Self-Reflection for Healthier Relationships

The dirty dishes in the sink. We’ve all seen couples arguing over this minor issue in sitcoms and in real life. But how does a tiff about dirty plates transform into a big argument, seemingly out of nowhere?

Often, the reaction of one or both partners isn’t reflective of the current situation. Instead, these intense emotions are usually connected to another deeper issue that goes unresolved.

It may seem easier to brush this trivial experience aside, but these conflicts often repeat themselves, creating destructive cycles that feel hard to break.

Self-reflection is critical for sorting through these tense moments, leading to improved self-awareness, self-compassion and emotional regulation.

[READ: How to Help Your Spouse or Partner Lose Weight.]

Identifying Sensitivities

Intense interactions can be caused by specific sensitivities that originate from milestone moments and significant past relationships. Sometimes we aren’t aware of these sore spots to begin with, and they can be provoked without us realizing what has happened.

These experiences are like small stories embedded in our nervous system. If past sensitive experiences are inadvertently touched, they can bring back pain. In moments of conflict, our nervous system reverts and reacts to what can feel like intense and real emotional pain. Finding the source of our pain requires internal dialogue and self-reflection.

[Read: What to Look for in a Therapist.]

Reflecting on Past Experiences

To begin, reflect on landmark moments in your life since early childhood, and try to understand how they have shaped you. These moments can be large, like a traumatic event or a significant loss. They can also be small moments, like a vivid memory of a loving interaction with a caregiver, or poignant advice from a mentor.

These events become landmarks because of how they shape our view of ourselves, other people and the world. They impact our relationships, whether we want them to or not. To recognize these landmarks, we create a list of significant moments in our lives and reflect on how we think they affected us by asking:

— How did this moment or event change me?

— Was this event impactful to my self-image and my view of others and the world?

— What did I learn?

For example, if someone witnessed violence or abuse as a child, it could have shattered their sense of safety, leading to a general feeling of anxiety. To cope with anxious feelings, they might have strict routines and keep their home impeccably organized. But, if their partner is carefree, there may be tension around these strict routines.

[Read: 10 Powerful Ways to Overcome Anger or a Bad Mood.]

Relationships as Templates

Another important step in this self-reflective journey is to look at all of the significant relationships in your life. Start with your early caregivers, and include close relatives, mentors, friends and siblings in your assessment.

Consider your own role in each of those relationships and the roles that those other individuals took on. These earlier relationships provided templates for your adult romantic relationships, usually without your conscious awareness. We learn who we are expected to be through our early interactions with others, and we gained an understanding of what we can expect from others — the good, the bad, the ugly.

Implicit roles and relationships are a part of you and will show up in your interactions with your current partner. Whether we realize it or not, we often replicate or rebel against a dynamic from a previous relationship, and try to fulfill unmet needs from the past.

As you reflect on old relationships, ask yourself the following questions:

— What behavior did you expect from others and what did they expect of you?

— What did you learn about how to connect with others?

— What did you need that went unmet?

— What fears do you have, or did you have that you need reassurance about?

For example, a child who rarely saw their father might, as a result, value being reliable, dependable and present. If their partner runs late to a dinner, it may make the person feel angry or sad. These feelings are rooted in the past, rather than what’s happening in the moment.

Moving Forward

Taking this inventory of the life you’ve lived thus far will help you recognize the person you are in your current relationship and create a roadmap for your future goals. This self-awareness can help you and your partner identify pain points and avoid provoking them.

Once we identify our landmark experiences and why we have heightened reactions in certain scenarios, we can start to separate our emotions from past sensitivities. We can prepare ourselves to focus on the present moment and calm our emotions. Finally, we can share this backstory with our partner, leading them to deeper understanding and kindness in these situations.

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