Compassion Matters

How to save a life

5 Steps to Making Your Relationship Work for Both of You

The one constant in your relationships is you. So let's start there.


Anyone who’s done their share of dating has probably been on one side or the other of the It’s not you, it’s me routine. No one buys this explanation. And why should they? After all, most perpetrators of the I.N.Y.I.M. will tell people that their partner was completely to blame just as soon as he or she is out of earshot. These five common words, which strive for compassion, in reality just leave us, or our exes, confused and puzzling over what went wrong.

For many years, I have been writing, giving presentations, and counseling individuals and couples on intimate relationships and fears of intimacy, always explaining how one’s defenses and critical inner voices negatively affect romance. I am consistently struck by how many people come up to me after my presentations to thank me and tell me that the fears of intimacy and defensive traits I outline perfectly describe ... their partner.

These people are essentially saying, “Yes, I know defenses are hurting my intimate relationship, but it’s not my defenses, it’s theirs.

In my professional experience, it is all too easy for people to identify issues in their partners and increasingly difficult for them to pinpoint problems in themselves. Relationships are not easy, and it is natural to worry when the initial sparks die out. As you begin to notice changes in the quality of relating, it is easy to focus blame on negative traits in the other person. But the focus needs to shift away from how to “fix” your partner towards a broader view of how to repair the relationship. The only way to change another person in relation to you is by changing yourself as well. You have 100 percent of the power necessary to change your relationship, but you can only do so by taking a closer look at yourself, making your own personal development a priority, and taking specific action to change your part in dynamics you do not like. 

Rather than using "It’s not you, it’s me" as an excuse for ending your involvement with someone, why not use it as an exercise to improve your relationship with that him or her? There can be great value, practically and therapeutically, to this approach. By following these steps you can develop a deeper relationship in which mutual understanding, trust and equality replace cynicism and frustration.

  1. Break Patterns. Dynamics and patterns can lock firmly in place early on in relationships. While some are clearly more destructive than others, all routine patterns of relating can create unpleasant feelings. By recognizing such dynamics between you and your partner, you can change them by simply not playing the other half—after all, it actually does takes two to tango. For example, the wife and husband whose pattern is acting like a child and parent can change the dynamic if either is willing to drop their role and relate as an equal to the other. The wife cannot fall apart when the husband sounds parental, and the husband can not reprimand her when she acts helpless. Breaking patterns can be as simple as asking yourself who usually makes the decisions about where to go to dinner or what movie to see, then reversing the roles of active and passive decision maker.

  2. Set Goals. One effective way to start developing your relationship is by setting goals for how you want it to be. People set five-year plans for their careers and for family planning, but they rarely do it for their intimate relationships. Ask yourself what you really want out of your relationship, write down your goals, then check to see if your behavior matches your list. It's important to think about the personal changes you would need to make to reach your goals—and to begin making those changes immediately.

  3. Unilaterally disarm. Unilaterally disarming could save your relationship. It requires you to not be reactive and lash out even when you're provoked. This doesn’t mean you stop having opinions or suddenly agree with everything your partner says, but that you choose to approach problems with a cooler head. If you find yourself getting into a heated disagreement, it helps to think about the bigger picture and say, “I really want to be close to you, and that’s more important than having this argument.” If your partner says or does something that hurts your feelings, say how you feel without implying blame. When we blame our partners—“When you were insensitive to me, you made me feel bad"—their natural reaction will usually be defensive. However, if you state your feelings without implying blame, you give the other person a chance to feel empathy and really listen to what you have to say. (On a personal note, my husband is much better at unilateral disarmament than I am; I cannot tell you how effective it is and how much I appreciate him for it.)

  4. Look deeper. The reason we all find relationships painful and difficult at times is because they are perfect vehicles for living out negative feelings we’ve carried with us since childhood. As much as we may love our partners, we are conditioned to project our negative self-image and unresolved pain onto them. Our defenses, developed to deal with childhood pain and trauma, are not just a factor in how our relationships play out; they also influence our choices of whom to be in a relationship with. It's a sad truth that we tend to choose partners who are especially good at triggering and recreating our childhood defenses, so it's important to be aware of strong emotional reactions that get triggered in our current relationships—and trace them back to their source. By identifying the seeds of from which our feelings sprout, we are able to demystify the things that trouble us most in our relationships and approach our partners from a rational, adult perspective. For example, a friend of mine would react strongly whenever his girlfriend interrupted him. It was a source of tension between them for years as he felt like she wasn’t really listening to him. Thinking back, he realized that his reaction came from deep feelings of not being listened to as a child (his mother was too focused on herself to pay him proper attention). Realizing this, the dramatic feeling he once felt being interrupted dissipated and he stopped thinking his girlfriend was being disrespectful.

  5. Break the bond. As individuals move deeper into relationships, it is common to begin to see their partners as extensions of themselves. They become bound together as a couple and a fantasy bond—an illusion of connection—forms between them. As this happens, the quality of their relating deteriorates. One problem with seeing our partners as extensions of ourselves is that it becomes much easier to be hypercritical of them in the same way we are hypercritical of ourselves. If they do something that we think is embarrassing, we feel ashamed. Seeing your partner as a reflection on you not only builds resentment and pressure, it kills your ability to see them realistically. Further, in forming bonds we often lose sight of the other person as a separate individual and begin overstepping their boundaries. It is important to recognize your partner as a separate person with their own thoughts and feelings. By respecting his or her sovereignty as a person with independent thoughts and feelings who is different from you, you can actually strengthen your relationship. By breaking those bonds and approaching our loved ones with fresh eyes and open minds, we get to know them again as their true selves and can create a more meaningful relationship as two caring individuals. 

Think back on all your previous romantic involvements. The one common denominator in every single one of them is you. As George Costanza said in "Seinfeld" when a girlfriend tried to break up with him using "It’s not you, it’s me": “Nobody tells me it’s them not me…if it’s anybody, it’s me!”

In reality it is never just you or me, but we could still take a lesson from George. By taking these steps to develop ourselves, we can change our relationships. I can’t think of a more worthy enterprise.


Read more from Dr. Lisa Firestone on relationships at - Alive to Intimacy

Lisa Firestone, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist, author, and the Director of Research and Education for the Glendon Association.


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