This is the advice my college therapist gave me after listening to me cry in her office about unhealthy relationships I had no plans of abandoning.
That one phrase made something click that changed how I view my previous painful relationships and how I navigate current ones.
My previous relationships were riddled with a dependence that I had failed to recognize or acknowledge. My feelings relied on my partner’s performance in our relationship.
Being the unhealthy relationships they were, I was permanently sad and exhausted because my needs weren’t being met.
I thought it was more important to meet their needs than honor my own. If I became their ideal girlfriend, if I made them happy, everything would be perfect.
Obviously, that could never happen because I was changing myself and living for someone else by compromising my needs and feelings for people who didn’t have any consideration for mine. I would pretend to not need certain things and be okay with others. I could encounter sadness in these relationships instantly with a single word.
More importantly, I wasn’t encountering happiness in myself, which indicated deeper personal issues that manifested through seeking dependence and happiness from romantic partners.
My current boyfriend and I just celebrated our first anniversary. This is a relationship that ultimately tested what I learned in therapy and my newfound self-love and independence.
During the last year, we’ve learned a lot about ourselves and each other. We have a powerful dynamic that almost brought us down a few times.
Our troubling dynamic is two-fold. On the one hand, we’re both incredibly headstrong and passionate people. On the other hand, we have very different needs and expectations from a partner.
These characteristics aren’t inherently bad, but together, they created the perfect storm.
We needed different things from the other, but our stubbornness and attachment to our ways of being kept us from understanding and accepting the other’s needs.
Our needs and love languages seemed to clash.
Words of affirmation and resolution through dialogue are both incredibly important to me.
I’m a very vocal person, and words are how I make sense of my thoughts, feelings, and experiences. If I’m not reading or writing, I’m talking to myself or someone else.
Words are my primary channel for experiencing understanding, empathy, and love.
I love it when my boyfriend compliments me and tells me he loves me. I love hearing that I’m appreciated.
Talking it out is also my primary method of resolution. If something bothers me or bothers him, I wanted to address it immediately with words and dialogue.
I want him to listen and understand my experiences, and I want to understand his. I’m willing to talk it out as long as it takes for me to feel like we’ve reached an understanding and equilibrium.
My boyfriend does not function that way.
His love language is touch.
Experiencing physical connection and intimacy with me is the kind of expression of love that he craves and offers.
He appreciates words of affirmation, don’t get me wrong. And he understands that conflicts cannot be resolved through silence. But his approach to words and romantic expression is different from what I’m comfortable with.
I love physical touch, but in moderation.
I don’t need or want to be touched anytime, anywhere. In fact, I like going for periods without romantic contact so that I can desire it and appreciate it. And if I’m frustrated, sad, or angry, I definitely don’t want to cuddle or have sex.
For him, physical touch can be a way to connect and find peace again.
For me, physical touch is something that I want once we’ve emotionally reconnected and found stability.
Interestingly, he is the exact same way with words.
He likes receiving compliments and being told how much he is loved, but he gets bored when he feels overly-showered and smothered with such vocal affection.
He wants to be shown that he’s loved and appreciated primarily through touch and action.
And when it comes to conflict resolution, he can achieve that feeling of resolution in much fewer words than I can. I want to break down and unpack everything; he doesn’t need that.
He would also rather have space and wait to address an issue until he feels it’s calmed down, whereas I want to let out my emotions and feelings at the moment when they feel most raw and authentic to me.
Neither of our approaches to love and relationships is invalid, or perfect.
Nevertheless, we had reached a point in our relationship where only one person’s needs were being met at a given time, with the other person feeling naturally frustrated with the lack of love or support they felt they were receiving.
Some people may reach this point and decide to part ways, which is understandable.
We decided to stick it out a little longer because, once the problem was identified, the solution seemed reasonable and fair. The good in our relationship greatly outweighed the bad.
We ultimately needed to get to know each other and our relationship better, which we both felt safe and comfortable doing with clear boundaries and communication.
I’m not at all advocating for anyone to work harder than they feel they need to to make a relationship work. Some relationships just don’t work, and we accepted that may be the possibility with ours.
For us, once we understood what was going on, it didn’t seem like such a grueling task to work on our relationship despite having different needs.
Clashing needs and love languages go with two fundamental problems.
My boyfriend and I weren’t as fundamentally opposed as we thought we were but seeing that required opening ourselves up to new ways of expressing and receiving love and meeting each other in the middle.
Problem 1: Our relationship was becoming dependent on the other’s ability to express themselves through a love language they weren’t fluent in.
His relatively sparse words of affirmation and my perceived coldness to touch made the other think love and support weren’t adequately being expressed or given.
We were experiencing and interpreting the relationship through very different lenses, so our expressions of love were going unnoticed because the means weren’t expected.
Once we realized this, I started appreciating and opening myself up more to his touches, and he did the same for my words. They suddenly meant more to me than they did before.
This realization also loosened a dependency that was unknowingly being conjured.
We can express our needs to each other if we feel like we need extra support or our needs aren’t being met.
Still, our individual happiness and well-being no longer depend on analyzing and micromanaging the other’s words and touches.
We love receiving those things. But, if I’m not in the mood to cuddle, he doesn’t feel rejected, and if he’s not in the mood to talk, I don’t fall apart.
Problem 2: We were too inflexible and stubborn to validate each other’s needs and respecting their boundaries.
I began to recognize his needs for physical comfort during stressful or emotional times, and he became more willing to let me talk through my feelings.
We both wanted to feel that our needs and boundaries were valid and acknowledge.
We were actually on the same page because we wanted the same things, but we were withholding that validation and care from each other.
Don’t get me wrong — boundaries haven’t suddenly disappeared in our relationship.
If I don’t want to be touched, he respects that, and if he needs space from talking, I respect that.
We still have individual boundaries, but we’ve become more unified by acknowledging and respecting the other’s boundaries and needs.
“The strongest relationships are between two people who can live without each other but don’t want to.”
— Harriet Lerner
Our co-existence is much more peaceful now. Our needs are different, but they don’t have to challenge each other. I still have needs and feel comfortable expressing that. But, I can also find the comfort, love, and support I desire within myself.
I also feel the freedom and peace to walk away if one day we decide that’s the healthiest option. I love and respect him deeply, but my happiness, security, wellbeing wouldn’t fall apart if we were no longer together. I can be happy in his arms and I can be happy alone.
Relaxing our co-dependence and opening ourselves to understanding the other’s language has taken the pressure off of each other, something that was stressing us more than we realized.
We’ve found an excellent metaphor for our romantic expressions in the way we communicate with each other.
His native language is Spanish, and he speaks English fluently. I’m the opposite. Sometimes he speaks Spanish, and I respond in English, and vice versa. Other times, we seamlessly transition between languages in a single sentence. If something is said in one language and it isn’t understood, we repeat it in the other.
We’ve realized that sometimes words and phrases are more accurately expressed in one language over the other, so we’ve developed a dance between the two that we’re both fluent in and allows us to express ourselves differently depending on the needs of the sentence or conversation.
Our love languages look a lot like that now.
We have found a way to honor very different needs without compromising our own and our boundaries. We aren’t always perfect at this, but we are much more open to the conversation when we feel out of balance.
Our relationship is still young, and I don’t know what the future holds for us. If we had let these issues fester, we would’ve surely never made it this far.
We are always going to have differences, but we are learning to respect them. And differences can be exciting! I have the opportunity to experience the world through another pair of eyes and learn new things and unique perspectives every day.
We still do things that annoy each other or that we disagree with, but we don’t want to change each other; we just want to be respected as the unique individuals we are. At the end of the day, it’s up to us to decide if our differences and annoying traits can be tolerated, respected, or embraced, or not.
Anyone would be hard-pressed to find a partner that fits perfectly into their lives, and that doesn’t have to be a deal-breaker.
Entering into any long-term relationship requires learning how to co-exist with another human being that will inevitably be different.
No one has to change who they are, but instead be willing to make space for their partner’s interests, needs, and desires in their life.