The difference between living life with and without self-love is like the difference between night and day, between shadow and sunshine, and between a supermarket bought apple and one grown in your own backyard. I doubt that anyone would argue that loving yourself is inconsequential, and that learning to do so doesn’t improve a damn thing in your life. But is it necessary to love yourself in the context of your relationships with others? And is it necessary to love yourself before you can love somebody else?
These are questions that I explore below. And to do so, I invite you to come with me on a journey of getting to know the beliefs we typically acquire about love throughout the course of our lives, and what my own experiences with them have revealed about whether self-love is or is not a requirement to be in a relationship with somebody else.
My relationships would be better if only the other person would be better
In your early relationships, it’s likely that you thought that most things that went wrong did so because of the other person– perhaps he or she was too immature, too self-centered, too stuck-up, unwilling to compromise, unwilling to listen, and/or unwilling to understand. Whatever it was, it’s likely that your early relationships– in some way– were at least as much about recognizing the ways in which we do relationships wrong as they were about learning to understand how to do them right.
My relationships may be better if I was better
At some point, you realized that it wasn’t just them– you could’ve done better too. It took a lot of humility and self-awareness, but you got to that place of self-responsibility, of acknowledging that you have a role to play in this thing called relationships and that you certainly had a role to play in this last one.
It’s true that your partner played a role in the eventual demise of the couple you once were. And it is likewise true that you chose a person about whom these things were evident. Even when you found out (and this is just an example) that he or she was sometimes disrespectful, apt to be hurtful in conflict, and often toxically argumentative, you stayed. I know I did. It certainly wasn’t my fault but it was what I was willing to accept of partners and of relationships at the time.
What did I learn from this experience? Well, I learned that not loving myself did not set a good foundation for a healthy relationship in which I could love somebody else. If you’ve experienced or are currently experiencing similar versions of dating and relationships, it’s likely that you too are noticing that without much if any self-love at all, the good, healthy kind of relationships are hard to come by.
I also learned about self-responsibility and the freedom that comes with it. With self-responsibility, I knew that I no longer just had to wait for my partner or anything else ‘out there’ to change; I myself could affect what the relationship looked and felt like to me. And you too– like me– can affect what happens ‘out there’ in the first place by altering what’s going on ‘in here’.
“I can change myself to change my circumstances!” “I can change myself to change my circumstances!” “I can change myself to change my circumstances!” “Woohoo. What a beautiful relief!”
It’s about at this point in time, with this new realization in hand, that we begin to explore personal development teachings, from a host of teachers, and start to recognize, over time, that this stuff works!
I must become better before my relationships can become better
The more you see what is possible, the more you want to make it a reality. Then you read the words of a teacher, blogger, or counselor who said “You must love yourself before you can love someone else” and your belief that you’ve got to stay single and keep working on loving yourself before you can be a truly loving partner to someone else is confirmed.
And so “I can change myself to change my circumstances” quickly becomes (as it became for me at the age of 27) “I must change myself to change my circumstances”. And before you know it, the freedom is gone and the pressure is on! And all attempts at self-love falter as shame resurfaces.
This is, in fact, one way to do it: Stay single, focus on yourself, and develop until you feel “good enough” and “self-loving enough” to enter into a new relationship. I lived this way once… and as a result spent many more years single than coupled in my early-to-mid-30s.
Did I grow? O yes. Did I develop into more of the woman I yearn to be? O yes. And for me, this growth showed up in a number of ways, mostly in the types of people I was drawn to and the kinds of relationships I chose to be involved in and those I made a conscious effort to steer clear of.
As I learned more about who I truly am and want to be, I was no longer drawn to a partner who hadn’t gotten at least curious about who he truly is and wants to be.
As I learned to honor my own needs more, I was no longer tempted to be in the company of a partner who didn’t.
As I learned to love and show myself compassion more and more, I was no longer pulled to partners and relationships that didn’t reflect that kind of love and gentleness back to me. I recognized that I deserved far more.
As I stopped running away from and avoiding parts of myself, I was no longer magnetized to partners for whom running away when being faced with natural differences and challenges was a habit.
As I increasingly learned to accept all parts of myself, I attracted a partner who was doing the same for himself, who easily and regularly did the same for me, and who was both grateful and relieved when he saw that I easily and readily offered the same for him.
As I recognized what healthy love looks and feels like between me and me, I consciously took part in co-creating healthy love between me and him.
Doing the inner work to learn to love myself more while being single certainly allowed me to become a woman who is capable of sharing more genuine, honest, open-hearted love with another human being. There’s no doubt about it.
Was it the best way to do it? I’m not so sure.
I can become a better version of myself through my relationships
When you sit back and really think about it, it’s people who help us grow; it’s people who help us discover who we are; it’s people who co-create the very experiences we need to learn to love ourselves more. And so you can work on developing yourself in isolation or you can get out there and live (i.e., get out there and go on a few dates and maybe even find yourself a long-term romantic partner) all while still developing yourself. You can learn to love yourself while you’re busy learning to also love somebody else. You can learn to feel worthy and receptive of someone else’s love whilst showing them love as well. And if you really think about it, what is the self-loving thing to do? It’s to allow yourself to be an imperfect partner, to make mistakes in a relationship, to apologize, take responsibility, be sincere, and to know that the imperfect learning and relating is how it’s supposed to be. You do not need to be a perfect, all-knowing, all-loving person before entering into a relationship.
This is how the process of learning to love myself ever-more has been showing up through my relationship with my partner rather than without it.
I have noticed times when I am tempted to agree with my partner yet parts of me who don’t agree clearly signal to me (through bodily sensations, physiological reactions, etc) that they, too, would like to be acknowledged and cared for. I take a breath or two or three to honor the part of me that’s been taught that it’s simpler to “just not say anything” and that my value comes from being approved by someone else, and I speak up on behalf of those parts of me that didn’t get to have a voice. As I share their opinions, concerns, or feelings with my partner, everything relaxes and I… feel whole again. I feel the feeling of honoring and appreciating all of my parts (which tend to show up as opinions, thoughts, concerns, desires, etc), not just those that are convenient to have right now. The more I do this, the more I am able to give my partner the opportunity to value himself even if I don’t agree with him. In this way, we each learn to love ourselves more while in relationship with one another.
I have had the opportunity to recognize– through my reactions towards my partner– parts of me that I may have denied, ignored, or rejected in some way. As I notice moments in which my speech becomes more critical than loving, when my mind wants to reject rather than accept qualities or situations, and when my desire to speak exceeds my ability to listen, I am given the opportunity to meet myself where I am and to notice the places where I may still hold judgment, hurt, and shame. And if or when the time feels right, there is always space for me to bring more love and more compassion to those places in me, and in so doing, to bring more love and more compassion to those places in him. By being who I am while in the company of my partner, I offer him the same opportunity to notice and bring more love to places inside himself where there remain shame, judgment, and blame. In this way, we each learn to love ourselves more while in relationship with one another.
I have witnessed a reflection of so much love and acceptance– more than in any relationship I have ever been part of before. I feel the way he has received and taken in the love and acceptance I’ve readily shown to him, and the ways in which he has returned it to me ten-fold. In moments in which I’ve struggled to show that love to myself (no one, after all, loves every part of him or herself in each and every moment), this has been an absolute blessing. The parts of me that feel less worthy and more judged because of some past experience are met with love and without condition, and all of a sudden I am inspired to learn to see them in that way too. And over time, this unconditional love expresses mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually in him, in me, and in us. And in this way too, we each learn to love ourselves more while in relationship with one another.
So no, you don’t need to love yourself before you can love somebody else. What you can do is embrace learning to love yourself as you learn to love somebody else. You can learn to love yourself more purely and to love another more purely during the relationship itself. You can fall in love more and more with yourself as time goes on, while taking actions and making choices to love someone else more purely as well.
This way of doing relationships is both courageous and vulnerable.
It’s both heart-opening and -breaking.
It’s both painful and sweet.
And because it offers these simultaneously challenging and beautiful opportunities, it’s by far the best way to do it.
How are you growing as a person outside of your relationships? How are you growing as a person within your relationships? And how is the self-love you are building affecting the love that you are currently sharing or are able to share in the future with another person? Share your thoughts and experiences with us in the comments below.