Taking Responsibility for Your Happiness

Why you shouldn’t over-rely on your partner to make you happy.

When we’re single, we’re constantly making decisions in pursuit of happiness: where to go, who to date, what friends to seek out, what activities to try. We don’t always make the right decisions, but we, at least, tend to take responsibility for them. When something doesn’t work, we try something else. When one thing doesn’t feel right, we change course. Life can throw a lot at us, but in general, we believe that we are at the helm when it comes to actions we can take to make ourselves happy. Yet, this often changes when we get into a relationship.

All of a sudden, we start putting a lot of our eggs into another person’s basket. We start trusting that person with all kinds of aspects of our happiness from our level of boredom to our sense of security. A lot of what we expect from a partner makes sense (for instance, to feel seen, understood, appreciated, and loved). Yet, sometimes our lists get a little long, and it becomes easier and easier for our partner to let us down. As Esther Perel, author of Mating in Captivity once put it, “We come to one person, and we basically are asking them to give us what once an entire village used to provide. Give me belonging, give me identity, give me continuity, but give me transcendence and mystery and all in one.” In essence, we expect them to make us happy, no longer taking responsibility for our own happiness.

When we get into a relationship, many of us have preconceived notions of what things are supposed to be like. Of course, we want to be with someone who is kind and attuned to us, but some of our expectations can be exaggerated or distorted. For example, many of us expect our partner to make us happy. But what does that mean when we break it down? We may have a list that includes things like giving us affection and offering help and support. But it may also include things like providing us with attention, entertainment, and companionship whenever we want it. The problem is no one is able to be there for us at all times and, furthermore, we don’t really need someone to provide this for us as an adult. In addition, no partner is going to be “perfect” or be able to know exactly what we need precisely when we need it.

Imagine, for instance, being burnt out at the end of a hard day and wanting care and soothing from your partner. You may notice that they’re distracted, so you immediately feel frustrated. You may start having thoughts like, “Why don’t they notice how upset I am? They don’t even care.” Later that night, you two may be sitting down, and your partner turns on the TV. Immediately, you feel hurt that they haven’t asked how you are or started a conversation. “They never make an effort. They’re so self-centered.” When they ask what you want to watch, you may say “whatever you want,” then immediately feel annoyed with what they choose. By now, you’ve built a case against your partner and fully blame them for your bad mood.

At this point, it’s good to take pause and reflect. You may ask yourself, “Did I ever outwardly express how I was feeling? Did I ask my partner to talk? Did I say that I would rather connect than watch TV?” You may also try thinking about what might be going on for your partner. What were they doing that day? How might they be feeling? What may they need?

Our partner can only see things from their perspective, and we can only see things through our own. This doesn’t mean they shouldn’t take an active interest or care deeply about what we want or how we feel. However, even the most attuned of people cannot always infer what someone needs or get it right all the time. Now, this probably sounds obvious to most people reading this. You may be thinking, of course, I don’t expect my partner to exist in my service or anticipate my every desire. However, many of us don’t recognize the subtle ways we’re making ourselves miserable by expecting our partner to always provide us with what we think will make us happy. We may find ourselves focusing on our partner’s failing, constantly cataloguing dissatisfaction in their responses to us, rather than actively pursuing what we can do to make ourselves happy.

Of course, a healthy relationship depends on each person feeling fulfilled and enjoying life together. Yet, each of us is responsible for going after the things that make us feel fulfilled, and we have a lot of power in creating what we want. Here are some ways to take responsibility for our happiness, while creating more happiness in our relationship.

  1. Say what you want directly. I often tell couples, “You cannot expect your partner to read your mind.” Yet, too often, we don’t express what we need or want directly, then we blame them for letting us down. Instead of saying what we want, we tell them all the things we don’t want or all the ways they’ve gotten it wrong. Being open and vulnerable rather than critical or complaining invites a completely different response from our partner.
  2. Avoid defining statements. Seeing our partner in black or white, as “always” doing this or “never” doing that, often creates a self-fulfilling prophecy where we feel chronically dissatisfied. We hone in on their shortcomings rather than seeing the big picture of what they offer us on a daily basis. We may be so distracted by the fact that they often forget to do something practical around the house that we don’t appreciate the warm way they greet us every morning, or the three things they did for us when we got home.
  3. Don’t punish. When we feel let down by them, we can be direct and honest with our feedback, but stonewalling and punishing are rarely helpful, especially when these responses are based on an expectation we set of which our partner wasn’t even aware. For example, if we hoped to have a romantic date night, and our partner comes home ready to stay in and make dinner as usual, we shouldn’t be ready to punish or build a case against them. Instead, we can generate our own excitement and invite them to join. If they’re not in the mood, we may be disappointed, but we can still redirect our energy to do something we enjoy.
  4. Be independent. Just because we’re in a couple doesn’t mean we have to share everything we do. It’s more than okay to have things we each like to do independently. Having shared interests and activities is wonderful, but there are probably a whole bunch of things that make us feel alive and ourselves that we should not give up just because we’re in a relationship. Don’t feel guilty for having outside passions. They refuel us in ways that bring more energy and vitality to the relationship.
  5. Treat your partner the way you’d want to be treated. Studies have shown that when people in relationships receive support without reciprocation their mood is a lot worse, whereas when they give support, “regardless of receipt” they feel better. When we treat our partner with kindness and consideration, we’re the ones who benefit, and this behavior invites our partner to reciprocate with warmth and generosity.
  6. Avoid the parent/ child dynamic. When we depend on our partner for everything, it’s a lot of pressure to put on them. If we find an imbalance in the relationship where we feel helpless without our partner or as if we can’t do certain tasks we used to do on our own anymore, that’s a sign we may be playing out a parent/child dynamic. We may start to see our partner in the service of us instead of as a whole, autonomous person. A lack of equality can diminish our attraction to our partner and undermine our strong romantic feelings.

Relationships can be tricky, because the joyful aspects of sharing our lives so closely with someone can be undercut by us forgetting that we are whole and unique people in and of ourselves. Our happiness should be heavily increased by whoever we choose to be with, but it is still ours. We have to be proactive about pursuing what enlivens us. Of course, we should be open and honest about the ways our partner impacts our mood, but that communication is part of that accountability. So much of pursuing happiness in a relationship is about ensuring each person treats each other with equality and respect, creating the space for each individual to come alive, so the relationship can thrive.

About the Author

Lisa Firestone, Ph.D. Dr. Lisa Firestone is the Director of Research and Education at The Glendon Association. An accomplished and much requested lecturer, Dr. Firestone speaks at national and international conferences in the areas of couple relations, parenting, and suicide and violence prevention. Dr. Firestone has published numerous professional articles, and most recently was the co-author of Sex and Love in Intimate Relationships (APA Books, 2006), Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice (New Harbinger, 2002), Creating a Life of Meaning and Compassion: The Wisdom of Psychotherapy (APA Books, 2003) and The Self Under Siege (Routledge, 2012). Follow Dr. Firestone on Twitter or Google.

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