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There Is No Such Thing as Self-Care in Relationships

There is only relational self-care.

Key points

  • People may resist a partner's self-care endeavors when they maintain a linear win-lose mindset.
  • Viewed systemically, partners are interdependent, therefore one's taking is another's giving.
  • Open communication will help both partners to master relational self-care.

Do you celebrate yourself enough? Probably not.

Do you take care of yourself enough? Probably not.

Does your partner encourage you to take care of yourself enough? Probably not.


Because in relationships, there is no such thing as self-care.

Self-care is a very trendy buzzword in the self-help world. What does it mean?

Self-care can be defined as prioritizing your emotional, physical, spiritual needs over those of others (partner, kids, family, work). In intimate long-term relationships, there is no self without the other. Or as legendary family therapist Carl Whitaker wrote: “There are no individuals in the world, only fragments of families.”

Self-care is hard enough as it is when you’re single, but when you're in a relationship, it’s even more complicated because you’re part of a system. You are (inter)dependent on your partner in most areas of your life, including self-care. In short, there is no self-care without the other’s involvement.

“One taking is another’s giving.”

Relationships (or families) are in essence a closed, complex, sensitive, interdependent system (You can read more about the systemic reality of relationships in this article). These systems always aim for homeostasis: Every move one person makes is affected by and impacts the rest of the system.

Yes, there is no self-care without someone else's support.

For example, if you want to go for a weekend away with your friends, that means your partner has to hold reality while you’re away, be it taking care of the kids, the dog, the bills, the finances, and so on.

Viewing self-care from a systemic prism helps you understand why, often, you may not always get the support you expect from your partner.

Being dependent on another person is so scary that we often avoid thinking systemically and delude ourselves that our behaviors are not affected or affecting our partner. Such linear thinking can lead to a dichotomous win-lose scarcity viewpoint: It’s either you or me, your needs or my needs. Therefore, prioritizing yourself can be interpreted as not prioritizing (or loving) your partner.

Another consequence of the systemic lens is that when you self-care, you are essentially taking care of the whole system—because a better you means a better us. You two are interdependent, and therefore self-care is also a relational win.

A personal example

My wife Galit loves to sleep in in the mornings. In the beginning, I would judge her and criticize her for not helping me with the kids' morning routine. I felt sorry for myself and angry at her, judging her as lazy, for dumping all the work on me (a scarcity linear worldview); I criticized and made her. feel guilty—until we had an honest conversation about how much she needs her sleep in order to be present, playful, and energetic with the family.

Framing her sleep relationally helped me understand the win-win element of her self-care. I realized that her taking care of herself wasn’t a power move or an indication that she doesn’t care for me. Instead, she was leaning on me in the morning in order to be more with us the rest of the day. From that point I found it easier to take lead in the mornings and help her take care of herself. I finally understood that it was in my enlightened self-interest to support her to do self-care.

How do you master relational self-care?

The fact that self-care is relational, doesn’t mean that it’s bad or impossible. It just requires awareness, patience, and communication. Here are some steps that can help:

  1. Reflect What are you lacking? Sleep? Exercise? Diet? Vacation? Reading? Hobby? Think or write why do you want it and how it will serve you.
  2. Have an honest talk with your partner. Share with them why you want to do this. Explain to them that self-care is relational, which means it’s a win-win: If you are happier, they will be happier. Remind them that your self-care is not because you want to leave or punish them but because you want to be more full, energized, present, vital, and curious in your life—and therefore also in your relationship.
  3. Share with them what they could do (or not do) to help you achieve this self-care.
  4. Prepare for resistance. Since you are challenging the system, get ready for pushback or rupture. They might refuse.. They might belittle your desires.
  5. If your partner does resist, don’t be surprised, insulted, or disappointed (which I call The Holy Trinity of Blocking). Try to understand that they might feel threatened. Listen to their concerns and reassure them it’s a win-win. If they still don’t cooperate, then let them know you’re still going to do it. Your self-care is not move against them.
  6. Reciprocate. If you want your partner to take better care of themselves, then be proactive and "go downstairs" and take responsibility. Show them with your feet that you support them prioritizing themselves.

Your taking is their giving; you cannot ignore the interdependent reality of your life. Seeing self-care as a relational endeavor will increase mutual support, because both of you want more of each other.

We all want our partners to be more present, alive, positive, caring, and attentive. We can’t do that for them. They must learn to do it for themselves. But we can model it through relational self-care.

More from Assael Romanelli Ph.D.
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