Romantic relationships can be an integral component of a fulfilling life. But if we put them on a pedestal and view them as the pinnacle of our existence, we might miss some important signs that we are in the wrong one. My last blog explored how to live up to the love you want. Part of that includes knowing when a relationship isn’t right for you.
Accept the love you deserve.
You deserve to be treated with respect, to be made a priority, and to feel important to your partner. Ask yourself the following:
- Does your partner take your thoughts and feelings seriously?
- Does your partner make time for you?
- Does your partner comfort you when you are in distress, in the ways that feel best to you?
- When you make a mistake, is your partner critical or do they give you the benefit of the doubt?
- Does your partner attempt to meet your needs, as you have expressed them?
- Does your partner share their appreciation for you, or do they focus on your imperfections?
- Do you feel at ease in this relationship, or are you constantly questioning yourself?
- Do you doubt your partner’s interest in you?
This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it should give you a general idea of whether you and your partner are a good fit for each other. If you realize that you are not pleased with your answers, it might be time to reflect on what is getting in the way of accepting the love you deserve.
Knowing what you deserve in relationships.
As you think through the questions above, what is it like to consider yourself deserving of respect, validation, and comfort? Perhaps you recognize that you are worthy of this kind of love, but something has gotten in the way of choosing a partner who can offer it to you. On the other hand, maybe the thought of having an attentive, thoughtful partner makes you feel uneasy, as if acknowledging what you deserve feels entitled or arrogant. Either way, it’s time to check in with yourself.
What you know vs what you feel.
Sometimes there’s a disconnect between what you know and what you feel. You might recognize that the partners you’ve been with have not offered you what you need, but something has drawn you to them or allowed you to settle for their subpar behavior. Rather than speaking up or even leaving, you remain unfulfilled and unhappy.
Be careful of shame.
When you take the time to sit with your lack of relationship satisfaction, you might begin to blame yourself. You might start to identify all the things that are wrong with you, the ways you are broken and destined to attract broken relationships. This is the voice of shame, trying to convince you that you deserve what you’re getting. That you’re not worthy of something better. Shame likes to lie to you about your worthiness. It’s not about you and your worthiness, though; it’s usually about your relationship history.
What have you been taught about relationships?
Let’s start with what you learned in your family and previous relationships. The relationship dynamics that you witnessed in your past may have conditioned you to expect a certain type of behavior from your romantic partners. These dynamics can feel so familiar that you settle into them without much thought. When you look back, how healthy were those dynamics? Ask yourself:
- How did my caregivers communicate and resolve conflict?
- What did I learn about affection and comfort from my caregivers?
- What did I learn about sexuality from my caregivers?
- Do my previous partners remind me of any of my caregivers?
- Do I behave like any of my caregivers when I’m in a relationship?
- What did communication and conflict resolution look like in my previous romantic relationships?
- How did my previous partners and I express affection to each other?
- What were my past sexual experiences like?
As you reflect on your relationship history, do you notice any themes or patterns? Do you notice any discomfort arising out of this exploration? If so, you might be uncovering important pieces to the puzzle of what keeps you in unhealthy relationships.
The extent to which you can offer yourself love and compassion impacts your ability to accept the love you deserve. If you question your value, you need to check back in with shame. As I said before, shame likes to lie to you about your worthiness. We all deal with shame from time to time–it’s part of the human experience. But it can be particularly destructive if your primary caregivers, past partners, or anyone in your history mistreated, neglected, or abused you.
When significant people in your life hurt you, especially when you are young, it’s common to blame yourself. You assume that if you were more important, they would never treat you so poorly. If you were lovable, they would hold you when you cry, share in your joy, or be gentle with you when you are imperfect. If the people who are supposed to care about you the most direct their anger or indifference toward you, there must be something wrong with you. It only seems logical, even if it’s not true.
These types of relationship experiences not only teach you what is “normal” in relationships, but they also condition you to believe that wanting something different is somehow wrong. That you are wrong for wanting more, because you don’t deserve anything better. So you disown those hopes and settle for what’s in front of you.
But those hopes don’t go away. They become background noise, trying to get your attention to remind you that you can have the kind of love that makes you feel safe and secure.
Start with your relationship to yourself.
Your relationship to yourself includes the stories you tell about yourself, the expectations you have for yourself, and the ways you treat yourself when your imperfections naturally surface. Notice how you talk to yourself. Your internal monologue speaks volumes about the beliefs and feelings you hold about yourself, as well as any shame that exists. Ask yourself:
- How kind or unkind are you to yourself?
- Do you expect yourself to be perfect?
- Does your inner critical voice sound like anyone you know (e.g., a caregiver, a partner, etc.)?
- How strong is your inner critical voice? Are there other “voices” or parts of you that are just as strong?
- What happens when someone else offers you kindness or compassion? Can you receive it or do you feel resistant to it?
- What’s it like to consider giving yourself kindness and compassion?
Your responses may bring up uncomfortable feelings. Pay attention to them to the degree that you can, because they are giving you vital information about your relationship to yourself. Go slowly, though, as this can be painful.
If you struggle with your self-worth, it can be very difficult to accept a respectful, nurturing love. What you know of love has been confused with hurt, anger, and fear. Healthy love might even feel scary, because something inside of you expects pain to follow the good feelings that love creates. The kind of relationships in which love is insecure, inconsistent, or harsh might seem more familiar to you and fit with your inaccurate beliefs about yourself. They certainly align with what shame will tell you! It makes sense that someone with this kind of history might end up in a pattern of unhealthy or unsatisfying relationships.
What happens next?
Spend some time getting to know yourself and your history. Explore your early relationships and your relationship with yourself to get some insight into your current romantic relationships. Discover your needs, and if it’s safe to do so, share them with your partner. Perhaps your partner would appreciate the opportunity to create a healthier, more secure relationship with you! A couples therapist could help both of you develop healthier expectations, communication, and boundaries.
If your partner is not interested in doing the work with you, use that as a data point in your decisions about staying in the relationship. You might consider individual therapy to assist you in understanding yourself and your relationships better. You’ll learn to focus on your own worth and separate yourself from old patterns that no longer serve you.
However you decide to move forward, the search for healthy relationships and the love you deserve starts with you.