Using our Relationship for Personal Growth

Relationships are a key element in most people’s lives. As John Donne stated so poignantly in the late 1500’s: “No man is an island.” These words still hold true today. Thus far, however, most people have not learned how to have successful relationships and still feel complete within themselves. Relationships are challenging because they involve two distinct individuals with varying needs, desires, and opinions. When the needs and desires of the individuals do not match, there are usually disagreements, disappointments, and disillusionment. It is during these times that we question our relationships and wonder if we would be better off alone. What then can be done to create a more satisfying relationship?

With conscious intention and effort, we can use our relationships to heal and transform our lives. This new paradigm, or model, for relationships consists of three steps: 1) taking responsibility for our actions and reactions; 2) experiencing our feelings deeply; and 3) expressing ourselves clearly and honestly to our partner while having equal empathy for our partner’s feelings. When we learn to do this, our relationships can reach a deeper level of understanding and become a vehicle for our personal growth and fulfillment.

The first step in the new paradigm, taking responsibility for our actions and reactions, can be an unfamiliar and sometimes frightening experience. It involves looking at how we are contributing to or creating the disturbing situation, instead of automatically blaming our partner for the misunderstanding. When we are able to let down our defenses and accept responsibility, both parties breathe a sigh of relief and the door to honest communication opens. For many people, the risk of taking responsibility for their actions and reactions is the hardest part of working on relationships. Men may feel like they are losing power or abdicating their throne. Women may feel like they are giving in or being weak and submissive. In both cases, it usually feels like some type of loss, either of personal power or of a part of ourselves. Although difficult at first, this step can lead to a much greater understanding of our reactive patterns of behavior and can accelerate our personal growth dramatically.

The second step in this model is experiencing our feelings deeply. This step involves removing ourselves from the immediate situation and taking a deep breath in order to reflect on what is happening inside of us. We may become aware of certain bodily sensations such as tightness in the throat, chest or stomach area. Emotions such as sadness, hurt, or anger might surface. Thoughts or memories may come into our awareness. Learning to focus inwardly will take practice since many of us have spent very little time focusing on ourselves and how we actually feel. As with all the steps of this new paradigm, we must be patient with ourselves and appreciate each little step we take.

Feeling deeply can also prove to be challenging because our present feelings are often influenced by what has gone on in our past. For instance, if we have had a relationship in the past that left us feeling criticized or unlovable, chances are good that our new relationship will also bring up those feelings. Love tends to bring to the surface any past hurts that need to be healed. This is one reason the new paradigm for relationships is so powerful. Instead of blindly repeating old ways of being, we can use our relationships to work on ourselves — to notice the patterns of thought and behavior that we continually relive and begin to explore them within the safety of the relationship. The key is to take the time to remove ourselves from the situation and feel what is actually going on inside. This gives us time to calmly reflect so we can act instead of react.

The third step of this new model is expressing ourselves clearly and honestly to our partner while having equal empathy, or appreciation, for our partner’s feelings. This step involves telling our partner the truth about how we feel. It is important to avoid the tendency to fall back on old patterns of relating such as making our partner wrong, going numb, playing out dramas based on old hurts, or entering into power struggles. To communicate clearly we need to go beyond blame and judgment and tell the truth about our experience. We need to make the decision that being happy in our relationship is more important than being right. The only way to do this is to be totally honest with ourselves and our partner.

Equally important in this third step is having empathy for our partner’s feelings. This includes allowing our partner the opportunity to express how they feel and then making an honest attempt to understand them. In other words, we need to put ourselves in their place and experience what they are feeling. This type of exchange is the beginning of authentic communication and the birth of an entirely new type of relationship. Both parties will begin to feel empowered and loved. As a couple reaches greater depths of feeling and understanding, their strength grows in all areas of their lives.

Practicing the three steps of the new paradigm — taking responsibility for our actions and reactions, experiencing our feelings deeply, and expressing ourselves completely — will result in an enormous shift in our relationships, both with our partner and out in the world. Our communication will be clearer and more honest, we will gain greater respect for ourselves and others, and we will experience a greater sense of personal power, love, and joy in our lives.

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