Self Care in Relationship
by David A. Yeats LCSW

If we are to create true self care, we will seek out not only external means of doing so (balancing mind, body, spirit; managing our time; following through with our responsibilities to ourselves, and then to others and the world; among many other means), but we will deliberately and consciously pay attention to honoring our inner intuitions and wisdom—we will act out of a knowing that our inner being is the means to self love and self care.

The quality of our relationship with ourselves is the key to our sense of well being.  We cannot, in any enduring or meaningful way, depend on our relationship with any other person to be able to stand in for us as the means to well being.  If we do not honor respect, value, and care for ourselves, we cannot reasonably expect that others can do it for us, and eventually, others will tend to treat us no better or no worse than we are treating ourselves.

We first learn our “value” in the world by how we are treated by those who bring us into the world.  We typically internalize this experience, and expect it to be replicated in life—largely because it is the only experience we have had, and the most important experience we have had.  It is what we know. The quality of what is called our attachment bond with our parents is predictive of how we will “do” relationships—with ourselves, and with others.

As we have said elsewhere, it is our primary job as humans to learn to love ourselves not as we were loved, necessarily, as children, but as we deserved to be loved—that is, as those who have experienced secure attachment bonds with their parents have learned to love themselves. (See the Post “What Does Self Care Look Like?” for a specific discussion on that topic).  Research has shown that this is a task that requires deliberate work: we have to watch how others who seem to be taking delight with their lives interact, and try to incorporate increasingly secure, stable, and grounded communication styles.  (See “Communication Strategies” and “Specific Self Care Strategies,” for concrete ideas).  In time, though it may feel quite foreign at first, we may notice that we are treating ourselves with more regard, and others appear to be as well. 

Identifying how to care for ourselves and developing a “practice” of doing so ultimately empowers us to have relationships with others that are more based in individual “intactness” rather than our mutual insecurities and self doubt.  In our culture, many of us commit to a relationship when we are quite young, before we have solidified a sense of an “intact self,” and we then will tend to use relationships to bolster our sense of selves, get validation about our worth from others (who are also feeling less than intact), and creating dependency or resistance to relationship as we go along.

Our committed relationships will start to look out of balance.  One partner may be wanting more closeness; the other, more autonomy.  One may pursue; the other distance.  One may be focused on connection—building bridges all the time or too much of the time; the other may be focused on separateness—setting boundaries and establishing groundrules all the time or too much of the time.

Seldom does this interface between myself and my partner begin in a way that has balance.  For most of us it is hard won through trial and error, pain and fear.  Humans tend to be attracted to opposite polarities: we unconsciously seek to master those things that we have been challenged by.  Almost every partner in every relationship provides an opportunity to address those challenges.  Those relationships that do have balance, have it because they have consciously worked to create it.  Those who don’t and stay “together” have likely, and unfortunately, settled for an unsatisfying relationship with longing and loneliness for one partner, and distance and isolation for the other.

Partners who experience secure and largely intact selves are able to move close together, are—really—able to bask in true intimacy and connection while at the same time experience their individual beings as separate, whole, and safe.  And that’s the goal of relationship—to be able to feel separate and safe at the same time as feeling connected, seen, and loved.

Maggie Scarf, in her book Intimate Partners, describes five stages of relationship that move from the extreme of two amorphous “selves” with little experience of their individual being merged together without a sense of boundary, to the healthy and somewhat rare state at the other end of the continuum where partners feel totally connected and totally autonomous whether they are in each other’s presence or whether they are separated by great distance and long time periods. 

The Stages of Relationship—The Urge to Merge, The Urge to Diverge, The Urge to Converge, and the Urge to Emerge—each present opportunities to move toward a higher, and increasingly satisfying relationship.  Each presents pain and challenge. For example, it always happens in a relationship that after the honeymoon stage (The Urge to Merge) comes the period of painful power struggle, as each partner, at differing rates of speed, must seek out a separate sense of self that is not possible or desirable in the Urge to Merge stage.  This creates an inevitable power struggle between partners that serves to catapult a couple forward into richer and healthier and more joyful times with each other or locks the partners into a dark, seemingly never-ending battle of wills (the idea that two should become one). 

The metaphor of the Three Gardens of Relationship is a graphic way to look at the two polarities of connection and autonomy that each relationship must find a way to integrate if a relationship is to feel successful.  We have to honor each of our autonomous selves (and gardens) and we have to honor as well our connection in relationship (our common garden).  The way couples begin to move through the challenge of the Urge to Diverge stage is by coming to appreciate the “rules” of each person’s separate garden (we are each in charge, unilaterally, of our own garden and our partner has no say about those things that are about ourselves alone), and the “rules” of the partnership garden (if an issue or part of an issue affects us both, we are obliged to negotiate to a win-win, together, not unilaterally).

This process invokes the dynamics of Boundaries and Bridges and the idea that there are Two Truths in each relationship, both of which have validity and need to be factored in.  (See the posts on “The Three Gardens of Relationship” and “Two Truths,” as well as “Boundaries and Bridges” on this website. (There is no ”objective” truth, practically speaking, since neither partner can claim they have it.  Both are seeing what they see when they look at an elephant, but one sees the trunk, the other the tail. Is either not expressing the truth as they experience it?). 

As we honor our own truth, and also our partner’s, we begin to respect each other’s boundaries, each other’s separate gardens.  We begin to create a space for each of us to have a sense of our own autonomous selves within the container that is our relationship.  Usually this dynamic is initiated by the partner who is feeling most suffocated, least free, most fearful of a loss of a sense of self—what we call the Guardian of the Separateness for the Relationship.

As we make room in relationship for our autonomous selves, we begin to become reacquainted with our unique sense of self and, because of the boundaries that we are creating, that we both appreciate and honor for each of us, we begin to feel safe.  We are not going to be controlled, overwhelmed, or engulfed, and we can move, much closer now, to each other because, in our sense of separate, safe selves, we want to bridge and connect and align with our partner, who suddenly appears even more attractive than ever.  

The partner who is the Guardian of the Closeness for the Relationship often feels at a loss when the Guardian of the Separateness insists on holding his or her position.  Why can’t my partner be closer? The answer is that the separateness of each partner must be established before closeness can occur (once couples move out of the Urge to Merge Stage).  The goal is to reestablish autonomy and separate sense of a self, and it is only from that place that true closeness—that is not merger into two become one—can occur.  Without the felt experience that I am a separate, intact self, I cannot move too close to anyone for fear of losing myself.  And the human need for safety is always first, always supersedes any other human need, because our very sense of surviving is at stake.

If we can learn to negotiate a balance between connection and separateness, where both partners are willing to both build bridges and set boundaries (including establishing groundrules), if we respect the autonomy of our separate gardens and work collaboratively and mutually in our partnership garden, we have arrived at the Urge to Converge stage of relationship.  Now we share the responsibilities of the Guardian of Closeness and the Guardian of Separateness equally and consciously. Now our time and energies are not spent either grasping or defending.  We have reached a quiet stability where we can focus on our separate and joint dreams and passions creatively, and unencumbered by the insecurities of previous stages.  We feel and function like a team, clearly nurturing our common goals, and strongly advocating for each other’s separate and unique growth and becoming.  There is an ease, a mutual regard, a pervasive tenderness of feeling between partners in their time together and their time apart as well.

 A few folks may evolve to an even further stage of relationship, the Urge to Emerge.  This stage reflects a capacity of individuals who have evolved into the FlexFlow (Yellow) and GlobalView (Turquoise) stages as described in the Spiral Dynamics research as well as those folks who have reached the Magician and Unitive Stages as described in the research of Susanne Cook-Greuter.  This level of growth is also what A.H.Almaas refers to when he is talking about the unfolding of individuals who experience what he calls ‘Basic Trust.” (See “Spiral Dynamics Introduction” and “Attachment Posts”).  If partners continue to grow together and as individuals in ways that expand their consciousness and their sense of self where they develop a relationship with themselves as a part of the Oneness of the Universe and all that is—at an experience level not merely a cognitive level—research has shown that, for a few humans, a new dynamic emerges, which results in a core sense of safety, regardless of what life offers, a sense of identification not with a separate sense of self or ego (as Eckhart Tolle describes in A New Earth), but an expanded  identification with all that exists so that one‘s “personal” sense includes all life and all being.  At this level of experience, partners are less concerned with the physical “plane” of existence, and their meaning and purpose, separately and together, begins to move beyond personal stories or daily dramas toward a quiet sense of serenity and tranquility, a sense of alignment with “being” itself. 

At whatever stage of growth we find ourselves to be in, (and regardless of the particular developmental descriptions we may use), our goal as humans is a common one: we are all after a greater sense of well being, notwithstanding the many, many ways we define what that is.  Whether on our own individual path toward greater self care and self love, or on a path with another toward our mutual care and love, there always seems to be something beyond where we are to learn about, become conscious of, and grow into.  That is, apparently what we humans do: we learn, we become aware, we grow.  We do so at our own paces and with our own unique hurdles, which begin the day we are born.  But we are not stagnant, it seems, and so there can always be hope that we, through our efforts of passion, love, creativity, determination, and desire, will reach for something more, something that seems like a better version of well being than the version we lived yesterday.