Excerpted from I WANT THIS TO WORK: An Inclusive Guide to Navigating the Most Difficult Relationship Issues We Face in the Modern Age by Elizabeth Earnshaw, LMFT, CGT. Sounds True, November 2021. Reprinted with permission.
Love honors me, and love honors you.
From “I Want This to Work”
Now, to explore the foundation of love, let’s look at the definition of honor. Webster’s dictionary gives three relevant definitions:
- “To regard or treat (someone) with admiration and respect, to regard or treat with honor”
- “To give special recognition to, to confer honor on”
- “To live up to or fulfill the terms of”
Ideally, we want relationships that lean into all three of these definitions. Our partner deserves regard and respect. They deserve special recognition through our responsiveness. And they deserve for us to live up to the terms of our agreements by showing reliability.
(Oops, I did it again—there are the three Rs!)
In this chapter, I’m going to ask you to take a good, hard look at what you believe about your relationship—that is, your mindsets. I’ll show you how to move from beliefs that keep you stuck to beliefs that help you grow together with your partner and honor each other. When you embrace healthy beliefs about relationships and each other—beliefs that honor your partner and are rooted in the three Rs—it becomes easier to communicate, to deal with the tough stuff.
The way we think about our relationship and our partner matters. As a relationship develops, people develop beliefs about themselves, their partner, and the relationship. These beliefs influence the way we act within the relationship, how much motivation we feel, how vulnerable and open we can be, and how flexible we are willing to be.
In her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Carol Dweck shares two mindsets that impact our relationships. The first is the fixed mindset, or believing things are set in stone and cannot be changed. This might mean we believe that our partner’s qualities cannot be changed or that the relationship’s qualities cannot be developed. “In the fixed mindset,” she writes, “The ideal is instant, perfect, and perpetual compatibility.” The second is the growth mindset. This is the belief that with work, focus, and practice, our skills can be developed and changed over time.
Someone with a fixed mindset might say, “They should know what makes me feel loved!,” whereas a person with a growth mindset says, “I believe my partner can learn how to love me if I communicate clearly and they work hard at it.” Or a fixed-mindset individual says,
“I shouldn’t have to work at my relationship. If it isn’t good now, it will never be good.” A growth-mindset person says, “Relationships go through periods of highs and lows. I think we can get through this if we both make a consistent effort.”
The thoughts we have are incredibly powerful, and they inform (and are informed by) our core beliefs about relationships, which act as a blueprint for how we treat each other; this blueprint in turn impacts our behavior within our relationships. Depending on these core beliefs, we might manage our feelings in a way that brings us closer to the other person or in a way that takes us further apart. When we can combine a growth mindset with strong internal and external boundaries, then we can foster possibility in our relationships while still staying grounded in the reality of what we need and deserve.
Posey and Francis were together for several years. Posey had been frustrated and disappointed with Francis ever since they moved into their home together. He wasn’t keeping up with their joint projects. Posey started to think that Francis was lazy and that he didn’t care
about her. She began to develop a core belief that he would never change. Because of that core belief, she started to treat Francis differently, dismissing him, criticizing him, and talking about him negatively to other people.
In therapy with Posey, a lot of the work we did was to help her shift into more helpful core beliefs or mindsets about how relationships work, so that she could connect with Francis, share her frustrations with him, and potentially get her needs met. Here are important core beliefs about the ways we should treat each other in relationships in order to work toward building a growth mindset:
- “We have the capacity for growth and change.”
- “I don’t have to manage my partner’s emotions.”
- “We celebrate each other.”
- “We both deserve fairness.”
- “We deserve empathy and compassion.”
- “We have each other’s backs.”
- “We invest in each other.”
In the next few pages, we will explore each core value in more detail.
“We Have the Capacity for Growth and Change”
When we become frustrated with our partner, we start to develop rigid, critical beliefs about them and about the relationship. A key sign that this is happening is when we start to talk about our partner in absolutes: “You never show me you care,” or “You are always so unreasonable,” or “You are so lazy.” Or we use absolutes to talk about the relationship: “It’s always hard work,” or “We will never be as close as I want us to be.” We even conjure absolute beliefs about ourselves: “I am always such a pushover,” or “I will never express myself.”
If you find yourself describing your relationship, your partner, or yourself in negative and unequivocal terms, it’s important to bring some flexibility into your thinking in order to open up space for growth. You can do this in the smallest way, simply by paying attention to the language you use and softening up your fixed statements.
“I Don’t Have to Manage My Partner’s Emotions”
To have an interdependent relationship, you cannot manage your partner. You have to be willing to say the hard stuff and allow them to feel their feelings in response. Many couples block clear communication through attempts to manage the other person. Instead of being honest, they withhold information to stop their partner from getting upset.
Here is an example. Whenever Rory had to bring up a difficult topic, she would preface it by saying, “Don’t be mad, but . . .” Rory would then share information that was upsetting. Sometimes Rory’s partner would feel mad, but they didn’t have a way to express that, since Rory was trying to manage her partner’s emotions. Another example: Whenever Aniyah’s husband, Jeremy, would cry about the death of his father, Aniyah would shut him down: “Oh babe, don’t be sad!”
And when Jeremiah and Harper would talk about difficult topics, as soon as Harper showed any emotion, Jeremiah would say, “Okay, forget it! I am not going to talk about this if you are going to get upset.”
In reality, you can never control a partner’s emotional experience: if you say something and they feel mad, then that’s how they feel. In other words, if you tell someone not to feel, it doesn’t mean they stop feeling. It means they might stop sharing it with you or they might
have to start sharing it with you in ways you can’t ignore, perhaps through aggression or acting out.
When you catch your partner trying to manage your emotions, then it’s okay (and even important!) to set a boundary. You can say something like “I am upset, and I still want to be able to have my own feelings here. Please just share your truth. I can handle it.”
If you tend to manage other people’s emotions, try to catch yourself in the moment: “Oops! I am sorry, honey. You can of course feel however it is you feel.” Then continue on with the conversation.
“We Celebrate Each Other”
We can communicate better with our partner when we have developed a cache of positive feelings for each other. We do that by believing that our partner is worthy of celebration, that they deserve our affection, appreciation, interest, and excitement. When couples are struggling, one of the first things I see go is the capacity to celebrate each other. We fear that if we are kind, it will make us susceptible to being hurt. Sometimes, the withholding is a way to punish or exert control. But the more we look for the good, the more we see it. And the more we look for the bad, the more we see that, too. It’s not worth it to be in a relationship with no celebration of each other.
Research shows that when couples monitor pleasurable interactions with each other, they report a higher level of relationship happiness. This means that the more you pay attention to the positive interactions, the more you notice them, and the happier you feel.