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  • Lisa Blair, M.A.

It's Me, Not You: When Relationship Work is Personal Work

Perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned about sustainable relationships is this: People have a tendency to confuse the need to work on their relationship with the actual need to work on themselves.[1]

Because people often assume their relationship conflicts are about the relationship itself, they think they need to address the problem together with their partner(s) in “relationship work.”[2] This perspective assumes that it is the relationship that is “not good” or is flawed and that “it” needs to be fixed.

Consequently, this puts undue pressure on the relationship. While there are instances in which relationship difficulties deserve the shared attention of the partners together, many issues are better tended to on an individual basis.

Each partner brings their own personal history to the relationship. Some people call this emotional baggage. Collins English Dictionary defines emotional baggage to be: the feelings you have about your past and the things that have happened to you, which often have a negative effect on your behavior and attitudes.

But, the term personal history includes more than this. Your personal history certainly includes childhood wounds and how you consciously feel about them, but it also includes deeper unmet needs, resulting triggers, and internalized oppression from your family of origin as well as the culture at large.

Perhaps most powerfully, it also includes your unconscious narratives about how your partner seems to look and feel just like the person (or persons) from your childhood who hurt you or didn’t meet your needs. I call this the stories we tell ourselves.

Caveat: While it’s still important to look at your own psychology if you have an abusive or narcissistic partner, you should take seriously the harm they cause you and not blame yourself for your partner’s actions.[3]

In most relationships, one partner’s complex personal history collides with their partner’s, and it becomes a recipe for hurt, anger, resentment, frustration, and blame. Their wounds dovetail like a perfectly crafted joint on a cabinet drawer. A messy entanglement ensues.

The relationship turns into a place where each person regularly and unconsciously projects on to their partner. It looks to each person as if their partner is at fault and/or the relationship is inherently problematic and not going well. In short, each person begins telling themselves—albeit unconsciously—a story about their partner and their relationship that is false.

Here are some examples of three sets of partners and how they first viewed their problems as either caused by their partner and/or the result of their flawed relationship.[4]

Amber wishes her partner, Paul, would initiate sex more often. Paul is tired of having one more thing he “has” to be responsible for but wants to make Amber happy. He, too, would enjoy having sex more often but not under pressure. They regularly feel hopeless about being able to make a change and self-critical about themselves and their relationship, thinking that their relationship must not be doing well since they don’t have sex very often.

Julia wishes Andrew would be more open to emotionally deep conversations and generally be less conservative. She feels unmet by him in her desire to be more emotionally expressive and feels stifled by him around her more creative, sensual, and non-traditional style in both her clothing and in her flirtatious and playful personality. Independent of Julia, Andrew mostly feels content with their life together (except for feeling like he works too hard) and identifies with trying hard to give Julia the things she wants including more freedom to explore her alternative work life. However, one day they have a big conflict in which the normally peaceful Andrew explodes, feeling threatened by Julia’s more expressive ways, fearing she is having an affair. Julia feels that Andrew is not open to his feelings, complains that their relationship is unfulfilling, and secretly thinks of leaving regularly. They both acknowledge that they fear their relationship is in jeopardy.

Meet Marcy and Sonja. Marcy feels overwhelmed by a new job that is hugely demanding. She comes home every evening exhausted and ranting to Sonja about her endless frustrations at work, wanting Sonja to join in her frustration and care for her overwhelm. Her partner, Sonja, is a writer who stays at home all day caring for their two-year-old child. She has little interaction with adults and feels frustrated that she has no time anymore for her writing. Sonja would rather have deeper adult conversations and so doesn’t want to listen to Marcy endlessly complain. Sonja feels overlooked and dismissed by Marcy, and Marcy, as the sole breadwinner, feels unheard and unsupported by Sonja. They fight regularly, blaming the other for their needs not getting met, and feeling as if their relationship is going downhill fast.

Do you see yourself or your intimate relationship, if you are currently in one, resembling any of these people or situations? Many of us have been in one of their shoes in one form or another at some point in our life. While the specific details may vary, many people experience elements of what these people are experiencing.

Now let’s consider an alternative approach.

Instead of focusing on what's wrong in the relationship, each of the three couples has the opportunity to pull back, separate out each of their own issues, and work on them internally or with the help of a therapist or facilitator. When they are able to do this, the couples put much less pressure on their relationship and their partners to solve their problems or tend to the needs and experiences that they have internalized from past experiences and unconscious belief systems. As a result, they project less onto their partners. This relieves the relationship of serving the purpose of healing their individual wounds, and offers instead a pathway to personal empowerment and emotional intimacy.

The good news about this alternative perspective and approach is that it frees up individuals to be more like compassionate companions with their partner in the journey of relationship rather than conflicting adversaries—a journey in which both partners are aware that they bring their own histories and experiences to the relationship table. They can then empathize with and support one another throughout their individual journeys and see more clearly how their individual processes entangle together.

Let’s return to each relationship after they’ve separated out their individual histories and processes from their relationship:

Amber and Paul

When Amber and Paul separate out their individual histories and personal processes from their relationship, Amber realizes she is shy around initiating sex and unconsciously carries a lot of patriarchal and religious assumptions that women shouldn’t initiate. She also realizes she carries an unconscious belief that she won’t know if Paul really “wants” her if she’s the one initiating. Amber explores her shyness, with the help of her therapist, and finds ways to initiate sex that are more authentic for her personality. She also learns to trust herself to notice Paul’s genuine desire of her, rather than needing him to initiate sex as the sole “evidence” for his attraction.

Paul realizes he gives way too much of himself in all areas of his life. He takes care of his mother and sister who both struggle to support themselves, and he gives too much at his job where everyone asks him to shoulder more responsibility because he’s so dependable. Paul works with his therapist on learning how to establish more boundaries, and starts the difficult but important long-term journey of letting go of trying to please everyone.

When Amber and Paul work with their own individual processes, it takes the pressure off their relationship and creates more emotional intimacy between them as they learn what the other partner is challenged by on a deeper level. They support each other in their individual journeys, and their sexual life begins to open up more because all the pressure no longer rests entirely on it.

Julia and Andrew

When Julia and Andrew pull their histories and processes apart from one another, Julia realizes she is in conflict with her own internalized, conservative mother and sexist cultural figures who stop her from expressing herself the way she wants to with Andrew, from wearing the clothes she wants to wear to being more flirtatious and playful in the world with everyone (not just men). With the help of her therapist, she explores how she stops herself and what she fears will happen when she gives herself more freedom and stops projecting on to Andrew that he is the “stopper.” Soon she is able to give herself the permission she wanted from Andrew to express herself more authentically and wholly.

Andrew learns that he felt abandoned by his mother in his childhood after his father died when Andrew was young. His mother was in over her head and required Andrew to be self-sufficient and even be a kind of “parent” to his mother and younger sister. In adulthood, he regularly abandons himself because he never learned how to be with his own feelings, how to care for himself, and how to express his needs. He has unresolved trauma there that he begins to work through with a therapist.

As they begin to explore their own individual processes, they start getting along better and feel more compassionate and supportive of what the other is going through, rather than resentful and threatened. Julia no longer feels so stopped by Andrew in her self-expression, and Andrew begins to share more of his inner feelings and needs with Julia who, in turn, feels more met in the relationship and no longer dreams of leaving him.

Marcy and Sonja

When Marcy and Sonja separate out their personal histories and processes from one another, Marcy realizes that she feels unable to do anything about her job because she feels she needs to show her new boss that she is a high performer and tow the line without complaint. She is also currently the sole breadwinner for the family and feels that there is no room for her to make waves at her job. As Marcy digs deeper, with the help of her therapist, she also realizes she has always felt from an early age that she had to “take what was dished out to her” and not complain. In addition, she internalized a lack of agency being a woman in a patriarchal world. She works with her therapist on empowering her voice, finding ways to delegate at work, saying “no” to certain projects, and eventually bringing in her own ideas and directions more, to the delight of her boss. Marcy feels more satisfied at work and less overwhelmed and frustrated when she returns home.

While Sonja always dreamed of being a mother, she also realizes she said “yes” to raising their child at the expense of her creative life because she felt family and societal pressure to devote herself entirely to their child, especially during the formative early years. She realizes that it’s not a sacrifice she wishes to continue but needs help processing the guilt she feels about pursuing her own dreams, and reaches out to a therapist for this support. She also makes more connections with some of the other stay-at-home parents and swaps play dates with two of them in order to get two free days each week for her writing. Her parents agree to pay for one additional day of daycare. Now Sonja has three days to write. On the weekends, Marcy is happier and less exhausted, and the three of them plan a fun outing every Sunday as a family when Marcy used to spend much of the day putting in extra time at work. Finally, Marcy and Sonja agree to pay for a sitter so that they can have a date night together every two weeks. They begin to reconnect with how much they enjoy each other’s company and no longer feel as if their relationship is in danger of ending.

Separating out our individual processes from our relationship can work wonders. It can make room for a new kind of emotional intimacy in a relationship that was previously fraught with blame, shame, anger, and resentment. In addition, once we learn more about our own limiting belief systems, old wounds, traumas, and fears, we can begin to share our vulnerabilities, deeper feelings, and experiences with our partner, bridging the gap of isolation and opening the door for mutual understanding, empathy, hope, and intimacy.

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[1] In my general discussion of ideas in this post, I’m using the pronouns “they” and “them” rather than “she” or “he” to acknowledge variations in gender identity and to include non-binary people. Later, in the specific examples, I use the pronouns preferred by the individuals.

[2] This post could apply to polyamorous relationships as well, but for the sake of ease in explanation, I’m focusing on just two partners at a time.

[3] Abuse is not equal ground. Abuse means that one person is getting injured and cannot defend themselves. While both partners have personal histories and issues that can be separated and worked through, this kind of scenario is not what I’m referring to.

[4] Some of the individuals in these examples are based on composites of more than one client. In addition, while many details in each example are real, other elements (including names) are fictitious. I’ve done this to protect anonymity and to illustrate the learning points most clearly.

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