By Naomi Mwamba, Family and Parenting Practitioner, Reducing Parental Conflict Programme
What a Couples Therapy expert says about working out a partner who is right for you.
What you are looking for in a life partner?
In a session with a recently separated client, we were discussing what he knew about himself now that he wished he had known when he first met his partner. His response was striking: “Looking back, I now know that I wasn’t truly aware what I was looking for in a long term partner”. Growing up, he was surrounded by instability. Unfortunately his mother could not look after him and his siblings, especially after the death of his father which triggered a series of moves between relatives. When it came to choosing a partner, he yearned for the safety and stability that his childhood lacked. However these same childhood circumstances made him a go-getter, wanting to pursue a life of setting and conquering goals in all areas of his life. This was incompatible with the partner he had chosen, who wanted a quiet life in a countryside cul-de-sac, working a job that would afford them two holidays a year and a guarantee of a small but adequate pension that would see them through their twilight years. Safe and stable? Absolutely. But as an ambitious man in his late twenties at the beginning of an exciting career where he had been earmarked for big things, the stability he desired as a child was not the totality of what he needed for the rest of his life.
We all have an unconscious internal narrative about what we need, want or deserve out of life; this in turn affects the thoughts we have and the decisions we make, including in our romantic adult relationships. Perhaps for you, this is based on an event that occurred in your childhood, a throw away comment that somebody made which marked you, or the relationships that you observed growing up. In his book ‘The Insight Cure’ psychiatrist John Sharpe refers to these ideas we have about ourselves as ‘false truths’, almost like internal tag-lines of belief about ourselves that are perhaps not as true as we like to think.
It is worth investing some time and soul searching to find out what false truth is driving your partner choice.
Perhaps, for example, you believe;
- you want commitment less than your partner yet, deep down, are convinced this is the best partner you’ll ever get.
- you are drawn to partners that will heal a past hurt, whether they are what you will need in the future or not.
Reflecting on your beliefs about yourself and where they came from may help you understand something about what you are seeking from a relationship. More crucially perhaps, it may help you think about whether it is the right relationship for you, and if it is, what emotional work you and your partner need to do to set the relationship on the path towards success.
There is, rightly, so much focus on mental health in the world today. A strong relationship, has been proven to support and boost our psychological well-being (as well as support with physical conditions should you fall in now and also in later life) so there’s comfort in knowing you are investing in a ‘adventure’ that can bring deep benefits as well as immediate pleasure.
You have a choice
Commitment should be something that you feel you have a choice in, and also happen at a pace that you both feel comfortable with. Be wary of committing under coercion, blackmail or guilt trips; statements like “if you love me then you will….”, “my ex would have…” or “if you don’t…then I will harm myself” have no place in a conversation about commitment.
Are you equally committed to the relationship?
Have you ever seen one of those ‘Mr and Mrs’ game shows which feature couples being asked questions about their relationship? Nervous (or, overly confident,) contestants scribble their answers about anything from favourite colours to number of ex’s on a board before revealing them to the delighted audience, and their partner, who may be dismayed at their disparity. Well, picture that you and your partner are on this game show and you are separately asked to rate your commitment to the relationship on a scale of one to ten. Would your scores be more or less the same, or would they reveal what relationship researchers1 call an ‘asymmetrically committed relationship’? Such relationships, where there is a significant imbalance in the commitment levels of both partners, tend to be less stable, as well as less equal, because the future of the relationship lies in the hands of the less committed party. (And do you know what your partner’s favourite colour is.. by the way)? Take a step back to analyse the situation; if you are the less committed party, what is stopping you from taking the next step? Perhaps listening to that feeling could tell you something important. If, on the other hand, you are the partner that’s planning the wedding after the second date, take time to find out why, especially if this is a common pattern in all your relationships. The danger of asymmetrical commitment is that we can believe that locking ourselves and our partners into commitment will change things.
Children add a differnt dimension of committment
Couples are sometimes shocked to find themselves, sitting in front of a couple therapist, having taken the step of having a baby to strengthen their relationship. With much regret, they find out by experience what relationship research has been telling us for years, that relationship satisfaction depreciates significantly when two become three. The time, money and emotional space that you had for yourself and for each other is now consumed by a demanding third, leaving you without much resource for yourself or each other. Additionally, this is far too much pressure to place on a baby! The key take away here is to ensure that whatever step you are taking in the relationship, you are taking because you are both willing to do it, not because one of you is trying to move the other to commit further.
If you and your partner have been struggling with issues concerning commitment and compatibility and it is causing stress in a relationship, couples therapy offers a ‘safe space’ and an expertly trained third party who can help you both work to explore your problems and communicate. Book an appointment to see us here