Healthy relationships help us experience ourselves more fully, integrating all the various parts of who we are.
BY JAMES GUAY, LMFT
Relationships are potent forces that bring out our best and worst selves. They challenge us to face our wounds and inspire us to heal. Our earliest relationships with peers and caregivers model what’s possible for us in the world: the essence of love, acceptance, and connection; and the torment of hurt, rejection, and abandonment. Healthy relationships help us experience ourselves more fully, integrating all the various parts of who we are.
So why do they so often evade us and how do we sustain healthier ones?
To sustain healthier and more rewarding relationships we need to become more intimate with ourselves, being compassionate with whatever we discover, even the aspects of ourselves we don’t necessarily like.
As LGBTQ people, we share one main thing in common—difference—that’s all too often the object of hate and oppression. Being a sexual or gender minority we experience life through a prism of color that’s different than our cisgender and straight counterparts. While we share far more of a common humanity, our inherent differences get magnified and pathologized. Being society’s scapegoats we can then re-enact these within our community by targeting each other for our differences.
Hearing all these shaming messages about our lack of worth or value, it’s no wonder we bring a little rainbow baggage with us into relationships. We need to unpack the many ways we’ve internalized these messages and the impact they’ve had on our relationships. Getting to know ourselves in this way can make it easier to navigate the natural ups and downs of relationships. When we wake up to ourselves we create an internal environment conducive to healing and growth. Alternatively, unchecked baggage can wreak havoc in our relationships because we’re operating under the influence of our plummeting auto-pilot and any internalized shame for being LGBTQ.
When we approach ourselves with curiosity and openness, instead of judgment, we can more freely learn the historical and unconscious ways we’ve tried to protect ourselves:
- Preemptively judging ourselves first before someone else has a chance to;
- Delivering the first verbal punch before we’re the target;
- Hiding or walling off more authentic and vulnerable parts of ourselves;
- Taking up lots of space.
Knowing this, we can have a greater sense of choice, make new decisions and respond differently, fostering our relationships.
Our first relationships in life also inform how we seek to love and be loved in adulthood. Ask yourself:
- Do I only show socially accepted parts of myself?
- Do I only show a curated image of myself that I believe will get the most likes and followers?
- Do I feel pressure to do far more than others to make up for self-doubt and insecurities?
- How much do I let my real-self show up in life?
Doing a deep dive into our rainbow baggage, being mindful of how it impacts our beliefs, views, decisions and actions, and responding in a kinder more compassionate way with ourselves, is the process of sustaining a life-long relationship with ourselves and anyone else we decide to be with along the way.
How we choose relationships also predicts their sustainability. When looking for a relationship, what qualities, characteristics, interests and core values are you attracted to? Now that we have the option, do you want to be married? What form of a relationship do you want: anonymous, friends with or without benefits, monogamous, monogam-ish, open, polyamorous or some other configuration? Do you want children and if so, in what way? Knowing what qualities are non-negotiable versus simply the price-of-admission is the task at hand here.
All too frequently we can either spread our net too wide and collect relationships that aren’t a good fit for us, or go in the reverse direction by having far too many requirements that make it nearly impossible to find the “perfect” mate. In this age of technological dating we can invest far more time online than what becomes a good return on our investment of time/energy. We can fall prey to the grass is greener hamster wheel where we’re in a constant state of replacing someone for the next shiny object that appears easier, more fulfilling or exciting.
Here are some additional tips for sustaining longer-term relationships from my personal and professional experience being a psychotherapist these past 20+ years:
Avoid making the same mistakes
In what feels like an act of cosmic humor, we most often have current relationships that mirror our earliest and most informative relationships in some way. In doing so, we have the opportunity to not only re-enact childhood wounds but also create healing through the process of awareness and choosing a different course of action. How we begin relationships, who we choose, and how we operate within those relationships are great predictors for their success.
Every kiss counts
Yup, relationships take work… but hopefully they’re a worthwhile investment of our time and energy. Our relationships require daily fuel: kisses, affection, greetings, quality time, encouraging words, gifts and/or actions to make the other person’s life easier. Proactively feeding a relationship sustains relationships through the natural ups and downs of life. Because we have an evolutionary bias toward negativity, we need far more positive experiences in relationships to outweigh this and keep them thriving.
Push through the difficult times
An impediment to long-term relationships is having unrealistic expectations that we’re suppose to be in a constant state of bliss. At the first signs of conflict or discomfort we may want to bolt. However, leaning in to the unease and getting to know these places we can become less reactionary and even deepen our understanding of ourselves and each other. When challenges in our life outside our relationship happen, we need to show up for each other. This extra support from our relationship(s) can be perfect medicine for what ails us.
Conflict can be sexy
Relationships that do conflict well and resolve it, are much more engaged in their relationships which provides the sustenance for longer-term relationships. This isn’t about searching for conflict, but instead allowing disparate needs to be present, addressed and valued. When we approach conflict with vulnerability and openness to learn, we have a much greater likelihood of deepening our connection. This may mean creating fair fighting agreements in our relationships about what’s acceptable what’s not.
Ask for what you want
Healthier relationships attend to the needs of all parties involved, enough of the time. With self-awareness, asserting our needs, making requests and finding areas of compromise if needed are acts of self-care and ultimately feed relationships. Now this doesn’t mean that ALL our needs will be met ALL the time by one person. Sometimes our needs are secondary to meeting our partner’s needs in a particular moment. Striking the right balance is key so that each of our needs get met some of the time.
Be generous with yourself and others as you get to know yourself better through the healing power of relationships. Whether you’re single or partnered, practice compassion for all of who you are this Valentine’s Day and throughout the year.
James Guay, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (#39252), has provided individual and couples counseling in private practice since 1999. A former elite Gymnast and life-long lover of nature, he focuses his social justice activism for the LGBTQ population. Digital content available at: www.livingmorefully.com.