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Know Yourself First: The Importance of Self-Awareness in Relationships

A significant part of couple therapy involves improving self-awareness. Because you cannot fix a problem until you are aware of its source, it is important to understand what drives you so you can better control your subconscious impulses.

For example, people develop survival strategies during interpersonal conflict in an effort to protect oneself from a perceived threat. Common survival strategies include defensiveness, withdrawal, or counterattack. Partners are often unaware of these impulses in the moment and naturally focus on what the other partner is doing to trigger them. It takes two to overcome a maladaptive conflict sequence, and becoming self-aware of the vulnerabilities being triggered and how you slide into unhealthy survival strategies is the first step in changing the sequence.

Self-awareness is important to relationships, and it is something you are in complete control of. It can feel difficult and overwhelming to try and increase awareness of something that feels so automatic and deeply ingrained. It is not uncommon to experience shame around a particular survival strategy, and it takes courage to share this with your partner. Try these exercises to improve your self-awareness in your relationship.

  1. Get to know your story.How well do you know what impacts your automatic way of interacting with your partner? These behaviors often stem from early childhood experiences and previous relationships. Take some time to delve into your personal history and better understand how early events influence your perceptions, expectations, and behavior in your current relationship.Here are some helpful questions to answer about yourself, adapted from The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by John Gottman:
    • What difficult periods have you gone through? How did you make it through these traumas? What are the lasting effects on you?
    • What behaviors have you developed to try and protect yourself from future hurt?
    • How did your family express emotion when you were a child? What is your own philosophy about expressing feelings?
    • What differences exist between you and your partner in expressing emotion? How do you make sense of these differences?
  2. Practice mindfulness.Mindfulness techniques, which aim to improve openness and awareness in the moment, are helpful in identifying triggers and underlying vulnerabilities. Because mindfulness helps you stay present, improving mindfulness skills will help you in mapping out your role in conflict sequences and point out potential turning points where you can learn to respond in a healthier way. It also helps slow down reactionary responses so partners can pause the conversation and check interpretations before acting on false assumptions. Increase your self-awareness through mindfulness activities such as meditation or breathing exercises.
  3. Be open and actively seek feedback.Your partner has a front row seat to the way you interact and can be a helpful tool in increasing self-awareness. Try to establish a safe, open dialogue with your partner to discuss problems with communication and possible solutions. This requires you to open yourself to potentially negative and hurtful feedback, and you may not always like what you hear. Become aware of any tendencies to justify or defend actions that your partner finds problematic, and work together to see how each of you can alter the conflict sequence.

When offering feedback to your partner, be considerate of how you communicate your opinion. Do not just point out things your partner does wrong, as you are not meant to serve as the judge. It is helpful to highlight things your partner did that were hurtful and to make an effort to better understand what drives such behavior. Come to these discussions with an open mind and the goal to better understand your partner. You will benefit greatly when your partner returns the favor.

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