After years of thinking that both the best and worst aspects of my relationships had to do with the other person, I finally realized that love is an inside job. The trouble we experience in relationships emerges from conflicts we actively cause, and the issues we simply tolerate (which often backfire — with resentment, frustration and so on).
The health of our connections depends on our inner resources, how we deal with our lingering demons, as well as on our motivation to actually grow and change. But most of all, it depends on how brave we are.
As a therapist, I notice these ideas are some of the hardest principles for clients to believe. Though when they really get that it all — the good, the bad and the ugly — begins and ends within them, they feel a freedom and liberation which they had not known before.
Some of us are lucky enough to have the same partner for a long stretch. But as good as a relationship can be, our emotional and spiritual life journey begins and ends within us. In this sense, every single relationship is an inside job.
Here are three of the six essential skills from my book, Love Cycles: The Five Essential Stages of Lasting Love. These are the skills which lead to the promise of the relationship, the glimpses we see when we are in the first stage of merging and enchantment.
There's an irony here: only when we feel capable of living well on our own (physically, financially, sexually, spiritually and emotionally) can we choose intimate partnership freely. To be able to say "yes! " to a relationship with a whole heart, we need to know we can also say "no" and thrive on our own (not that we want to, but we can choose to if we need to walk away).
When I feel I cannot live without my partner, the handmaiden of that feeling is resentful dependency. It makes it difficult to be authentic, to show who I really am, it also makes me want to control my partners freedom to be who they are.
Commitment is not just a promise to stay in the relationship. Commitment is deeper and more complicated: it includes a pledge to do the inner work necessary to make the partnership flourish.
When we promise to look clearly and honestly at the defenses and fears in ourselves which make love and collaboration with our partner challenging, that is commitment.
Commitment is, in large part, a promise to find ways to learn to reconsider the way you use your walls of defensiveness and reactivity which harm love. It is, at the same time, a promise to develop the skills and courage which build bridges to one another, especially in the harder times.
First and foremost, let your partner know that he or she is fantastic! Right now, this very moment: text, call or look them in the eyes and say three (or more!) things you appreciate. Learn to pay attention to what works between the two of you. Discover small rituals of connection. Find times and ways to play, enjoy each other, and make love that you can integrate into your everyday lives.
At the same time, understand that your primary job is to find your own unique purpose and fulfill it. Both psychological wisdom and spiritual traditions emphasize that each person has his or her own calling, and that to discover and celebrate it is our life's work. Self-actualization and connection can be nurtured at the same time — one doesn't exclude the other.
Falling in love is easy, in a certain sense. That's why it is called falling: we don't have to do anything for it to happen.
But creating a long-term relationship that can thrive through the seasons of rain, ice and even thunder — and continue to find spring (and summer) again: this takes skills, determination and a lot of bravery.
Linda Carroll, M.S., LMFT, is a licensed marriage and family therapist and board-certified life coach currently living in Oregon. She received her master's degree in counseling from Oregon State University and has practiced psychotherapy since 1981, specializing in couples and communication. She is the author of the highly acclaimed book Love Cycles: The Five Essential Stages of Lasting Love, which has been translated into four languages, and she regularly teaches relationship courses based on the Love Cycles method at wellness spa Rancho La Puerta in Tecate, Mexico. Her next book, Love Skills, will be available in February 2020.