Healthy Relationship Practices: Should You Work on Yourself Before Going Into a Relationship?

Written by: Jorinde Berben
Image credit: Jorinde Berben

For most of my adult life, I’ve been in a committed relationship. I got married at 21 and remained married until I was 32. After that, I was together off and on with my current partner, and by now we’ve established a stable connection that’s been going strong for about 18 months. The years in between those two major relationships were years in which I wondered whether I’d ever find another partner for life, how to do that and if I even wanted to.

Over the last weekend, I listened to this talk with renowned relationship therapist Esther Perel. In it, the interviewer, Lewis Howes, asks her whether you should work on yourself before you go into a relationship. She answers that you actually shape yourself through relationships, and that the idea of creating this little perfect package of yourself to take into a relationship is flawed. Her perspective on how we form our personality is a relational one, and I mostly agree with it, though I would like to make some side notes.

First of all, I agree that we shape our personality in relation to other people. Most of how I turned out as a person was based on how my parents raised me, who I thought they wanted me to be, how I reacted to my teachers and classmates, and even how I related to my ex-husband. I believe our personality is still constantly in motion (though perhaps the older you get the more it becomes slow-motion), as we encounter new situations and new people in our lives. We discover new aspects of ourselves, or rediscover old ones. We learn new things and unlearn others.

I also agree that when left to our own devices, as Jordan Peterson describes in this talk, that we tend to develop our personalities according to our natural inclinations, and into ways that divert from societal standards. Sure, there are ways in which that’s a good thing, but only when it’s a deliberate choice, not when it’s an unchallenged unconscious development.

When you behave in strange or unpleasant ways, there’s a good chance that you’ll get some feedback from the people who surround you, but naturally only if you have the close relationships that create that safety. Your partner is the person who, in adult life, ends up knowing you best of all. They know all your quirks, your petty traits and your fears. They will point out to you when you’ve stepped out of line, while at the same time loving you. I can’t emphasize enough what an amazing gift that is. In this way, your partner is the person who helps you develop into the person you want to be, who you can be and who the world needs you to be.

Yet, at the same time, I’ve been through periods in which I needed to be on my own for a bit. While I was in the throes of my attachment issues (I wrote about this here, here, here, and here), it was impossible for me to be in a healthy relationship. The fear became so strong that it expressed itself in destructive ways. I became destructive to the relationship through my behaviour of pushing my partner away, and to myself through unhealthy habits in order to avoid the pain.

I should point out that for me to figure out what my relationship issues were, I had to be – naturally – in a relationship beforehand. It took my fear of commitment to realise I had attachment issues, and not even just a one-time encounter but a very clear pattern. I needed to run into that wall several times to realise what it was made of. I should also point out that it was my current partner who helped me see what exactly I was doing. Even though we weren’t together at the time, he still played a major role in my relational development as a person.

So even if you need other people to help you become a relatable person, I do believe that there are times in which you need to be alone, even when you in fact desire to be in a relationship. A relationship can also be a great means of running away from yourself. By focusing all your attention on the other person, you cunningly avoid any kind of introspection. Looking at who YOU are in the relationship, rather than who your partner is, is an important step in growing up and partaking in a conscious union.

In our culture, we break off relationships much more easily than our parents and grandparents did. If we’re not happy, we quickly point to our partners or our relationship and think the only solution we have is to leave. Half of the issues in the relationship you’re in, though, are your contribution. You’ll take them with you into your next relationship. You will have to deal with them at some point. The best way to do that is while relating to a partner, with perhaps the occasional alone time to get close and intimate with yourself and reflect.

I know there are also those of us who are single and like it that way. I’ve been that person, too. I also know that it’s easy to get into your own space, your own version of reality when you’re alone. Your personal idea of the truth goes unchecked and can get distorted. So I would recommend finding friends or family who are not afraid of confronting you with yourself. Give them this mandate, as a gift to yourself (and then don’t bite their head off when they do, obviously).

We, people, are social beings. I say that being an introvert who tends to avoid groups when possible. As a species, our strength lies in unity, and in these times, in this culture, much of that lies in strong, personal connections.

I wish you plenty of happy, healthy and challenging relationships! The following song nicely sums up how my partner and I feel about growing together.

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