If I had to pick one question that I get asked most often by my patients it would be, “Am I ready for a relationship?” Week after week I sit with forlorn and lovesick people who are desperate to find love and terrified that they never will. The inquiring minds on my couch want to know: -Can I trust my judgment? -Will I pick the wrong person and get hurt? -Am I lovable? -Will I ever meet that special someone? Coming out of bad breakups, divorce, and toxic relationships, the men and women I see have eroded self-trust and a lack of confidence in their ability to find and sustain a healthy, loving relationship. Most of us never get the education or role modeling we need when we’re young to manage our interpersonal relationships as adults. As a result we fumble and blindly stumble through relationship after relationship until we finally begin to realize that there might be a better way. “Relational health” is not a familiar concept for most people, yet it’s the cornerstone of well-being for all of us. Your relational health is defined as the quality of your interpersonal relationships with the barometer being your own sense of happiness. As a human being, you’re wired for love and connection, and you were evolutionarily designed to connect and bond. Because of this you will do anything to feel connected, including engaging and staying in unhealthy dynamics to preserve the attachment to a partner. In essence, your relationships are crucial to your survival in the same way a baby needs a caregiver to stay alive. How did something that’s supposed to be so natural become such a struggle? The reality is that we’re complicated and so are our lives. What we think we want and what we actually need are often very different. I have had patients come in with lists that look like scrolls containing all of the qualities and characteristics they’re looking for in a partner. He has to be funny, responsible, kind, and handsome. She has to be fit, ambitious, witty, and artistic. This is what they’ve been taught to look for and value in another human being, and what they think will ultimately make them happy with that partner. These are what I call the conscious qualities that we look for in someone, but there are unconscious qualities that live out of awareness. The unconscious qualities are not in consciousness because they have either never been brought to awareness or we don’t feel entitled to want them. Below your conscious thinking lives a whole world of unmet needs, unwelcome feelings, and some of your own characteristics that were never appreciated or nurtured. The truth is that most of us live as partial versions of ourselves and look for someone to complete us. We search for the missing pieces of our most authentic self in a potential partner with the hope that we will feel whole once we’re partnered and in a relationship. This is the “you complete me” syndrome, where the hope of one or both partners is to become whole in the relationship. Two halves usually make a whole, but when it comes to relationships each partner needs to be fully whole for optimal relational health. The most authentic and fulfilling relationships will come from finding the person who compliments and supports your most authentic self. If you have an unconscious need for freedom you’ll do best with someone who can tolerate distance and your independence. If you unconsciously fear abandonment you will need to find someone who has the capacity to be present and available. While this sounds fairly straightforward, it’s only possible to get this right if those unconscious needs, feelings, and parts of yourself are brought to awareness. When they remain repressed you unconsciously seek to repair your childhood wounds by re-enacting the same dysfunctional dynamics with a partner. Instead of finding a stable and responsible partner you’ll find an unavailable partner and spend months or years trying to feel safe with someone who can’t give you what you need. Taking the time for introspection and doing a deep dive to truly understand your relationship history is a first step toward relational health. The high rate of divorce and the ever-increasing numbers of people waiting longer to get married tell us that rushing into a relationship is not always a good way to go. If you have the time and patience in your life to actually prepare for your next relationship, you’ll increase your chances of sustaining a fulfilling and long-term partnership with someone who is good for you. We all want to believe that love just happens, but it doesn’t. You have to seek love, but you’ll never find it if you haven’t first found yourself. When you know yourself deeply, and when you can embrace your humaneness, loving another human being becomes possible. Without introspection and a deep understanding of who you are and what you need, real love will evade you.
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