I like to sit in the park and watch couples interact. I note who puts a blanket down, who says thank you, who acknowledges the other person before picking up a phone or putting their head into a book.
While I’m in the grocery store, I might linger a while to catch bits of conversation about needing more olive oil or observe body language that clearly says, “don’t buy that.”
I do this because I’m interested in observing healthy relationships or catching parts of interactions that I like and want to apply to my own relationship.
Even though searching for good is the goal, I often observe and hear the opposite. Rolling eyes, put downs, name-calling, relationships where people don’t say what they feel for fear of being broken up with.
Like the healthy ones, these negative interactions also inform my concept of relationships: they show me what I’d like to avoid.
What I’ve come to learn is that relationships grow if both individuals evenly tend them. If a relationship was an equation, both individuals have to be the same number. One can’t be greater or smaller; they have to be in balance, equal.
But finding this balance in a relationship can be difficult, especially since—through things like the media and gender socialization—we are taught that some kind of power dynamic is the norm.
There are a handful of elements needed to create a balanced relationship in which all parties feel good, safe, valued, and loved. And this doesn’t just go for one gender—it goes for all.
1. Know Your Value
Talking with a friend about a past relationship she said, “I couldn’t say what I wanted or how I felt because if I did, I thought he’d break up with me.”
I nodded in agreement because I have also been there. I’ve kept my mouth shut, pretended I didn’t care, agreed to things I wouldn’t do now.
Why? Because I thought my partner deserved more than me.
If I take the equation example I mentioned earlier, this type of interaction would look something like 4+2. 4 being my partner and 2 being me.
To reach a 4+4 level we have to learn that our wants and needs are just as important as our partners.
And although this is something one can learn in a relationship, it’s much easier to learn on our own before we even dive into one. It isn’t someone else’s job to make us whole. We can’t rely on others to make us happy. That has to come from within.
It’s our responsibility to take our wants and needs seriously, to give them the respect they deserve so that we understand what we offer, not only to the relationship, but also to the world.
It is only when both individuals know their strengths, what they bring to a relationship, and that they are both deserving of love that they can create balance in a relationship.
In past relationships I watched mouths move but really didn’t pay too much attention to what was being said. As my partner told me what he needed from me, I would roll my eyes and interrupt.
My voice would grow loud as I explained away why I did what I did or why my way was better than his, and I’d normally end my rant by shaking my head and making an “ugh!” kind of noise.
Other times I’d hear what he had to say but instead of changing my behavior, I’d just carry on as I had been. We would have the same argument again and again, but nothing was ever resolved.
In both of these instances the scales are tipped.
When we don’t listen we disregard another person’s thoughts, feelings, and interests. We may not be verbalizing it, but the message we send is that we don’t care.
We need to stop reacting and start responding to our partners. We need to let them finish their thoughts when they’re speaking and then decide how to respond. We need to listen.
Instead of assuming that every conversation is a direct attack and feeling the need to explain ourselves, we can choose to see our partners as friends who are in need of something that we can potentially provide. We should see them as someone we want to help.
Have you ever noticed couples talking badly to one another in public, or talking about their partner behind their back? Right away you can tell there may be some underlying issues within the relationship, but one key element that’s lacking is respect.
We often put our partners down because we blame them for our unhappiness in the relationship. We put them down to boost ourselves up – to take the spotlight, which is what we feel we aren’t getting in our relationship.
We so badly want our partners to take on the responsibility of paying attention and loving who we are because we have yet to reach that place on our own (see #1). This is a flawed way to achieve balance in a relationship.
Dragging your partner down to a 2 so that you can come off as a 4 is not helping anyone—even yourself. Everyone suffers when there’s a lack of respect in a relationship.
If we love someone, we shouldn’t want to make them look bad in front of other people. We should make their lives better if we can, knowing they want to do the same for us.
The more we appreciate our partners, say thank you, and let them know they’re five-stars, the more we start to be seen and notice all that they do.
And by focusing on what our partners bring to our lives, we can’t help but want to support them and care for them.
Holding on to old wounds leads to resentment, which can kill a relationship.
Resentment can make it so that we no longer want to listen to or respect our partner; it can even make it so that we don’t even like our partner. To make sure resentment doesn’t seep in, we have to learn how to prevent it.
Resentment bubbles to the surface if we push things down for too long. If we push what we think and feel down and never express it, we’ll likely resent our partner because they continue to do whatever it is we aren’t enjoying.
But how are they supposed to know there’s a problem if we haven’t told them there is?
It can be hard to identify these feelings, much less express them respectfully. Ask yourself what would make you feel better in the situation, and ask yourself what you need from your partner to feel better. This can help you figure out what you want to say.
Pinpoint the issue and how it’s making you feel, think of what needs to happen so that you no longer feel this way, then express exactly that to your partner.
The less you tell your partner what is bothering you, the more resentment there will be. So talk it out!
I am a firm believer that there doesn’t have to be a power dynamic in a relationship, that one person doesn’t always have to struggle.
I really believe that if we treat our partners as people we love, who we want to care for and who we respect, then we can feel safe to open up and be vulnerable. We can feel secure enough to say what’s on our mind, knowing that we’re being heard.
Over the last year and a half, Cynthia Kane has relearned the following: how to jump up and down when she’s happy, cry when she’s sad, laugh when something’s funny, take a compliment, smile at strangers, and be open to the fact that everyone is going through it all the time. For more, visit her website or follow her on Twitter @cynkane. Read her articles here.