Keeping a Sense of Self When You Are Part of a Couple
Do you ever pretend to be someone you're not to maintain a relationship? Do you find yourself letting go of other friendships and interests? Have you ever felt like you are defined by your place in the relationship (i.e. Mike's girlfriend, Mary's boyfriend)? Being part of a couple can be a fun and rewarding experience; but an unhealthy, exclusive focus on one relationship could cost you your friends, interests, or self-esteem.
Have you been in a situation like this? Have you ever lost yourself in a relationship? Have you felt neglected or abandoned by a friend who spends all his/her time with a boyfriend or girlfriend?
When we find ourselves in a new and exciting romantic relationship, many times the only thing we want to think about is that other person. We see everything with "rose-colored glasses", but in many cases, we find ourselves wearing a "blindfold" and cannot see that the relationship may not be as healthy as it should be. What, then, are the differences between a healthy and an unhealthy relationship?
In a 2003 study, more than half of all teens who date said that their relationship causes them stress (Mediamark Research Inc. New York. "First Comes Love: Teen Dating Statistics", John Fetto. Teenager's lives are full of stress already—from taking tests, making teams or auditioning for parts, balancing the demands of school, work, family, and social time with friends. These stresses are all a natural part of adolescence and can help you to discover who you are. Unhealthy dating relationships can, at a minimum, distract from this vital task. At an extreme, unhealthy dating relationships can be abusive and prevent emotional growth and development.
"Dating often isolates a couple from other vital relationships," says Joshua Harris, author of the article entitled The Seven Habits of Highly Defective Dating. It is unhealthy to allow a romantic relationship to crowd out all other relationships. Teens need the love and support that a variety of healthy relationships can provide. Friends, family, and trusted mentors (teachers, coaches, ministers, etc) are all are part of the network that teens need to mature and make healthy decisions. In Proverbs 15:22 we read, "Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisors they succeed."
So what makes for a healthy relationship? How does our faith guide the way we think about this?
Self-Knowledge and Self-Respect – How can we share ourselves in a relationship when we don't have a good sense of who that "self" is? Our faith helps us to know deep inside that we have value and dignity. We are loved by God, first. And we are loved, not because of what we do, what we have, or what we look like--but because of who we are, a child of God. Faith helps us to look beyond our awkwardness and imperfections to see the fullness of what God created us to be. When we live in right relationships, we grow and develop more and more in the image and likeness of God. In a healthy relationship, we can be ourselves and maintain a good self-image/identity.
Mutual Respect - St. Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans, "Love one another with mutual affection; anticipate one another in showing honor"(12:10). Respecting each other means that each person values the other for who they really are, without pretense or correction. Respect involves putting the other person and their needs before your own. Respect also means that communication is a high priority for both partners, and that they do not challenge each other's boundaries. Each person should feel like they have whatever time they need to think about decisions and not feel pressured to embrace the other's opinion. Healthy relationships are based in mutual respect and allow each partner to become more—not less—themselves. Unhealthy relationships can be characterized by dependency, manipulation, or domination.
Trust and Honesty — There is no way to have a healthy relationship without trust and honesty. Jesus reminded his disciples that "a good tree does not bear rotten fruit, nor does a rotten tree bear good fruit. For every tree is known by its own fruit…for from the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks" (Luke 6:43-45). Trust and honesty build up a healthy relationship. Jealousy and lying are indicators of an unhealthy relationship . If your partner sees you talking to someone else, does he/she get angry? Can you be open and honest about your feelings with your partner and yourself? Do you believe your dating partner tells you the truth?
Support — God is the model for all healthy relationships. God is steadfast and faithful. In healthy relationships, teens give and receive support and encouragement from one another in good times and bad times. Unfortunately, many teens find themselves with immature dating partners who are selfish, overly critical, or jealous of their success. These behaviors are forms of emotional abuse. Remember that relationships can be and should be fun! If a relationship is filled with "toxic waste", dispose of it!
Maintaining Separate Identities - It isn't an easy to figure out the balance between sacrificing to make the relationship a priority and not giving up too much of ourselves. You should never allow your boyfriend or girlfriend to become the source of your identity. Do you find yourself ditching your friends because your partner wants more of your time? Do you skip soccer practice or piano lessons to give him/her more time? Remember that before you started dating, each of you had your own lives, interests, and friends. You should maintain the aspects of your life that make you happy with yourself. Don't be afraid to develop new interests when you are with someone. Having different interests than your partner will only make the relationship more exciting and fun!
Relationship with God - Most important, keeping a sense of self when you are part of a couple depends on having a healthy relationship with God. Often, the "blindfolds" that come with romantic relationships prevent us from being able to see ourselves clearly. Our time praying with God can help us find that sense of ourselves again. As Jesus tells us "Ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you" (Luke 11:9). When we can effectively communicate with God, we are given the keys to understanding ourselves and our place in this world. If we maintain our relationship with God, we gain the clarity we need to see our other relationships for what they truly are. God wants for all of us to belong to loving, supportive, and truthful relationships just like the one He always provides for us, but we must love ourselves before we can love others.
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