4 Steps to a Better Relationship

How to take control of your future once and for all.

Posted Jun 13, 2016

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"Can a person really change?"

This is a question I hear a lot when people talk about their relationship struggles. They wonder if their partner will ever start being more romantic—or stop being moody. It’s easy to dwell on things we cannot control, but there is a lot we can control. By taking charge of our half of the relationship dynamic, we give it a 50% better chance of survival. We can’t make another person change, but we can behave in ways that encourage our partner to reciprocate positive behavior. After doing this, if we still don't get what we want from our relationship, at least we are in a far better position to make a decision about moving on.

How can we make changes that will alter and improve our relationships? Attachment research tells us that real change becomes possible when people are willing to look at their personal history. According to attachment research from Mary Main and Erik Hesse, the biggest predictor of what kind of parents we’ll be isn’t what we experienced as children, but how much we were able to make sense of and feel the full pain of those experiences. This statement can be applied to all of our close, interpersonal relationships.

Our ideas about relationships are formed very early in our lives. Our attachments with important caretakers create our “internal working models” for how relationships work. Throughout our lives, without even knowing it, we may act based on these ideas. Many of our reactions in our current relationships may be echoes of the past. (See “Where Our Relationship Patterns Come From.”)

As we uncover the attachment style we experienced as children, and the effects it can have on the ways we relate, we can start to better understand our current behavior. We begin to understand where our insecurities come from, why we react negatively or emotionally to some interactions, why we pull away from loved ones, or whatever other destructive dynamic we may bring to the table. We can learn what triggers our emotions and even uncover the reasons why we choose the partners we do. Making sense of our experiences enables us to stop being ruled by them.

Separating our past from the present involves four key steps:

  1. Recognizing negative self-talk.

    Start to become aware of a destructive, self-limiting thought process known as the “critical inner voice.” This voice is shaped by and fuels our negative ideas about ourselves and relationships, reinforcing old messages like: “You are undeserving of love.” “You can’t trust him; he’ll leave you.” “She doesn’t really care about you. No one does.” Once we acknowledge this voice, we start to challenge it and its intrusion on our relationships.
  2. Noticing patterns and triggers.

    Once we understand how our past influences our present, it's easier to recognize when we are being triggered by the past. When we feel flooded by emotions like jealousy, suspicion, fear, or rage, we understand that these reactions often have more to do with emotional triggers from long ago than what’s presently going on. We also see how we may project our feelings onto our partner or turn on ourselves in moments when our emotions are triggered.
  3. Choosing our actions.

    When we’re able to stop and notice when we’re triggered, we can make better choices about how we want to act in our relationships. We may feel a strong emotional reaction, but we can take time to calm down, reflect, and choose how to respond. What actions are in sync with our ultimate goals? Taking time to pause and evaluate helps us to separate our present from our past and not fall victim to our emotions.
  4. Making better choices.

    In addition to choosing our own actions and deciding how we want to be in our relationships, we can make better choices about who we want to be with. When we find people who have a healthier attachment style than ours, we form a secure attachment. This helps to change our internal working models, and restructure our ideas and expectations about love.

Everyone struggles when it comes to getting close to someone else. In a course I co-lead with Dr. Daniel Siegel, “Making Sense of Your Life,” we explain how creating a coherent narrative helps us grow and evolve to become who we want to be in our relationships. We improve our relationships when we’re willing to take on the challenge of creating this type of narrative, which enables us to understand how we may limit ourselves in the present. We can even encourage our partner to do the same in a way that is compassionate and supportive. By taking these steps, we achieve real change and become more loving and secure in our relationships.