Stop Trying to Be a “Good” Partner and Start Being Yourself
Here’s my first piece of advice when it comes to cultivating emotional intimacy in your relationship.
Stop trying to be such a good partner! Yup, you heard me. Just stop.
Why? The opposite of being a “good” partner is being you. But we’ll get to more of that in a moment.
Telling you to stop trying to be a “good” partner does not mean that I’m telling you to be a bad partner. I do not condone any form of abuse, cruelty, or mistreatment. There are serious dangers in the world of relationship. The majority of women in my practice have suffered at the hands of an abusive person whether that’s a parent, guardian, relative, partner, or stranger. They’re enduring life-long effects, unspeakable pain and suffering, not to mention the many thousands of dollars of therapy bills.
So what do I mean by “stop being a good partner”? Advice abounds on the Internet and in self-help books with a million and one ways to be a better partner, from Do One Nice Thing for Your Partner Every Day to Forgive, Compromise, Listen, Be Positive (Breindel, 2018; Deitz, 2016; Gottman et al, 2019). You’ve most likely already followed a lot of advice on how to be a good partner and while it may have helped somewhat, you still don’t feel the closeness you want to feel with your partner. Why?
Being a “good” partner is the most important thing you can do to create emotional intimacy.
Being a good partner is all well and good. It’s just not the best way to create emotional intimacy in your relationship, as counterintuitive as that may sound. Many of us are so unconsciously programmed to try to be a good partner that we forget to focus on being ourselves.
THE PITFALLS OF BEING A “GOOD” PARTNER
When you’re so focused on being good partners to one another, you sometimes put your true selves away. For example, let’s say you make the bed like your partner likes, you compliment them in the way they want, you listen intently, you pay for the trip to that special place they’ve been wanting to go, and so forth. You bend yourself around like Gumby, saying and doing the things you know will make them happy. But what if you don’t have it in you to listen or what if going on that vacation your partner wants will make you feel like you have to work even harder than you already do?
When you repeatedly, over months and years, subvert or deny parts of your genuine nature by only playing the role of the good partner, you risk losing touch with your authentic experience, with your soul, with your truth. Things look really good on the outside but secretly, one or both of you feel more alone or hopeless than ever because neither one of you is showing up as their true selves. When this happens, there is no one truly present to connect with. Without access to your genuine experience, emotional intimacy becomes extremely difficult and at times impossible. The longer you play the good partner when it’s not authentically you, the wider the gap grows between you and your partner. At some point, you must choose between playing the good partner and being yourself.
Faking it can’t create more closeness; it can only create distance. Without the two of you showing up as your most authentic selves, you will not be able to take the emotional intimacy in your relationship to the next level. It’s likely the gap between you will widen more and more.
HONORING AUTHENTICITY AND INDIVIDUALITY
There’s a risk either way. The risk to playing only the good partner is that the lack of deeper authenticity can contribute to you and your partner feeling further apart, not closer. And so, if greater emotional intimacy is your objective then this approach won’t help in a sustainable way.
On the other hand, if you decide to try being more of your true self, you risk hurting your partner’s feelings and/or having a conflict, because you’re not giving them what they may want. You’re breaking an unconscious agreement with your partner to not rock the boat so you can both feel okay.
However, if you’ve talked it over and have the shared goal of being more real with each other—realness wrapped with love, self-awareness, and a non-shaming attitude—you can work through that moment of conflict and find on the other side that actually you feel closer (Bedrick, 2020). Now this is a risk worth taking. That brings us to the truth that counters the myth.
Being your authentic self and honoring individuality is the most important thing you can do to create emotional intimacy.
In a relationship where emotional intimacy is the goal, when two partners are able to be themselves, they can learn how to accept and adjust to each person’s individuality with the goal of sustainable connection.
Honoring individuality means viewing yourself and your partner as sovereign beings, each with a unique nature, manner of self-expression, communication style, needs, desires, goals, and dreams.
Here are some statements I’ve heard from clients and friends over the years when asked the question, “If you were more like yourself in your relationship and less focused on being a good partner how would you act differently or what would you do differently?”
I need a lot of alone time. I would take more time by myself but I’m afraid to because my partner gets hurt and thinks it’s because I don’t want to spend time with her.
I work so hard to provide for my wife and kids that I barely have a moment to think about what would make me happy. I wish I could just take some time off.
I would take regular day trips to go on little adventures, but I hardly ever do that because they prefer staying close to home.
I have a more provocative personality then I tend to show around my partner because she’s really sensitive and I don’t want to hurt her feelings.
I would spend more time with my friends.
I would let my intelligence come out more even if meant that my partner might feel a little insecure.
I would dress sexier, not to get people’s attention, but because I would feel more like myself. But my boyfriend gets jealous when I do, so I tone it down.
I would travel a lot more and live in a smaller house, but my partner loves our house and I want to make her happy.
I would stop being so understanding about how much my partner works and I would make him spend the day with me!
I know it’s important to listen to your partner, but I feel like I do it even when I’m exhausted or totally disinterested in what she has to say.
I would express my opinions a lot more, but I don’t want to be dominating, so I tend to keep them to myself.
Being your authentic self might mean saying things such as, “I’m so exhausted; I wish I could listen to you, but I just don’t have it in me right now.” Or, “I know we planned to spend Saturday together, but would you mind if we postpone our plans to next weekend and I take the day to do my own thing? I’m been really overloaded this week and I think I just need some alone time.” Or, “I’d love to give you that vacation, but I really need to have a conversation with you about how stressful it is for me to be working so much to support us. I can’t keep holding it all by myself.” Or, “I’ve been noticing lately how much I’m keeping my opinions to myself and I’m starting to get grumpy about it. Please speak freely back to me; I don’t want you to put yourself away just because I’m being more vocal!” We can still be ourselves and use our desire to be a good partner by expressing our feelings and needs with compassion, sensitivity, and awareness.
ON BEING YOU
In order to be yourself in relationship, it helps to know who you each really are. Whether you’re in a new relationship or have been together for years, it’s easy to lose track of your authentic self when in relationship. You may need to do some self-exploration to find your center again. To get you started, here are some questions you can ask yourself to explore this further. You may want to journal about it, discuss it with a trusted friend or advisor, or ponder it during some quiet, alone time.
When do I feel most like myself? How do I behave, speak, and feel when I feel most like myself?
What has historically stopped me from being myself? What stories from my personal history and culture remind me of how I suppress these other parts?
What stops me internally from acting more like myself in this relationship? What, if anything, is it about my current partner that makes it scary, shameful, or uncomfortable to fully show up?
What needs or desires do I have that I’m not living? What stops me from reaching for them? What would I do differently if I were freer to be myself?
What are my highest values in relationship? Am I living according to those values? How yes and how no?
WHY THIS LEADS TO EMOTIONAL INTIMACY
When we stop trying to be only a good partner and start also being ourselves, we honor our authentic natures and self-expression. We become more whole and visible.
When we allow our partner the room to be their authentic self, we honor their sovereignty and their individuality. We allow our self and our partner to flourish as unique beings with unique paths in life.
Only then can we truly be known for all of our incredible gifts as well as our limitations, for our joys and our struggles. And we can finally meet, face-to-face, in real time. I am me. You are you. Here we are. Nice to meet you. I already feel closer to you.
Bedrick, D. (2020). You can’t judge a body by its cover: 17 women’s stories of hunger, body shame, and redemption. Belly Song Press.
Breindel, A. (November 26, 2018). “40 ways to be a better partner after 40” Bestlife.
Deitz, B. (April 6, 2016). 21 ways anyone can be a better partner. Bustle. https://www.bustle.com/articles/150863-21-ways-anyone-can-be-a-better-partner
Gottman, J. M., Gottman, J. S., Abrams, D., & Abrams, R. C. (2019). Eight dates: Essential conversations for a lifetime of love. Workman Publishing Co.