Relationship Self-Care: How to Love Yourself to Love Others

We’ve been talking about self care a lot recently - and the reason is that it is one thing that can reliably help us to manage stress and give us a much-needed sense of control in our lives. Whether it is taking an evening off our usual responsibilities to read a book or curl up in front of a movie, or having a long phone call with our oldest friends, self care is something that gives us the opportunity to top up or emotional and physical resources.

So - just to recap - what actually is self care? The definitions abound when we use our old friend Google, and we can sometimes be tricked into thinking that self care involves buying something or being a bit selfish. This might well be the case - lots of types of self care involve treating ourselves to nice experiences and gifts, or putting our own needs first - but at its core, self care is really the action of listening to what it is that we need right now - and doing it.

Using this definition, getting up at 5am for a workout class could be considered self care (even if it doesn’t feel like it at the time), if we decide that this is going to give us what we need. It might be taking the afternoon to organise our kitchen pantry - if that is something that WE want to do. It might involve pressing snooze on your alarm and coming into work a bit late, if you’ve identified that a bit of extra sleep is going to help you function better. Most acts of self care do come with some kind of ‘cost’ (usually time, sometimes money, sometimes others’ needs) and part of incorporating self care into our routines involves deciding what level of this we’re comfortable with - being able to look after our own needs and comfort, while still remembering that we have some commitments to those around us (eg. work, family, relationships).

When we are thinking about self care, a good place to start is to consider ‘What is NOT self care?’. Sometimes we can get tricked into other people’s agendas for self care (and generally this is not intentional - they truly believe that they are helping). For example, a spa day with work colleagues might sound like a self care extravaganza to your boss, but to you might be draining and boring - you might much prefer to spend the time alone, catching up on Netflix. Or your partner might organise an overnight hike for you to both get away into nature - which might be their idea of self care - but you have less of an interest in the great outdoors, and return from the hike exhausted and annoyed.

Self care is totally subjective, and based on an individual’s desires and needs at that given moment. An example of this might be - after working from home for a week, self care for someone might be joining a Zoom trivia session - once they return to work, however, they don’t actually need that social contact any more, and so will not benefit much from joining - their needs have changed.

So where does Self Care fit into a Relationship?

Things get interesting when we bring relationships into the picture. You could argue that, for many people, being single makes self care somewhat easier - we have more time and more decision making power to do exactly what we want - eat what we want, spend our time doing what we want. For many people in this situation, our focus is solely on ourselves and meeting our own needs. There are down-sides to this (we might feel lonely or miss the emotional support that relationships bring), but the reality is that self care is a lot easier when we are calling the shots.

When a person enters a relationship, it is likely that they will start to make some compromises - perhaps it is that they go to bed later to get into sync with their new partner, or they attend events that they would not normally dream of (eg. sporting games, family dinners, work functions). It is likely that their calendar becomes a bit busier - after all, not only are they doing things a bit differently, but they are now also spending a chunk of time with their new partner - taking time to bond, get to know each other, form the basis of a relationship. As lovely as this time is, there is no arguing that it is all-encompassing - the hobbies or rituals that we picked up when single might drop off, such as regular exercise, time spent with friends, solo hobbies like long walks or language classes. Our new lives edge out our old lives, and often in the moment this feels okay - since the pleasure and excitement of a new relationship is intoxicating, and we feel a strong sense of motivation to invest time and effort.

Fast forward a few months, and it is likely that - if the relationship has persisted - things may have settled down somewhat. Perhaps you’re not SO obsessed with each other that you have some spare time, at last. Perhaps those late nights and long conversations have settled into something more sustainable and comfortable - you probably still really want to spend a lot of time together, but there is starting to be a bit more space to do other things.

For many couples, this stage is a tricky time. When we think about it, the intense first few months of a relationship represent the bonding process - learning about each other and strengthening that connection. Research tells us that after this initial phase of intense bonding, it is actually really helpful to step back a bit and look after the other parts of our lives that we might have been neglecting (eg. friendships, health, personal growth, career progression) - but sometimes we can feel like this is counter-intuitive. If we step back from our partner - even a bit - and re-start some of these things, might this mean that we lose some of what we’ve just established?

For couples who aren’t able to take this important step back, the result can sometimes be an unpleasant case of codependency - a couple who spends ALL their time together, quickly gets into a rut, isn’t particularly happy - but also is frightened to make any changes, lest they ruin their relationship. It is kind of the ‘frog in the pot’ analogy - the frog doesn’t realise that the pot is getting hotter and hotter gradually, until it is boiling. We might not even realise we’re becoming ‘that’ couple until we wake up some months down the track, unsatisfied, resentful and bored - and start to think about ending the relationship because we are unhappy. Remember - a relationship needs oxygen to thrive, just like us - and spending all our time with the one person - no matter how amazing they are - is not healthy for either of you.

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What are the benefits of focusing on individual self care?

It sounds paradoxical, but the reality is that by giving ourselves permission to practice self care, we are actually making ourselves better partners. When we’ve stepped outside the bubble and talked to friends, broadened our horizons, had a change of scene - not only do we have the benefit of having missed our loved one, but we also bring with us energy and dynamism from the outer world. As wonderful as existing within that relationship bubble can be, there is something equally wonderful about stepping outside of it and having a different experience.

Social support has been shown to moderate stress and negative life events - and being able to share experiences (relationship-based and non-relationship-based) with friends can be a highly protective factor that helps us to understand and navigate big life decisions. For many people, their favourite self care is time spent with dear friends, similar to an informal therapy session where topics are discussed, opinions are sought and anxieties are reassured. This can be hugely useful early on in a relationship - especially as it nears the ‘power struggle’ stage where we start to see some conflict with our partners and need to decide whether the relationship is going to last.

Additionally, spending time away from your partner can also be helpful when things aren’t going well and there is some tension. You may have had the experience of feeling annoyed or frustrated with your partner for something, and then leaving the house and completely forgetting about the disagreement. Things like hobbies, exercise, social events and learning allow us to ‘change tack’ in our brains and shift our focus onto things that we have control over. Many people describe this as a kind of ‘reset’ switch for their brains - as a kind of stress release that allows them some space from what was previously bothering them. The reality is that even the most supportive, amazing, understanding partner will get on our nerves sometimes - and getting some distance, even for an afternoon, can be a wonderful chance to change perspective.

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Options for self care when you’re locked down with your partner

Now that you’re completely convinced about the value of individual self care in a relationship, the question arises - what might this look like? Lockdown and working from home make things even more complicated - we know that there are some ideas for Relationship Self Care for Couples - but what if we actually want to do things by ourselves?

Here are some things to begin to think about in terms of finding some individual self care when you are potentially in close quarters with your partner. We’ve broken these down into categories of self care - so you can see how many options are available to you. Remember - self care is whatever tops up your emotional and physical resources, so even if it isn’t someone else’s cup of tea, if you love it and it makes your heart sing - it is self care!

  • Emotional Self-Care - Journaling, speaking to a therapist, meditating, talking to trusted friends, listening to music, spending time with children and animals, doing something creative like painting or gardening.
  • Practical Self-Care - Making a budget, organizing your kitchen or closet, making a to-do-list, paying off debts, writing letters to friends, organizing your time to suit you better, making your living space more comfortable.
  • Physical Self-Care - Exercising, getting a massage, learning self-massage, eating food that makes you feel good, doing a yoga class, doing a spa day at home, getting 8 hrs of sleep, starting a boot camp.
  • Mental Self-Care - Seeing a therapist, journalling, structuring your day so you have down time, talking things through with a friend, getting enough sleep, problem solving issues in your life, learning meditation.
  • Social Self-Care - Spending time with friends, being part of a community, taking part in an organized activity (eg. fun run or painting class), calling or emailing friends, organizing a get together, making conversation with neighbours or people in your area.
  • Spiritual Self Care - Meditating, prayer, hiking, spending time in nature, spending time with animals, reflecting on your life, writing letters to people who have passed, learning about spirituality, doing yoga.

As you can see, ‘self care’ is a bit of a catch-all phrase for activities that meet our fundamental needs for this specific time and place. One thing to remember is not to get overwhelmed with doing ALL the self care activities - these are just some examples of things that might help you to feel better.

Some people have hypothesised that self care is partly about taking control of our time and energy, and being intentional about what we do - so rather than being reactive and passive (eg. scrolling through social media, waiting for things to happen in our lives), we are encouraged to plan and organise our time so that we end up doing what really matters to us.

Whatever it is, you can see the value of bringing in some of these activities into your daily life - especially when you are in a relationship. Perhaps your partner has their own set of self care activities that they do (and these are likely different to your own!) - if not, it might be useful to share some of the above ideas.

One important point to take with you from this article is that - despite what our warm and fuzzy emotions (and hormones) might be telling us - spending time away from a relationship is actually better for it in the long run. Putting your own needs at the same level as your ‘couple’ needs sets a positive and empowering precedent for the rest of the relationship, and reduces the chance of you or your partner becoming bored, unsatisfied and unhappy. Recognising that self care - whatever it looks like - is an important part of our lives - can feel revolutionary - and once you begin to prioritize these activities, you are likely to see the benefits - both individually, and in your relationship.

Just like being in a relationship, practicing self-care and self-love takes time, patience and a level of commitment. Let Relish help you on your self-love journey with unlimited one-on-one coaching, personalizedadviceand more. Download now.

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