There seems to be a theme running through relationship advice: to have a successful long-term relationship, you can’t be selfish. You have to be self-less, put your partner first. At first glance that sounds wonderful, altruistic. But it’s not that simple. In fact, I believe it’s dead wrong.
I’ll have been with my husband for ten years this spring and we've had our turn on the relationship roller coaster just like anyone else. Today, things are deep-down-good. A friend asked me how I thought we made it through. When the first, unfiltered, honest answer came bubbling up to my lips, I almost didn't want to say it, it sounded so far from the “expert” advice that fits that selfless theme: I started putting myself first.
I was raised, like countless other women out there, to be a “good girl”. I love my family and they loved – love – me deeply, but the selfless dedication they showed me, and then expected me to emulate, came at a steep price, for all of us. I don’t have any regrets about the choices it encouraged me to make. After all, they are part of how I got here where I am these days, but I am determined now to live by a different set of questions. Not “what should I do?” or “what would make you happy?”, but “what do I want?” and “how can I best take care of myself?” Because in the end, I’m the only one responsible for – and capable of – making me happy.
I’ve loved my husband since I saw him walking down a subway platform in a beat-up leather jacket and jeans while we were both still in school. Of course I want him to be happy. But I can’t make him happy. Letting go of that responsibility was a big first step. Realizing that it worked both ways was the real key. If I’m not making myself happy, who is? No one else can. Not even him, as brilliant and kind and amazing as he is.
Our relationship started to realize its potential a few years ago when I committed to “knowing, nurturing, and celebrating” myself. I found the things that I loved to do. I let go of the things that I was doing out of obligation. I learned how to hear that little voice that was trying to tell me what it was that I wanted out of life, to wear to work, for breakfast, etc. At first it was shy and quiet, so I had to be very still to listen, but the more I paid attention, the easier it was to hear.
When people advocate for taking care of yourself, they often justify it by saying that you can’t take care of others if your own tank is on empty. While that’s true, it’s not the point. First of all, you don’t have to justify it. Secondly, taking care of yourself isn't going to the emotional gas station just so that you can dole it all out on someone else. It’s keeping the engine running so you can move with the give and take of life. (Of course I don’t always have a surplus: it’s not about never needing anyone else, it’s about resetting and refocusing what’s normal.) It’s creating an abundance of care and joy that eventually rubs off on those around you.
As I started putting myself first – not at the expense of others, but just instead of others – our relationship started to shake its destructive habits immediately. The Golden Rule may be “do unto others”, but I found that what I did unto myself was what I got back in spades. If I was kind and respectful of myself, so were other people. If I slipped back into old habits and beat myself up about things, I had conflict and felt unappreciated in other relationships. The more I loved myself, the more I felt enfolded in love from my husband and friends. And the really amazing thing was that as I got better at taking care of myself, I got better at taking care of the people around me too. Not out of obligation this time, but just as an overflowing of the compassion I was showering on myself on a daily basis: I wanted to.
My making myself happy also started us on a positive self-reinforcing cycle: because we love each other, when one of us is miserable, it brings the other person down; when one of us is happy, it brings the other person joy. So my making myself happy did in a way make my husband happy. My husband being happy reflected back on me, and so on. Doing “chores” wasn't an obligation any more: it became something I did because I wanted to so I could bask in the warm glow of satisfaction and appreciation that it now created. That glow had previously been overshadowed by the glare of guilt and obligation.
Like most self-improvement projects, this one is ongoing with no completion date in sight. But that’s okay. I’m worth it. My husband is worth it. Our family is worth it. And when that family comes, I will teach them to love themselves while I keep trying to live the advice I gave my friend:
Be your own best friend, your own lover. Treat yourself the way you wish your partner would treat you. Accept complete responsibility for your own happiness and release the sense of obligation for theirs. Be selfish, if that’s what you want to call it. Be compassionate and kind and respectful to yourself; the rest of the world will take the hint and work itself out. If you don’t value yourself enough to be good to you, why should anyone else?
I can’t post this without thanking my husband for his support, patience, and love while I figured this out. It was a long road, but it’s led to an amazing place. I also had lots of help with this from some amazing teachers, for which I will always be grateful. I’m looking forward to many more wonderful decades while just trying to soak it all in today.