When I’m in a relationship it can be tempting to imagine that my partner is there to satisfy my every need and desire. Not only that, but, because she loves me and knows me then she should also know exactly what I need even before I know myself.
Clearly this is both unrealistic and unhealthy.
Just because we have decided to be together does not mean that we agree to complete submission to each-others’ needs. There are times when I choose to do my own thing. Times when I’m away from home for long or short periods. And with kids around there are often times when their needs are much more pressing. After all, especially when they are very young, they are simply not yet able to take care of themselves. And so one of us will be focused on the children and have little to offer the other half of the relationship. At least in that moment.
All this is normal and healthy. Provided there is enough giving and receiving within the relationship to sustain it, then all is well. What ‘enough’ is will, of course, depend on the couple.
Perhaps you are both pretty independent and really need a lot of autonomy and freedom. You make the most of the times you are together with high intensity and focus on each other. Or perhaps you both deeply enjoy being together and build your life in a way that allows long periods of togetherness and give and take. Times away from each other (or not focusing on the other) are rare and only when absolutely necessary.
And there are many positions in between. In addition, the shape of your relationship will certainly change over time as you both change and develop.
Whatever the constellation of your relationship there will be some level of mutual compassion and mutual care. Without this the relationship is toxic and cannot (or should not) survive. Despite this, I highly encourage you both to develop the capacity for self-compassion and self-care as well. This allows you to thrive when your partner, through choice or circumstance, is not available.
Self-compassion, as I see it, is being with myself with tenderness and care. I notice the places where I am struggling either practically or emotionally and I am gentle with my feelings and can be with whatever is alive in me. When my needs are not fulfilled I do not collapse or freak out but can be with this empathically and with sensitivity to myself. I can mourn and I can be with strong feelings without acting out on them. It is more about BEING.
Self-care on the other hand is when I take action to look after my needs. It is about behaviour and about DOING. Even though my actions are focused on my own needs, I also take care of the needs of the relationship and what we are building together. Healthy self-care is not ‘seflish’ and it does no harm.
I need both.
If I only have self-compassion then I am very good at being deeply connected to my inner world but cannot solve problems. I know I’m feeling hungry and can be with this discomfort but have no capacity for preparing myself some food.
On the other hand, if I only have self-care then I can easily take care of myself without experiencing life itself. I can easily prepare food and eat without any idea about when I’m hungry – rather like a machine.
Both are important and both can be developed.
One way of learning self-compassion is about building emotional literacy and understanding of my own needs. I highly recommend Nonviolent Communication as a practice for getting more deeply connected to yourself. Meditative practices, journaling and other introspection methods are all very useful. I recommend the work of Eckhart Tolle and Byron Katie who both offer different ways of working with this for ourselves.
Self-care can be built by learning how to ask for help. That may be someone to listen to me or could be more tangible support to do something. Solution Focus is an approach I especially appreciate for it’s focus on positive constructivity. It is developed by knowing my skills, qualities and capabilities as well as my limitations. With this understanding I can take action that moves me forward.
Ultimately, once I reach maturity, I am responsible for myself and starting a relationship should never imply that I abdicate that responsibility. I want relationship and family to be a wonderful and mutual experience from a position of being able to take care of myself and enjoy my own company. I do not need relationship. I choose relationship as a way to make both our lives more wonderful.