Let’s face it: relationships are complicated. Each person brings their own history of conscious and unconscious needs and fears to the table, and these needs and fears are often contradictory. Temperaments differ, as do communication styles, tolerances for closeness, and ideas about what constitutes love and fidelity. And yet, in my experience with couples, one thing makes the biggest difference when it comes to the long-term emotional health of a partnership: taking ownership. It’s more than a skill—it’s a relational superpower that can help even the most estranged partners in the midst of a crisis recover their connection and move forward with new resources and a deeper commitment.
You’d think taking ownership would be easy in a culture where we invest so much time, energy, money, and focus on being able to own stuff, from cars to houses to websites to bright ideas. In spite of our passionate consumerism, owning psychological stuff is bafflingly hard. It can’t be forced or demanded, faked or extorted. Just because you’re able to own something once doesn’t mean you’ll be able to do it again. If attempted without self-compassion, it has a manipulative quality. If done from a purely mental position, it feels dry, a seedless hull without any generative capacity.
I’m sure you’ve heard people say “I’m sorry” or “It was my fault.” These words can be bridges that span the abyss, but they can also amplify the existing emotional confusion. Our hearts know when ownership is real and when it’s a tactical maneuver. Truly taking ownership requires a willingness to experience and acknowledge our prejudices, imperfections, and vulnerabilities. Ultimately, it means we have to give up defending ourselves, to step out from behind the shield of our victimhood and recognize our capacity to hurt another.
Truly taking ownership feels risky, a bit like showing your cards to an opponent in a winner-takes-all poker game, or maybe like exposing your throat to a potential predator. Lessons we learned early on in our families and communities have impacted how safe we feel showing up authentically with all of who we are even with those closest to us, for better or worse, flawed and fully human. When we take ownership for some aspect of ourselves we’ve previously denied, we bypass our own defenses and connect to our deepest vulnerabilities. We risk something—hurt, rejection, judgment—for the sake of connection.
Truly taking ownership requires a willingness to experience and acknowledge our prejudices, imperfections, and vulnerabilities. Ultimately, it means we have to give up defending ourselves, to step out from behind the shield of our victimhood and recognize our capacity to hurt another.
Once, at the beginning of my relationship with my husband, I remember stopping in the middle of a searing argument and realizing that what he was telling me, and what I was arguing so ferociously against, was in fact 100% true. He’d called my attention to something unpleasant about the way I interacted with him that I didn’t want to admit to. “You’re right,” I said finally, my voice cracking. For a moment, it felt like the world would end. A wave of nausea passed through me, but then my husband took my hand and I could see warmth in his eyes. I’d lost the argument, but I’d begun the process of winning his genuine trust.
If you want to increase your chances of happiness with your partner, try challenging your strongest convictions about “the right way to be” in a relationship, particularly if these convictions create distance between the two of you. Notice the things you can’t stand about your mate and write them down, then consider how these characteristics or qualities might exist, however hidden, within you.
If you’re feeling ambitious, listen carefully to your partner’s complaints: you’re overbearing, needy, jealous, irresponsible, cold. True, these observations may be exaggerated or even false, but they may also be clues to the most important things you’ll ever own—hidden truths about yourself that need to be acknowledged before your relationship can change for the better.
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