By Steven Lake
What does self-care in a relationship mean? Probably different things for different people, but for me, it means taking the time to 1) assess my needs and 2) take action on that assessment.
When embroiled in the daily tasks of living and being in a relationship, taking the time to figure out my needs is difficult. It usually becomes apparent as a feeling of discontent. Something just doesn’t feel right. I may get moody, quiet, anxious, or distracted.
This ennui is what tells me that I am out of sorts and something needs to be done. But what? If I was living by myself this would not be such a problem. I could be as grouchy as I want with no consequences. But I don’t live alone and my mood does affect my partner.
This is, I suppose, the first place to start—dealing with my wife. Actually, it’s the second place, identifying what is happening for myself is the first. Sometimes, however, she informs me of my condition before I am even aware of it, or at least not aware of how it is affecting the environment.
This goes back to Descartes and his “I think, therefore I am.” He did not say, “I feel, therefore I am.”
If I am aware of my state first, I can inform my partner what is up for me. This is often a trick as it involves me communicating. This is the first of the 5 ways to take care of yourself in relationship.
For me, communication is the sine quo non for taking care of myself and the relationship. There are two aspects to this. The first is with myself. In other words, listening to what my body, mind, and heart are trying to tell me.
I am not very good at this. I think most men find this challenging. We have been brought up to listen to our head (mind) to the exclusion of everything else.
This goes back to Descartes and his “I think, therefore I am.” He did not say, “I feel, therefore I am.” This rationalist paradigm is still the prevailing way of seeing and engaging for much of the world. The irony is that men go to war, despoil the earth, and create wealth inequities that are justified by logic yet are propelled by emotions like greed and fear.
The second aspect is the ability to communicate with your partner. If your partner is of the opposite sex this can be challenging. Books have been written on this subject. The difficulty is in the different styles of communicating taught to boys and girls (see Tannen).
Men and women, generally speaking, value different things, whether this is culturally handed down, biology, or a combination of the two. The result is most men and women have difficulty communicating, especially when the topic of discussion elicits emotion.
Knowing how to stay present, non-judgmental and open-hearted when in a conflict with your partner is not taught in school, yet it is a critical skill to have if you are to succeed in your relationship and take care of yourself.
Understanding emotions is the second way to take care of yourself in a relationship. Like communication, there are two aspects. Understanding your emotions and understanding your partner’s.
We live in a world where men, for the most part, are taught from an early age to dismiss their emotions. “You’re a big boy now, so stop crying,” has been heard by every man I know. If you are a sensitive or emotional man you are perceived as weak or feminine or both. Definitely not how most men want to be perceived.
What’s a guy to do? We (men) are emotional and yet we are taught to reign in and control our feelings and definitely not display feelings that may be interpreted as weak.
Acquiring emotional awareness, understanding my emotions and becoming comfortable in expressing them has been a challenge of mine since my teens. I was overwhelmed with powerful emotions and did not know how to deal with them except to mimic my father – bury them. Which I did and became depressed.
Somehow I knew that going to theater school to study acting was a way for me to get a handle on my passions and use them for constructive purposes. It was a step in my journey. Being in a series of intimate relationships continued the process and finally, studying emotions, psychology, and therapy completed the process.
I don’t believe there is a shortcut to emotional self-awareness. If you did not learn this in your family of origin it will be the school of hard knocks that will imbue you with wisdom. How quickly you learn what life has to offer is up to you.
If you realize you are lacking in these skills you could speed up the process by reading, taking workshops, and or going to therapy. Basically, you have to decide and take action to move towards emotional proficiency. Oh, and then practice.
Understanding your partner’s emotions is the second aspect of emotional awareness. Understanding in and of itself is not the Holy Grail. It is more like being OK with your partner having strong emotions, especially when they are directed at you.
So many men in my counselling practice do not know how to stay present in the face of this onslaught. Typically, they become defensive (justify), attack, stonewall (go silent), or walk out. Not conducive to solving the issues at hand (and yes, all of these tactics can be used by women too.)
The difficulty is that there are at least four processes happening simultaneously. You are trying to figure out what she wants, you are seeing her emotions, you are having your emotions, and you may be trying to communicate what you want/need/feel. Easy to get confused in this situation.
If you are OK with your emotions and OK with your partner’s emotions, you will be much closer to being able to quickly work through problems and with less distress.
Do you look after your physical health? Do you eat right, exercise, and avoid excessive ingestion of chemicals? Do you listen when your body talks to you or are you like most men who avoid looking after their health unless they are puking up blood?
FYI: This lack of self-care worries your wife. I am sure you have heard her complaining that you should look after this or that or get yourself to a doctor. Do yourself a favor and listen to her. She does have your best interests in mind.
I know you hate feeling weak or having the world see that you are vulnerable, but let’s break out of this old-world-macho paradigm. You aren’t doing yourself or the people around you any favors.
Historically, men have less social networks than women. The negative effects of this show up when wives predecease their husbands. These are lonely men often isolated and suffering from depression. Women on the other hand have networks of support that help them negotiate this transition.
Taking time to develop your network of friends and acquaintances is not mere politicking but a survival strategy. Going out with the boys is a good thing (when done in moderation). Not only are you developing your relationships but you are giving you and your partner a break from each other. I always appreciate coming back to my wife after a separation.
When was the last time you were truly alone with nothing to do but be? I have had very few times when this has occurred and whenever I take the opportunity for time alone, I am amazed at how much better I feel. I am clear thinking, grounded, and my heart is open.
Whether you meditate, go on a retreat, or a solo hike in the woods, this time with no distractions, other than your own mind, is an opportunity to be with yourself in a different way.
Traditionally, a time alone was a rite of passage from child to adulthood. Whether it was a vision quest, a set of trials to be overcome, or ingestion of entheogens, learning to be by oneself was a critical element to discover the self and connection to a greater power.
These steps are not in any order nor are they separate from each other. They can interweave and flow one into the other. You may have some facets developed while other languish waiting to be picked up, held and nourished.
Caring for others may be easy for some, caring for self is difficult for most of us. To keep on the path of self-care, I remind myself that the more I care for myself, the more I have to offer others.
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Originally published on The Good Men Project.