a ratio of 5:1, the marriage is experienced as stable and happy.

The incomparable experience of intimacy.

No wonder one in four adults rate love as important to their happiness. The language of hormones and neurotransmitters will never be able to fully explain the incomparable experience of intimacy — feeling free to be open, even vulnerable, without fear of losing your partner’s affection.

How can we consciously cultivate intimacy? Social psychologists describe the process as something like this: It’s natural to be drawn to people who show us they like us. The personal validation that is offered by this exchange of positive emotions makes us feel good about ourselves and helps build our self-esteem. As we risk self-disclosure and receive validation by our partner, a trust is built that leads to further self-disclosure.

When the inevitable relationship conflicts, hurts, or disappointments occur, successful repair attempts heal the rift, re-establish trust, and reconnect us. This process of self-disclosure, validation, and successful repair attempts creates and sustains intimacy.

What if the source of stress is the relationship?

If love is important to our happiness, guess what is the most frequently reported cause of depression. Relationship stress. In fact, recent research suggests that a bad marriage may be even more of a mental and physical health risk factor than being single or divorced.

When we lose the connection to our beloved, what does that really mean? We no longer feel special to that special someone. We no longer feel interesting and attractive to, or admired and appreciated by, our beloved. We may even feel no longer lovable. We no longer feel safe to be ourselves. Interactions range anywhere from volatile and hostile to safe, comfortable, predictable, and airless.

Sometimes the relationship ruptures in glaring and obvious ways: open conflict and fighting, a betrayal of trust (often involving money or an affair), or some other form of chronic relationship disloyalty — consistently putting someone or something else before your partner, whether it’s your work, your children, your parents, or how you spend your leisure time.

Taking a relationship for granted puts it at risk.

More subtle (and more common) is the corrosive effect of taking the safety of the connection for granted, and beginning to show our worst sides to those who matter most. One or both partners become dismissive of each other’s feelings and don’t pick up on or respond to signs of distress in the other person.

More often than not, we ignore our partner’s emotional needs and inflict pain — not out of malice or meanness — but pure thoughtlessness.

Trying too hard to save a relationship puts it at risk.

If you’re too invested in a relationship continuing — if you’re too attached — you lose the one thing that made you most attractive to your partner in the first place: We are our most attractive in a relationship when we strike a balance of autonomy and availability — when we project both confidence and emotional openness.

In an attempt to not “rock the boat” we begin to keep our dissatisfactions secret and avoid confiding our needs, thinking this will keep the relationship safe. In fact, our good intentions and playing it safe heads us into dangerous waters that put the relationship at risk, even if it doesn’t feel that way.

Learning to be in a relationship — without losing yourself.

Whether we take the relationship for granted or try too hard to keep it going, small stress fractures begin in the relationship, followed by a gradual erosion of spontaneity, interest, affection, sexuality, and flat-out having fun and enjoying life with your partner.

In tracing back the steps of how a relationship reached the “spontaneous combustion” state, I usually find that the subtle erosion of intimacy is actually the precursor. So in reality, it’s not “spontaneous” combustion after all. Overwhelmingly, the set up for an affair is less about sex and more about needing to feel special— admired, interesting, attractive, lovable, appreciated — to someone. Ditto for most of the other forms of relationship demise, as well.

So what’s the solution? For some of us, the autonomy and confidence is already there — we’re not at risk of losing ourselves in the relationship. What’s needed is more focus on how to be in a relationship. Paradoxically, it starts with self-awareness: learning to understand your own feelings and motivations, strengths, and weaknesses, and to recognize their impact on others. From that foundation of self-awareness, it’s then easier to develop the social skills needed to accurately read other people, pick up on social cues, and consider other people’s feelings, especially when making decisions.

For others of us, we already have lots of emotional intelligence — about other people. But about ourselves? Not so much. We’re so tuned in to other people’s feelings that we bypass ourselves, lose track of our own wants and needs, and lose ourselves in a relationship. Interestingly, the process starts the same — with self-awareness. From that foundation, it’s then easier to develop the social skills needed to manage relationships to meet our needs.

The ultimate goal is the same for both people in the relationship: the incomparable experience of intimacy — finding ways to air their dissatisfactions and confide their needs with the assurance that, in doing so, they do not risk losing their partner’s affection.