What To Consider Before Getting Into A New Relationship, From A Psychologist
Research has found that loneliness is associated with mental health conditions1 like anxiety, depression, and cognitive decline and physical conditions2 like high blood pressure and heart disease. However, often when people feel lonely, they are unable to see and embrace the love that is actually present in their lives. Yes, I understand, friend and family love is not the same as intimate love. But when we discount the presence of love that does exist, we rob ourselves of its comfort.
Don't let loneliness cloud judgment.
Despite wanting the perfect relationship, time after time we can find ourselves choosing the wrong person. We fall into the trap of the charmer or the ladies' man, flattered by the attention and convincing ourselves that we're the one they'll settle down with. In turn, we become frustrated as we try to adjust ourselves, or force them to change, in order for the relationship to work. We pick the person who "looks good on paper," but we don't have the chemistry or emotional connection that we need. We pick the person who's not bringing that much to the table, leaving us to pick up the slack, because being next to a warm body beats being alone. Then there can be the pressure of the biological clock if we want to have children, which can lead us to make additional sacrifices and concessions in our selection of a mate.
We play mind games with ourselves, exaggerating the positives and minimizing the negatives in order to rationalize the dubious choices that we make. Having a partner can be seen as a badge of honor, and when we don't have one, well, we've lost. All the while we are trying to meet the pressure-filled expectations of what we believe our lives are supposed to look like.
What to consider before getting into a new relationship.
When you are looking for a relationship, it is important to take the time to really get to know yourself, your strengths, your vulnerabilities, and behavioral patterns—and a therapist can help with this. This crucial first step, which often comes after a significant period of self-reflection while not in a relationship, helps you to be able to see yourself more clearly.
While doing this, also take a look at the things that are present (or not present) in your life that positively affirm who you are. It could be spending time with friends, going to church, taking walks, volunteering, or participating in hobbies. When you're single, claim your time to pour into yourself and develop your own interests. This is your chance to do you! It is easy to fall into the trap of believing that a partner will complete your life and bring you joy. But what are you doing, or could you be doing, on your own to foster your expansive wholeness?
3 questions to ask yourself:
- What aspects of myself do I feel good about?
- What parts of my life fill me up?
- How are the effects of historical or direct trauma showing up in me?
- Question 1 will help you to identify your positive attributes, or strengths.
- Question 2 will uncover the spaces in which you feel enriched.
- Question 3 will help you to identify your vulnerabilities, or hot spots. By identifying these hot spots, which are rooted in past trauma, you are able to see when trauma shows up in the present.
When you take stock of how past trauma influences current behavior, you might discover trauma baggage that you are bringing to relationships. Sometimes, just sometimes, the age-old adage of "It's not them, it's you" is actually true. This is not to place blame but rather to give you the freedom to see yourself clearly, without adding judgment. Your low self-esteem, trust issues, heightened sensitivity, anxiety, and inability to be vulnerable with your mate might actually be residue from past childhood abuse, parental loss, or intimate partner violence. This is where you pause and do the self-work so that you can start the process of healing before you enter into a relationship with someone else.
Once you've done the self-work, consider what you want in a partner.
After you've done some self-work, think about what you want in a relationship. You should do this before you've even met someone in order to prevent your memory from becoming fuzzy when you meet someone who's really "fine" but isn't looking for the same things in a relationship that you are. Whether you want just sex, casual dating, an exclusive or open companionship, or marriage, identify it. Then list the characteristics that are most important to you in a person. Be specific. Some common things that people name are spiritual, attractive, and no baby mama drama. Or intelligent, comes from a good family, is successful and ambitious, has a sense of humor, and likes to travel.
Don't forget the red flags, or deal breakers, which might be things like substance use, doesn't take care of his kids, or is in another relationship. When considering partners, always ask yourself which, if any, of your red flags are present. Engage in this process early, before becoming attached to someone, which makes it more difficult to walk away.
Adapted excerpt from Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen: The Emotional Lives of Black Women by Inger Burnett-Zeigler. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Amistad, an imprint of HarperCollins. Copyright © 2021 by Inger Burnett-Zeigler.
Inger Burnett-Zeigler, Ph.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist and associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University. She has two decades of clinical experience helping people with stress, trauma, mood and anxiety conditions, and interpersonal strain. In her clinical practice she promotes holistic wellness through mindfulness and compassionate self-care. Burnett-Zeigler's scholarly work focuses on the role that social determinants of health play in mental illness and treatment, particularly in the Black community. She is an advocate for normalizing participation in mental health treatment and assuring that all individuals have access to high-quality, evidence based mental health care. She has written dozens of articles and other publications on trauma and mental health in the Black community and lectures widely on research about barriers to access and engagement in mental health treatment, mindfulness and strategies to improve mental health treatment participation and outcomes. She is an active contributor to the public discourse on mental health and she has been featured in the New York Times, TIME Magazine, and Chicago Tribune. She received her undergraduate degree in psychology from Cornell University, her doctorate in clinical psychology from Northwestern University, and completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the VA Ann Arbor/University of Michigan. She is a proud lifelong Chicagoan.