Relational Self-Awareness and Compassion

We often picture care work in specific structures, such as nurse and patient or mother and child, but how we approach care shapes many parts of our lives, including our intimate relationships.

Dr. Alexandra Solomon is a therapist, author, and speaker who, over the past two decades, has worked with couples to help them better navigate intimacy and meet both each other’s needs and their own.

Defining relational self-awareness

Dr. Solomon places relational self-awareness at the center of all her work. She believes that the core foundation of a happy, thriving relationship is a continuous willingness to look inside ourselves and identify what the notable moments in our interactions bring up.

When a partner does something that frustrates or irritates, it’s easy to decide that our feelings relate exclusively to what just happened. But deeper investigation can uncover an additional, internal factor—perhaps an unmet need, something from our past, or a story we’ve told ourselves. 

Getting curious about what is going on inside our minds and hearts isn’t about letting the other person off the hook; rather, it’s about making space for the more fruitful, healing conversations that happen when we have named both how we’re feeling and the multifaceted causes of that feeling.

Defining love

Love, by Dr. Solomon’s definition (which she borrows from bell hooks and M. Scott Peck), is committing “in an ongoing way to another person’s spiritual evolution.” In other words, it is an orientation to someone else’s growth. 

Acceptance and self-care in intimate relationships

Space for evolution in our relationships, intimate or otherwise, means adjustment and change are inevitable. Because evolution is constant, this definition of love calls on us to throw out the expectation that once we “find our happily ever after” we are finally done with bumps in the road and future disappointments. 

The concept of accepting these inevitable changes calls into question a lot of what we see on social media today around self-care at any cost. Dr. Solomon acknowledges that she raised some hackles with her public comments about acceptance. 

While she is in no way advocating that people stay in abusive or otherwise toxic relationships, she is concerned by the contemporary shift toward a “my way or the highway” mentality. She worries that the individualism so prevalent in much of our capitalist Western society has led us to focus exclusively on getting our own needs met. When we approach our relationships like this, recognition of what the other person needs often gets lost.

This mindset impedes the realistic acceptance that no one person will ever give us everything that we need, especially since we are ourselves continuously evolving. We end up expecting the impossible, then cutting and running at the first sign of any disappointment rather than acknowledging that everyone has limitations and sitting in the complicated questions to feel out alternatives before simply moving on to the next potential perfect match. 

Sometimes, our partner isn’t stepping up. Other times, though, accepting a limitation your partner is not built to overcome leads to deeper understanding and libertes them from needing to be everything to us. 

As Dr. Solomon points out, the inevitable disappointment with the next one (and the next and the next) leads us not to finding our “perfect” someone but to never finding anyone that meets all our needs. If we, instead, accept that no one can meet every need and set out to meet some of those needs ourselves or within another friendship, our relationships with our partner, ourselves, and our friends have the potential to become that much deeper.

Self-awareness takes practice

Dr. Solomon’s book, Love Every Day, is a year-long meditation on the ongoing nature of relational self-awareness and healthy intimacy. While treating it like a race to be run and won is tempting, Love Every Day highlights that this isn’t the secret. Because we all change, even if we did “perfect” our self-awareness, we would need to check in again in two years, or five, or ten to identify the new facets of ourselves.

Instead, Dr. Solomon advocates for a gentle, daily approach to looking inward and having meaningful conversations. We can’t “achieve” awareness, we can build the habits that make contemplation and reflection automatic reactions to the situations that arise. In incorporating these processes every day, Dr. Solomon says, you can reap the benefit of a bit more levity, ease, and joy in your intimate relationship.

In this episode of the Care Work podcast, Alida and Dr. Solomon discuss how to incorporate more relational self-awareness into our lives. They also dive deep into two important distinctions that are essential to embracing Dr. Solomon’s approach to intimate relationships: those between self-care and blind individualism and between disappointment and shame.

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