Being the best version of yourself in a relationship.
Source: Priscilla Du Preeze/Unsplash
Let’s be honest. For a relationship to function optimally, both parties need to put time and energy into it—and do so consistently. But what, if anything, can be done when one member is readier and more willing to put effort into bettering the relationship than the other?
Or what if one party is clearly more emotionally mature, psychologically sophisticated, self-aware, and empathic—and so more suited to initiate the change that eventually could transform the union from one of frustration to fulfillment?
Might that more evolved partner facilitate their significant other’s becoming what, legitimately, they need them to be if they—and their partner—are to be happier in the relationship? For, however unconsciously, most likely, their partner also wants and needs things to change if they, too, are to experience the relationship as more satisfying.
What if only one of you knows how to tango?
As the (overused) metaphor has it, it takes two to tango. Yet, contrary to popular belief, it only takes the one who is more knowledgeable about the dance to teach its moves to the other and show them how enjoyable the dance can be when they’re no longer stepping on each other’s toes but, finally, “in step” with one another.
Stated in non-figurative terms, if you persistently portray your best, most enlightened self in what’s definable as your most intimate relationship—and independent of your partner’s less positive self-presentation—you’re likely to eventually bring out the best in them as well.
Doubtless, this broad generalization requires some qualification. It doesn’t, and in most instances can’t, apply to partners with an impenetrable defense system or severe mental disorder. In these extreme cases, the other’s super-charged fears of vulnerability, their mostly hidden anxieties about failure and rejection, prohibit them from entering into an intimate union. Quite simply, it’s too great a risk for them.
I should add, then, that if you’re in any position to do so, it’s best to exit such a relationship. Your partner is unlikely to meet your fundamentally healthy needs for reliable dependency, understanding, compassion, connection, sharing, and support.
However, if they’re capable of their relational constraints and are willing to work with a therapist to amend these probably trauma-based barriers to intimacy, you might wish to give the relationship another chance. But notwithstanding the above exceptions, your behavior can generally exert a powerful influence on your partner’s actions and reactions toward you.
Enacting the best version of yourself primarily requires the courage to make yourself more vulnerable with your partner. For that’s an open (hopefully irresistible) invitation for them to reevaluate their resistance to making themselves more vulnerable with you.
In sum, focusing on what—all by yourself—you can do to improve the relationship is frequently enough to inspire your significant other to make changes they might not otherwise think of making— or be capable of making.
To say that the only person you can change is yourself has by now become a platitude, a self-evident truth. But that may actually be more of a half-truth. For (and I can hardly emphasize this enough) if you can come from your most caring, least reactive self, you’ll be able to have a strong effect on how your partner sees you—and so they may alter what’s been their habitual response to you.
That’s why it makes so much sense to put your best foot forward (ah! the tango again) in maximizing the likelihood that your partner, in becoming increasingly cognizant and appreciative of your well-meaning, benign intentions, will follow your lead.
And none of the above is meant to imply that you give your partner’s needs priority over your own. That’s codependency, which ends up defeating your purpose. Instead, your goal is to get them to value your needs as much as their own: to operate relationally—as a “we” rather than an “I.”
Initially, though, you’ll need to become more astute about what they require to feel better about you—and themselves—in the relationship. But even while stopping short of compromising your interests or integrity solely for their sake, you will want to focus on how to make them happier—en route to making yourself happier—through creating a relationship that’s happier for both of you.
So to teach them to tango, what more, specifically, do you need to do?
Accomplishing such a relationship transformation is, to say the least, challenging. But here are some practical things you can do to change both your perspective and behavior.
1. Cultivate within yourself the strength and assurance to self-validate.
That way, your partner can’t undermine your efforts at effecting mutual change by provocatively questioning the sincerity or authenticity of your (unusually favorable) behavior toward them.
That is, you’re attempting to change the oppositional “system” that has been controlling the interactions between the two of you. And you accomplish this through helping to lessen your partner’s defense mechanisms which, almost reflexively, will be mobilized to restore the dysfunctional—but paradoxically comforting—patterns exist till now between the two of you.
Also, paradoxically, you’re validating—from their particular viewpoint—their perspectives that differ substantially from yours, even though they’re not yet ready to validate your own. And that takes patience and a certain generosity of spirit you may have to struggle with.
2. Choose your targets wisely.
Through freely exhibiting the behaviors you wish from your partner, focus on what’s critical to you—rather than, say, the best way to insert the family toilet tissue into the dispenser. For you to be effective, you need to “edit out” admittedly minor differences between the two of you. So you’ll need to ignore some possibly bothersome habits that you really can’t see as deal-breakers.
3. Don’t allow yourself to resort to threats, blaming, guilting, or criticism in communicating about matters that are conflictual.
Don’t argue with them or endeavor to persuade them that your point of view is unquestionably more levelheaded or logical than theirs.
No tit for tat here, no attacking and counter-attacking, aggression, retaliation, stonewalling, or withdrawal. On the contrary, what you need to do is show them how you want to be treated by dealing with them the way they, too, desire. You’re boldly standing up for the relationship in a way that, because of your respective egos, neither of you could earlier.
4. Communicate in ways that make you feel good about yourself.
After all, what you’re presenting here is your ideal self—namely, the kindest, most understanding, and most compassionate version of yourself that you can offer them—even as you’re adhering to the personal boundaries necessary to uphold your honor and rectitude.
And maybe that’s how, ironically, to have it both ways. You’re giving more of yourself to the relationship, but at the same time, you’re also giving more to yourself.
That ought to make you proud, for you’re assertively and autonomously endeavoring to create the couplehood that’s best for both of you. And you’re doing this non-reactively, independent of how cooperative your partner is yet able to be in this most important of relationship ventures.
© 2022 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.