Healthy Relationship Practices: Owning Your Sh*t

Written by: Jorinde Berben
Image credit: Jorinde Berben

The last few weeks have been a bit of a rollercoaster when it comes to the relationship between me and my partner. We go from big highs and romantic plans to quick discussions and frustrations, both with life and with each other. We are also quick to look for the causes in the other person, which is a great reminder of how much we are still learning. Because the interactions between us are never caused by either of us in isolation, that’s the whole point of interactions: they are co-created by inter-action.

Patterns are hard to clarify (I’ve talked about relationship patterns in this post before) and even harder to break. They are also constantly changing, and we often find ourselves switching roles to end up on the opposite side of the equation. One day I’ll think we’re spending too much money while my partner says we need to be able to enjoy our lives, and the next day he’s more worried and I’m quicker to spend.

When we find ourselves getting into a routine, however, that we want to get out of (bickering, anti-social behaviour, stressing ourselves out, criticizing, etc), it doesn’t really help to just see what’s going on in the interaction, to see the pattern. We want to know what’s causing this pattern in order to break it, and the most likely candidate for what changed is often our partner. Not because we can’t conceive of ourselves having changed, but because it’s hard to witness our own behaviour and thought pattern while we are actively part of it. Change is much easier to see when you’re not the one changing.

The thing is, if you’ve ever been in any relationship of any kind, you know by now that pointing the finger at how someone else is the cause of your problems does not decrease those problems in the slightest. Even if, and I know there are cases like this, it is the truth. When my depression flares up again, my partner doesn’t come to me to say ‘hey, this depression of yours is having a really detrimental effect on our intimacy’, even if that’s obviously true. It wouldn’t help the situation. Telling a partner with a personality disorder that their behaviour is taxing on the relationship won’t make them behave any differently (assuming they would even be capable of doing that).

So what can you do to get out of the funk you’ve both got yourself into? Knowing that we all suffer from blind spots when it comes to our own part in any dynamic, it can be incredibly powerful to own the sh*t you bring into the relationship. And yes, we all bring sh*t into our relationships. If you don’t think you do, read that sentence about blind spots again.

What does owning your sh*t look like? It can take many forms, most important of which are honest and open sharing of what you see happening in yourself, scary vulnerability, and a true apology.

Today, this looked like me acknowledging that it can be really confusing and scary for my partner to be with the happy, loving version of me one moment and the depressed and lethargic version the next. This is unsettling and bound to raise his anxiety, and thus make it easier for us to find ourselves triggered by the other. He, on the other hand, owned the fact that he had pushed some tasks out of his mind leading to us now having less time for what we had planned to do this afternoon, which means less time together.

Our romantic relationships are the biggest mirrors we have in our lives, together with our children. What we project onto the other often says much more about where we are, and what we are feeling, than about the other person. I notice my partner’s ADHD traits when mine are also top of mind, and he zooms in on my overall melancholy when he is confronted with sadness, too. (You can read a bit more about this mirroring dynamic on this in my post What You Can Learn About Yourself… From the People You Detest).

That means that most conflicts in a relationship are an expression of what’s going on with us, just as much as it is an expression of what’s going on with our partner. And sure, we can often see what’s going on in our partner (that’s easier, remember), but we can also be wrong about it (also easy) and it’s hardly ever helpful to point it out. When, however, we talk from our own experience, from our own vulnerability, and share why we do what we do, feel what we feel, say what we say, are who we are… it allows our partner to soften. They no longer need to defend themselves against our opinions of them, often in the form of criticism, but are more inclined to empathise with our back stories and invited to share their own.

Obviously, this is not news to us. We teach people this stuff. And still… we fall into the same traps we see other couples fall into. We make the same mistakes. We also forget to look inward and default to looking for causes outside of ourselves.
It is just So. Much. Easier!

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