Hester Bancroft asks you to take a moment to assess your intimate relationships in the first of a six-part series on Life Investment
As women our lives are forever changing; after school or university we will probably work, we might then commit to a long-term partner, marry, have children, stop work altogether for a while or work part-time. As our children grow, we might then return full-time to the workplace or (as is increasingly common) retrain and begin a second career.
Whilst managing and navigating these distinctly different phases in our lives, our focus tends to be almost exclusively on supporting those in our care, whether that is our partner, our children or, as we get older, our own parents. This focus on other people’s needs can make it scarily easy for us, as women, to lose sight of what we ourselves want and need from life.
To create the life we desire we must have a really good understanding of not only what is going on for us right now but also what we would like to be going on for us, in all areas of our lives, in the future. Allowing ourselves the time to stand back and explore what it is we need is crucial if we wish to move forward feeling content and truly happy.
There are six key areas in life that each of us needs to regularly invest in. We will explore each one in turn over the coming months in order that you, yourself, can take time to think about your needs as well as giving you the opportunity to set some attainable and sustainable goals for the future. We will start with intimate relationships and then move on to personal and career development, family, physical well being, home environment and friendships over the coming months.
Part One: Taking Stock of Our Intimate Relationships
Whether we are currently in an intimate relationship or not this is the starting point of our journey. Our intimate relationships, past and present, are an enormously important part of our history; whilst they should not define us, they do shape us and affect our values and beliefs about love, trust and commitment.
All of us carry out our roles in the world differently – how we ‘do’ relationships – as a partner, wife, mother, daughter, friend or work colleague. Recognising what roles we take on allows us to look back over time and spot our behavioural patterns, the things we do time and time again – whether they are helpful or not!
Think for a moment about the roles we might take on in our intimate relationships; we may tend to take the adult role (or indeed the child role) instead of holding an expectation that the relationship should be equally and mutually supportive. We may take on the needy role; seeking or asking for constant reassurance or conversely, we may take on the fiercely independent and distant role. Sometimes we assume the role of rescuer, wanting to shield our partner from life’s difficulties, or we may be someone always looking to be rescued.
When we understand the roles we take on we can look at our other relationships and see echoes of these roles being played out in different ways with different people. Only when we stop to examine how we do relationships can we choose to do them better, perhaps even entirely differently.
If you are in a position to do so (and would like to maximise the benefit of reading this article) it would be useful at this point to grab a pen and some paper to make some notes for yourself.
As you think now about your current relationship or, if you are single, think about your last significant relationship and go back in time to when you were with that person (choosing a time prior to being in the throes of a break-up):
• What do you love and admire about this person?
• What do you really enjoy doing together?
• What does your partner do that makes you feel loved?
• What would make you feel even more loved?
• What do you find tricky about the relationship?
• Is there anything that you would like this person to really, really understand about you that they don’t currently understand?
These things will highlight to you what it is that you appreciate in your partner as well as the aspects you find difficult. They will also reflect your ‘love evidence’; the things that make you feel loved and adored (whether that is a thoughtful gift, physical affection, being told how special you are or feeling truly listened to).
Exploring and expressing one another’s love evidence is an important part of couple coaching because, very often, we assume that what makes us feel loved will also make our partner feel loved. The reality is that their love evidence may be something entirely different! It is, therefore, hugely beneficial for both partners to understand what their partner needs in order to feel cherished and appreciated.
If we think of our relationships as well choreographed dances it allows us to understand our part in creating each relationship we have. None of us can expect another person to change their way of being (their way of dancing with you) without us changing our side of the dance. Understanding this is hugely empowering; put simply, when we change our behaviour, our dance moves, our partner has to change theirs, in order to keep dancing.
So now I would like you to think about how you would like to ‘dance’ in your intimate relationship. If you are not in a great place with your partner you may feel he doesn’t deserve you being the very best you can be. However, this exercise is not about your partner, it is about you and your personal vision of your best, so, if things are hard right now (and purely for the purpose of this exercise…) imagine yourself with Daniel Craig (or whoever your perfect man is)!:
• What kind of partner would you like to be?
• How would you like your partner to describe the way you treat them and make them feel?
• What would you like to feel that you give to them?
• Do you know a woman who you admire for her way of being in her relationship?
• What is it about her way of being that you would like to replicate?
These things reflect your vision of the dance you want to dance; your beliefs about what one partner should give to the other. Now take a moment to think about how your partner might dance with you if you were consistently dancing this dance:
• Would he be surprised?
• What changes do you think might occur?
• How do you think he would respond to you?
Another important part of couple coaching is allowing each person to explore and communicate their personal boundaries. Even if we have never thought about it, all of us have boundaries in every relationship; specific behaviours that are not acceptable to us because we find them hurtful, infuriating or abhorrent. It is incredibly helpful to have clarity around our boundaries so that we become excellent at communicating them and comfortable with enforcing them. The ability to do these things directly affects how happy and secure we can feel within our relationship.
So think now about your boundaries and make a list of what behaviours are unacceptable to you. It would then be useful to number them in order of importance. Once you have done this consider how many times a person could break through a boundary and still have forgiveness from you. Some behaviours may be so unacceptable that once would be the limit while others may be a ‘three strikes and you’re out’ type behaviour. There is no right or wrong here; your boundaries are unique to you and your ability to forgive reflects how much importance you personally place on the behaviour.
Now return to thinking about your current relationship (or last significant relationship):
• How good are you at communicating your boundaries?
• How good are you at letting your partner know they have gone through a boundary?
• Crucially, do you feel your partner regularly goes through your boundaries and that you are powerless to stop him?
As we all know, the calmer we are when communicating anything we wish to communicate, the better the result will be. It is important to be really clear and specific about what your boundaries are and to provide an explanation as to why you feel the way you do. Explaining why each thing is important to you personally and how it would make you feel should your partner go through a boundary removes any feeling that you are attacking or criticising them and facilitates open and honest discussion.
If you feel your boundaries are not being respected it is important to think about any part (however small) you might have in creating the situation:
• Do you let things go rather than draw attention to something that is upsetting you?
• Do you tend to nag rather than speak in a calm, clear and firm manner?
• Do you ever play the role of martyr?
• Are you choosing to remain in a relationship with someone who has no respect for your boundaries, and if so why?
Giving thought to all of the above allows you to truly take stock of where you are in your current intimate relationship. It would be useful now for you to answer these goal-setting questions in light of any new awareness you may have gained from doing the previous exercises:
• What, if anything, will you change about the role you play in the relationship?
• Do you need to get an increased understanding of what makes your partner feel loved and valued?
• What will you change about the dance you dance?
• What do you need to do to improve how you communicate your personal boundaries?
For those of you who are single you are now in a great position to think about your ideal future partner; go ahead and be greedy, as we really do tend to get what we focus on! Make a list of the top ten things that are crucial to you about a partner; what kind of person would you like him to be and what kind of role do you want him to have? Ensure that everything on the list is stated in the positive (i.e. rather than ‘I don’t want him to be controlling’ put ‘I want him to be totally accepting of my life and my independence’).
Once you have written your list (known as your relationship values) rank them in order of importance; really take your time over this – remember it will help you to draw the kind of person you want into your life. Finally list the sorts of places where this person might be, where he might spend his time. Then think about whether you are ever in those places or whether you need to add different activities into your life in order to create the opportunities for you to meet your new partner.
Finally, it is good for us all to recognise that it is not our partner’s responsibility to make us happy; happiness really does come from inside. Our partner is a companion we have chosen to share our journey with. In a healthy relationship a partner will enhance our life; they provide us with love and affection, they share new experiences, they support us when things are tough and share our joy when things go well, all of which can augment our happiness enormously. It is, however, only when we take full responsibility for creating our own happiness that we can ensure that our intimate relationship is the best it can be.