The overall theme of my blog posts is about revising what we think a psychologically healthy life is in today's 21st century interconnected culture -- that is, what psychological health and resiliency look like in careers and organizations and in intimate relationships. Some of my earlier posts have described features of healthy relationships in this new era, based on new thinking and research studies. Our culture undermines the emotional attitudes and behavior that support connected, energized intimate relationships -- ones that don't go south after that early rush of excitement and passion fades.
In this and future posts, I'll describe more about what supports a positive relationship emotionally, sexually and spiritually. What won't are the fantasized portrayals and simplistic formulas promoted by the advice and technique books and magazine articles. Most of them don't work anyway and can do more harm than good; they can make couples feel inadequate if, for example, they can't find the right words to reflect back to their partner, or they discover that the new sexual technique or tantric exercise just doesn't arouse them.
This post is about a frequently overlooked first step towards a sustainable relationship with your current or future partner. Couples I've worked with find it helpful because it builds the self-reflection and self-awareness you need for growing and evolving yourself in your relationship capacities. I call this first step doing a "Relationship Inventory." With it, you can review, understand and learn from your past relationships. Then you can face forward with greater clarity and capacity for creating and sustaining emotional and sexual intimacy in the present and future.
Begin by making a list of all your significant romantic relationships. For each, reflect on and write down what attracted you to that person and why, at that particular time of your life.
What Was the Pull?
What qualities of that person attracted you to him or her? Why did those qualities attract you in the first place? Be honest, regardless of how you might feel about those traits today. Consider what role your life circumstances played in the attraction were at the time, including your emotional state and needs. Describe your level of emotional development and awareness at the time of each of those relationships.
Also, reflect on how your parents' relationship impacted you, in terms of the model they exposed you to of how couples relate. Did they show loving connection, a "functional relationship" or somewhere in between?
Think about how you viewed sex and relationships as you entered your relationships. Keep in mind that most of us acquire distortions about love and are conditioned into an adolescent model of romance, as I wrote about in a previous post.
Then What Happened?
Write a paragraph or two describing what you think happened during the course of the relationship that led to its ending. Of course, you're looking back from today's vantage point, but try to portray an unvarnished story of what happened, and why. Describe, without assigning blame.
What Did You Learn?
Next, write down what you think you learned about yourself from each of those relationships that ended. Include what you think you recognized at the time as your blind spots, your own behavior or unexpressed feelings that might have contributed to the failure or to prolonging the relationship when it would have been healthier to end it sooner. Did you apply what you learned in your next relationship, or did you repeat the same things, despite what you thought you learned?
What Didn't You Learn?
Reflect on what you now realize you didn't learn about yourself in each relationship that would have been helpful to your growth and to your next relationship. Or, what you could have learned from the relationship that ended that would have helped you grow your relationship capacity if you had been more self-aware at the time?
What Happens Now?
How can you use what you've discovered from the Relationship Inventory in your present life, as you go forward in your current -- or next -- relationship? For example, can you describe the kind of personality, emotional qualities, life vision, values or "vibes" that mesh well with your own; that promote connection and positive energy between the two of you?
What changes might you and your partner need to make in how you handle differences, or individual desires? Describe the attitudes and behavior you believe would increase and help sustain intimacy, passion and connection, in contrast to ongoing frustration over being "heard," "understood" or "accepted" for who you are.
In future posts about psychologically healthy relationships, I'll describe steps that promote transparency, true partnership and sexual energy for the long term. All share a common core: learning to "forget yourself" -- that is, giving to your partner with less regard for "getting" what you want in return. I know -- that's contrary to how we're taught to conduct ourselves to get our "needs" met (that is, through strategies of self-interest, manipulation and subterfuge). But that's a good formula for a relationship that stagnates and falters in today's world.
Douglas LaBier, Ph.D., a business psychologist and psychotherapist, is Director of the Center for Progressive Development in Washington, D.C. You may contact him at dlabier@CenterProgressive.org