Many of us have experienced frustration in our pursuit of happy relationships. We often find ourselves in one unfulfilling relationship after another and wonder what we are doing wrong.  We can’t understand why we keep choosing the wrong guy, or why the girl of our dreams ended up not being who we thought. We start to think that there are “no good ones left.”  While there are no simple answers or easy formulas for finding happiness in a relationship, oftentimes people are surprised to learn that the first place to look for a good relationship is within ourselves.

It helps to begin by taking an honest look at ourselves and asking some questions, some of which may not be easy to answer. For example, “Do I know how to make myself happy?” is a question that sounds so simple at first, but can be a tough one for many of us to answer. In a new relationship, we all feel a temporary rush of happiness; we feel joyful and giddy.  These emotions are caused by bursts of the neurotransmitter Dopamine in our brains during the beginning stages of a relationship.  These feelings are normal and predictable.  But unfortunately, this phase is temporary in all relationships. We need to know how to make our own selves happy – with or without a partner – or when this giddy phase inevitably comes to an end, we feel empty and resentful.  We wonder why we no longer feel as we did in the beginning of the relationship, and speculate it might mean that we are with the wrong partner.  Ultimately, no matter how hard anyone tries, no one can make us happy but ourselves.

As we begin to take responsibility for our own happiness, we need to ask ourselves questions like, “What makes me feel alive?”  “What are my passions and hobbies?”  “Am I happy with my career?”  “Am I fulfilled spiritually?” and “Do I have my own friends and social network?”  If we can answer these questions and start putting these pieces in place in our lives, we will not only be more likely to attract a like-minded, positive partner, but we will be able to dig into our own well of joy and happiness to fill up the normal voids we feel at different points in any long-term relationship.  Otherwise, we may again become resentful at our partner for failing to fulfill our expectations.  We may feel unhappy and blame them for that discontent.  Once we have built a life and a self that we are happy and comfortable with, then we can choose to share that life with a partner who is capable of making him/herself happy as well.

We also need to ask ourselves if we are truly ok with being alone. All too many of us end up staying with a partner simply because we are too fearful of what it might look like or feel like if we were alone. If we are not comfortable with the concept of being alone, we might try to “lose ourselves” in another person, we may stay with someone even when we are not getting what we need from the relationship, or we may even tolerate mental, verbal, or physical abuse. If you are happy with yourself and accept yourself, (flaws and all,) you will be more likely to truly choose a partner who complements your life, as opposed to clinging to someone for fear of being alone.  This desperation and neediness creates a “smothering” dynamic that is quite unhealthy, and eventually sucks the joy and happiness out of any relationship.

Finally, we need to make peace with our past.  Whether we struggle with childhood issues or have unresolved baggage from prior relationships, we all have things that we need to work through before we can be fully emotionally available in a new relationship. Regrets, hurts, and walls that we have put up can all interfere with our ability to succeed with a new partner. When we have not resolved these barriers, we find ourselves in rebound relationships, looking for someone else to heal our wounds, and we wind up disappointed.  (Again.)  If we are at peace with ourselves and our pasts, we are free, clear and really able to give to another, and will likely attract a happy, secure, and emotionally available partner as well.

The poet Robert Browning said it best – “Success in a marriage is more than finding the right person, it is being the right person.” This holds true for any long-term relationship.  It is worth doing the self-work so that we are ready to successfully share a rewarding partnership. These pieces are not necessarily easy to put in place, but they are essential if we want to have a truly satisfying, fulfilling partnership. Sometimes, people need professional help to work through their issues.  If needed, a good therapist can often help address these questions and concerns, so you will be poised not only to find and maintain a healthy, happy relationship, but you yourself will be all the happier and healthier for it, whether you are alone or with a partner.

About the Author

  • Cari McKnight, MSW, LCSW

    Cari received her Master of Social Work degree from the University of Iowa and is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. She specializes in private therapy for individuals, couples, and families dealing with relationship/interpersonal difficulties. She also provides mental health therapy for issues such as depression and anxiety. She has extensive experience in mental health treatment and is passionate about helping others create balance and happiness in their lives.  In addition to her clinical therapy practice, Cari also authors articles and literature on a variety of relevant mental health topics – including relationships, marriage, interpersonal conflicts, and self-actualization. Cari lives with her husband and two daughters in the St. Louis area.

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