Whether you have just met someone new or are in a relationship, yet are feeling ambiguous about it, aside from some alarming red flags of toxicity which hopefully you wouldn’t need advice about, how do you know if it’s worth exploring more and under what criteria should you choose to gratefully walk away?
There is a lot of relationship advice out there, and a lot of help for people who end up in toxic situations, for instance extreme cases of the empath-narcissist relationship. But what about all the other relationships where it is not a question of someone being treated badly, but simply whether it is a relationship that is positive enough and worth being in? In that grey zone, it can be difficult for people to discern clearly enough to make that decision, and this can be more dangerous in the long run than an obviously toxic relationship. At least in the latter, you know that the relationship isn’t healthy and that you should leave – as soon as you have gathered the strength to.
But in a largely ‘harm-free’ relationship, where there are no persecutors except for the occasional drama triangle squabble, it can be easy to overlook certain things. Just because there is an absence of direct harm from the other, does not mean that you are not being harmed nonetheless by the relationship dynamic or the fact that you are giving so much of your life to this relationship. An absence of attack does not make something right for you.
A relationship is a huge investment of your time and energy. The danger here is that people can end up wasting years or their whole life, putting all their energy into something that does not really fulfill, meet or serve their higher path and purpose, just because they couldn’t identify a strong enough reason to leave, or maybe because they just don’t want to be alone and don’t want to take a chance in finding someone more complementary.
That is a matter of belief and self worth, but let’s say that you are a fairly whole, balanced and independent person. You have just met someone new who is intriguing. After several failed relationships - or maybe not failed, for you learnt what you needed to learn, but they were painful, and you don’t feel you need to experience that again – you are cautious, and don’t want to get involved with someone unless it has a real chance of being a lasting and fulfilling relationship. Besides your individual preferences in appearance, values, lifestyle and interests, what should you be looking out for?
Now let’s imagine you are in a relationship. There are lots of beautiful things about the relationship and your partner, and you are content – part of the time. There are also recurring challenging aspects and you are not sure if you should stay and work through this or if you should leave. Sometimes you welcome the opportunity for more self-growth and feel hopeful that things will shift and you can find a happy balance together. You see the good things and feel grateful for the blessings of the relationship. Other times you feel defeated and miserable and certain that this does not work for you. The rest of the time you are just not sure, and wish there was some way of gaining clarity.
Although it is virtually impossible to create a generic formula, we wanted to attempt to create a list of self-enquiry questions to help people who are considering starting/not starting or staying/leaving a relationship. By asking yourself these questions and providing honest answers, we hope that you will gain greater clarity.
People often overemphasize the outer world and diminish the importance of one’s inner feeling world. Regardless of how much of a ‘good time’ you are having in the external world, what percentage of the time do you experience inside yourself when in the company of this person, feelings of:
Being caved in
2. Related to this is how much you can really unwind, open up and be yourself around this person. Again, you may get on very well and have a great time together, but how much of the time can you:
Share what’s really going on for you or in your life?
Share emotionally challenging things that you are experiencing – whether about the relationship or not?
Talk honestly about what comes up for you during/regarding relationship challenges?
Sometimes this has nothing to do with the other, but your own fears and blockages. To tell the difference, ask yourself:
3. How does the other respond to you sharing your truth – when you are sharing in a balanced way, not in a blame-attack mode - about your feelings and what is challenging you?
Are they open and willing to process and find resolution?
Do they empathically listen, so that you can find your own answers?
Do they react in a way that shuts you down, but as soon as they realize their reaction, they acknowledge it?
4. How does the other person receive feedback from you?
Are they willing to listen, reflect on what you’re saying and then respond accordingly?
They may not be in agreement, in which case they’ll tell you why, with respect.
This is a tricky point because one should be very careful as to how one gives feedback to the other. This has nothing to do with being opinionated or judgmental, this is about seeing things that should be properly addressed to the other, for the benefit of the relationship’s well being. We recommend doing this by making first a clear observation, followed by how you feel and what needs of yours are not met, and then a request, if needed.
Eg: Last night you told me that you were coming at 9pm but then you showed up at 11pm (observation). I felt worried (feeling). My need for consideration was not met (unmet need). Next time, would you be willing to let me know if you’re coming late? (request).
5. Is the person taking responsibility for his/her feelings? Is he/she constantly saying things like;
6. An important theme coming up here is how well you can communicate together. Sometimes it just so happens that there are certain energetic blockages that won’t allow two people to connect with words. It is as if the level of understanding that you both have, is not in alignment. Another aspect to this is how balanced and shared the communication is.
Anyone who obliviously talks about themselves and their lives to a greater extent than their company, is on the scale of narcissism. They may not be a narcissist, but everything is on a scale. Even if you are the kindest person on earth in other ways, if you dominate conversation you are not creating a healthy relationship. If you continually ask the other about their life and they are just too shy to share anything then that’s their choice. But often this isn’t the case and the person just seems to think that what’s going on for them is the most important news – always. Unless similarly minded, often the person who is more caring and empathic, will end up letting the other person lead and can even forget they were as important.
7. The person you are in a romantic relationship with is your greatest influencer in life. Ask yourself:
How much do you admire the person? Do you feel more admiration for them over time, or less?
To what extent are they a directly positive influence on you?
Do you look forward to introducing them to people?
Do you feel the same from them, regarding you?
One should examine oneself first to see if one is actually living by the principles exposed above. If you are not able to offer this in a relationship, it doesn’t even make sense to look if the other can stand true to this. Every situation is unique, but if you see any of the flags raised throughout these questions in a potential new partner, our advice is that 90% of the time, you should gently move on. If that’s the case, our recommendation would be to confront the situation in a mature way and honestly express to the other person why you are taking the decision. If there are other red flags that come up for you which we have not mentioned here, be warned: People often think that the nature of these flags will disappear over time, but the reverse is usually true. When you first meet someone, you consciously project your best self forward, and then over time allow your unconscious programs to continue the show… Unless you have evidence that they are currently working on improving something, don’t count on it ever happening. What shows up today is what you’ve got, and any signs of incompatibility should be listened to.
Notice that in some cases it is very difficult to spot these things at the beginning of the relationship. That’s why it is often recommended that there is a certain time frame in which both people can have the freedom to get to know each other before making a deeper commitment.
Already involved and feel emotionally attached? This is one of the hardest things on Earth. No matter how much someone isn’t right for you, you can still love them deeply, and love is designed to keep people together – it is like tearing your self apart to stay away from someone you love. Look at your family; these are usually not the people you would choose to spend your life with were they not blood related – unless you are very fortunate – yet they are usually the people you love the most and return to again and again. Yet a romantic partner is the person who will play the biggest role in your life from now on. No matter how much you love them, you cannot give the blessing of this role to anyone but someone that you feel constantly blessed to be with.
I asked Fadrique to collaborate with me on this article, to achieve a greater balance and union of masculine and feminine perspectives for the purpose of higher validity when talking or writing about relationships. As it happens, our perspectives are very aligned and we’ll be working on more relationship theme projects in the future. Fadrique is a dear and highly esteemed friend and colleague in Costa Rica who practices psychotherapy and facilitates men’s circles.
With love to you and your heart,