Full disclosure: It took me all of my teens and 20s to learn to focus on myself in relationships. The turning point was actually getting involved with someone who was in a 12-step program then subsequently joining my own because I wanted what he had—total zen, acceptance and autonomy. (Guys, we don’t even argue. I realize that might seem freaky to some people, but I am so good with it.)
That’s when it hit me that placing too many expectations on another person had been the death of most of my past relationships. I always felt like I wanted more—needed more—from someone in order to be happy. The moment I let that go, I became nearly invincible to disappointment and I beamed with self-love—and being able to relax into a happy, healthy relationship was just an awesome byproduct of that.
The reality is, your happiness is on you, not who you’re with. That may sound like a cliché that you already live by, but there’s a reason why “self-care” is a relatively new phenomenon in wellness—so many of us haven’t been focusing on what’s in our own power to make us feel content.
Judgmental thinking or wishing we could mold anyone into someone who’s easier to deal with (that includes bosses, family members and frenemies) or who fits into the vision we have for our lives is a total waste of energy you could be putting toward doing something good for yourself.
Since you’ll never truly be able to change or manipulate another person without it ending in epic heartbreak, here are some of the things you can control in a relationship to get what most of us want—love and happiness.
Embracing your own life (independent of your S.O.)
Sometimes a boyfriend will just never get into watching basketball with you, or a girlfriend is just not having it with those 10-mile bike rides. It’s totally okay for couples to have different interests. And that should never stop you from doing what you want to.
I grew up on the beach, so spending hours in the hot sun, being barefoot in the sand and having saltwater in my hair is almost ritual. But to my S.O., it’s not the most fun or comfortable way to spend a Sunday. That doesn’t stop me from taking beach days solo or with other friends. (Added bonus: Studies and surveys have shown that maintaining friendships while in a relationship has positive effects on the individual and on their love life.) Do I ever force him to come just so we can have romantic walks on the beach and an Instagram pic to prove it? No. But every now and then, he comes on his own accord because he actually wants to spend time with me in my happy place. No manipulation needed.
Saying thank you (even if it’s not your birthday)
Sure, we automatically thank our partners when they surprise us with flowers and a spa day for a major holiday. But you should make your appreciation known even when your partner does something you think they should be doing anyway, like taking out the trash (did you know splitting chores is also associated with a happy relationship?).
Positive reinforcement goes a long way, but it’s also just about being polite and respectful. Do you thank strangers for simple courtesies like holding doors open for you? Of course. Then you shouldn’t take it for granted that the person you’re closest to is probably doing you favors, big and small, all day, every day.
Take a moment to give thanks for every little thing—it’ll heighten your overall gratitude in your life and it’ll make the other person feel loved. And that comes right back to you in the form of even more acts of kindness.
Flexing your flexibility (without being a doormat)
Can I just say flexibility is a brilliant quality in a person? Being around someone who’s willing to compromise can make life so much easier on both sides. It is a major gift no one should take for granted.
Accepting change as it comes is a good exercise for the soul. Willfulness can take all the fun out of being in a relationship; for example, if you’re a person who must keep a strict itinerary while traveling and your guy is the opposite, it might just feel like a drag for both of you. Try stepping out of your comfort zone and think of it as a way to shake things up now and then, which you definitely need if you’re in it for the long haul.
You can take it too far, though. If a partner isn’t reciprocating, you’ve gotta speak up. Being flexible doesn’t mean being a pushover. When your gut is telling you no, suggest something else you know you can both work with—and do it calmly, with love, without accusing the other person of taking advantage of you. Chances are, they’re just unaware of your preferences because you haven’t told them.
Keeping it real (including your “imperfections”)
And that brings us to this: Don’t hold back the real you! Everyone has their diva moments, and of course, those are allowed. Whatever you’re tempted to hide on the first three dates, he (or she) has to find out about it eventually. Just do you. You might not be able to control another person, but guess what? They’re just as powerless in changing anything about you. Not that they would ever want to.