When a seasoned divorce attorney and author of a best-selling relationship advice book was asked the key to a healthy relationship, he told an inquiring journalist, “If you want to keep your love alive, you have to be attentive to all the little things that go wrong along the way, and constantly course-correct.”
That attentiveness to all the little things that go wrong and ability to course-correct is the product of relational self-awareness.
Relational awareness integrates our awareness of ourselves and awareness of others to better understand and navigate our relationships. While this might sound like simple relationship wisdom, it’s advice that experts say is the key in determining whether a partner’s (or both partners’) shortcomings spell doom for the relationship.
As psychologist Judith Jordan explains, relational awareness draws on both internal and external self-awareness: “It includes personal awareness, awareness of the other, awareness of the impact of oneself on the other, the effect of other on oneself, and the quality of energy and flow in the relationship itself.” People who have relational self-awareness can name their internal feelings, listen to feedback from their partner, own their part in a relationship problem, among other relationship skills.
Dr. Jordan observes that our capacity to notice, observe, and learn from our ways of relating to others—not only in hindsight but as we are relating to them—dramatically increases our ability to repair disconnection with others and “to move into growth-enhancing relationships.”
Author and psychologist Dr. Steven Stosny, who runs boot camps for couples dealing with deep-seated anger and emotional regulation issues, uses the metaphor of “binocular vision” to describe the relational awareness that is key to a strong relationship. In essence, it’s the ability to see things from the perspective of both people in the relationship, at the same time.
A lot of relationships in crisis involve one party seeing it their way and refusing to see things from the perspective of their partner. It doesn’t matter whether it is from fear, neglect, distraction, or ill will, the behavior of pitting one partner’s perspective against the other’s will never leads to relationship growth or closeness.
“The reality of your relationship has two perspectives that must be seen simultaneously,” Dr. Stosny writes in Psychology Today. “Many people resist holding their partner’s perspective alongside their own because it feels like they might lose something, as if their partner’s perspective will take something away from theirs. In truth, learning more about your partner’s perspective adds to yours, just as binoculars add information unavailable through a telescope.”
But when you see things from your partner’s perspective simultaneously with your own, Stosny says, “you gain a more accurate view of the reality of your relationship. You gain depth-perception and a grasp of the interactive dynamic between you. . . . This will increase the likelihood that your partner will see himself or herself through your eyes.”
Was blind but now I see: developing relational awareness
For many couples, the relationship skill of binocular vision has to be learned and practiced because it does not always happen naturally. It takes both partners in the relationship committing to try to improve the relationship by acknowledging their partner’s different views as being not only okay, but as contributing to the uniqueness and interest of the relationship.
Ann and Charlie (who asked Verily that their names be changed) attended a weekend boot camp with Dr. Stosny in Maryland in 2015 after Ann began noticing in her husband an increase in angry outbursts over the five years they’d been married. Her therapist recommended Stosny to help the couple learn tools to self-regulate instead of escalating fights to the point of yelling and cursing.
Ann had noticed that with the increasing tension in the home that she was avoiding topics that she thought would send her husband off the handle. Her therapist helped her to see that what she was experiencing was a cycle familiar to domestic violence victims. There’s a period of escalation, followed by apology and a honeymoon period, followed by a period of walking on eggshells, followed by the escalation again. This cycle happens at different speeds for different couples; sometimes it’s drawn out over a year, sometimes over a couple months.
Ann took a chance and used the wording on Stosny’s website to invite her husband to the weekend boot camp, and she was thrilled when he agreed to attend. It wasn’t a magic bullet, but both Ann and Charlie learned relationship strategies that help them in their marriage to this day.
Now five years later, Ann says learning relational skills helped her know whether the relationship was salvageable, and gave her hope that if it was, they could make it.
“It took years of my husband and me integrating healthy coping habits and communication techniques—essentially binocular vision techniques, although mentioning them by the name sounded too gimmicky to my husband sometimes. . . . And years later we have come so far.”
Their relationship is not perfect, but, Ann says, “we have stopped the downward spiral we were on. Now, when there are spikes in emotions, my husband emotionally regulates himself faster and sooner, and things don’t escalate to the point they used to. Arguments don’t sit in the air for days but instead are stopped and then reconciled within an hour. That’s not perfect, but it’s progress, and that’s everything to me.”
Relational myopia and relationship failure
Ann says Dr. Stosny acknowledged in the bootcamp that not all couples will succeed at this; if one partner is on board and the other isn’t, binocular vision won’t be shared. Dismissing one’s partner’s experience, for some couples, can escalate into verbal and emotional abuse, or worse, and it never helps a relationship for one party to put up with those abuses. To that end, recognizing a partner’s lack of relational awareness or binocular vision and their unwillingness to cultivate it, can also be a sign that a relationship is not salvageable.
Jenelle was still a young newlywed, having quickly married when she discovered she was pregnant, when she began noticing and questioning the depth of her partner’s character flaws. Jenelle told me she discovered soon into the marriage that her husband was an alcoholic. He didn’t see a serious issue with his bad habit, though he agreed to curb his drinking for her sake. But over the next few years, she continuously found him breaking this promise. His unresolved shame over his habit caused him to spiral into a deep frustration that led him to lash out, physically and verbally, at his frustrated wife. At this point, Jenelle was forced to acknowledge that her husband’s alcoholism coincided with troubling anger issues and that he was going to need professional help in this upward battle.
With the help of a therapist, Jenelle and her husband began to examine his relational self-awareness so that he could begin the hard work of battling his demons. He was encouraged by the therapist to cultivate the skills inherent in relational self-awareness: to name his feelings rather than act on impulse, to speak about patterns and connections between past and present, to think critically about feedback, and to avoid black-and-white thinking.
Though Jenelle worked with her husband and the therapist, her husband continued to lash out and self-medicate with copious amounts of alcohol. When Jenelle realized that he was unwilling or unable to cultivate the self-awareness necessary to change, the question became: was she willing to remain bound to someone who was effectively not participating in the relationship?
For the sake of keeping her family together, for a while longer, Jenelle tried turning a blind eye to her husband’s alcoholism and avoiding doing or saying anything that would send him into an angry fit. But the troubles continued, as they weren’t her problems to fix. Jenelle found herself slipping into a dark depression, turning to alcohol herself to cope with the daily stress. She began to feel that he was dragging her down with him. She found the courage to face this harsh reality and finally filed for divorce.
Self-awareness and self-acceptance
If relational awareness or binocular vision involves seeing from our own perspective and another’s at the same time, it’s crucial that we not lose sight of ourselves while focusing on fixing a relationship. In the midst of a difficult or floundering relationship, it is equally important to maintain awareness and acceptance of ourselves.
Looking back on the darker moments of her relationship with her husband, Ann notes that before she got good therapy, she was downplaying her emotions and needs, and focusing only on her husband, but this didn’t lead to improvement; it led to her feeling out of touch with herself. Charlie would often start arguments blaming her for some small detail he considered a slight or an annoying imperfection. These arguments would then turn into hours-long affairs, in which he would express how his feelings were hurt. These episodes, Ann explains, would go on and on, “and no matter how considerate I was, there would always be another thing I needed to be lectured about. Finally I saw the trends and realized it wasn’t me; it was him.”
“I felt so down about myself after each of these episodes, and it’s no wonder: he was always saying negative things about me, and I felt like I couldn’t do anything right. Even though I was extremely caring and committed. It was like all my love was going down the drain, through some hole in his heart. It was exhausting.”
Sometimes, one partner in a relationship, frequently the woman, will feel that to “save” the relationship, she must downplay her views, her needs, and her true self.
Reflecting later, Jenelle says, “I wasted a lot of years trying to change something I couldn’t change because I didn’t want to see the red flags during the honeymoon phase. I was too ‘in love.’” It was only when Jenelle understood and accepted herself and what she needed in order to flourish that she found the courage to do what was right for herself and her family.
Organizational psychologist Tasha Eurich has written extensively about the concept of self-awareness. Eurich explains that true self-awareness has two parts. External self-awareness is “understanding how other people view us,” in terms of our values, strengths, and weakness. This is what allows us to see from our partner’s perspective. Internal self-awareness, Eurich says, is “how clearly we see our own values, passions, aspirations, fit with our environment, reactions (including thoughts, feelings, behaviors, strengths, and weaknesses), and impact on others.” And this, Eurich notes, is crucial for our own satisfaction in a relationship.
Unfortunately in Jenelle’s case, she was focusing more on her partner and less on herself. She could not practice binocular vision because she had lost her own perspective. If she continued to dismiss her needs, she would stay in an arrangement that was in essence not even a relationship anymore, but was an unsafe situation.
“It was hard, but it was worth it,” Ann says of her journey with her husband. “I’m sad we had to go through that, because I didn’t deserve to be treated like that, but I’m so thankful we’ve gotten out of those cycles. Now that I’ve been there, I know how hard things can be and how out-of-touch with yourself you can be when you’re laser-focused on making things work with a partner who is in a dark place.”
Ann affirms that self-awareness is key to knowing if there’s hope for relational awareness to grow between the two. “When I meet another woman in a troubled marriage or relationship, I encourage her to get back in touch with her true feelings and needs, which is the first step toward a better relationship, if it is possible for them. It takes courage, because not every relationship will make it, if there’s abusive behavior that isn’t stopped. It’s a huge mess to figure that out, but the only way forward is through.”