Focusing on self-growth in the right way is often enough to inspire big changes for both of you. You do not have to change your partner to improve your relationship.
Most people who take my coursework or hire me for therapy are a bit resistant to this idea.
We politely acknowledge popular quotes like “It takes two to tango” or “You can’t change other people. You can only change yourself”.
In practice, however, we tend to be fixated on changing our partners and slightly defensive about changing ourselves.
Why Self-Improvement Works to Improve Relationships
In long-term, love relationships, our lives and emotional security are closely linked.
Any risk of disconnection, conflict or separation with that person, is registered as a threat in our primitive brains (Love Sense, Sue Johnson, 2008).
This is why adults can become toddler versions of themselves in the context of love, triggering each other back and forth with little control at times.
This close link in love can also lead to positive momentum.
If one person consistently focuses on skills to change their side of the negative spiral, it will usually lead to spontaneous positive changes in their partner.
Since changing other people is near impossible, a relationship self-improvement plan is a great place to start.
Adopting a Growth Mindset
Adopting a growth mindset is key to any relationship improvement plan.
Carol Dweck (2016) does an excellent job of highlighting the difference between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset.
When we have a fixed mindset, we view our habits, traits, and behaviors as relatively fixed. We don’t believe that effort will make a difference and respond to feedback with, “That’s just the way I am”.
The alternative to a fixed mindset is a growth mindset.
In a growth mindset, our strategy is to learn from criticism. We listen for the feedback of others and explore how we can use it to better ourselves and grow.
In a growth mindset, we embrace challenges with confidence and pursue personal development with lots of effort.
Among quotes defining self-growth, the following seemed most relevant: “self-growth is a desire to become a better version of oneself every day..” (Jane, Apple, and Ellis, 2018)
When it comes to love, which “better” version of yourself should you focus on?
If your primary objective is to be happier with your current partner, then let their feedback guide your process. I will walk you through assessment and evaluation tips below to help you choose exactly where to start.
A Personal Assessment
To better your relationship through self-improvement, starting with a solid assessment is key.
1. Drain your mind of your partner’s shortcomings.
Brainstorm a comprehensive list of all of the things that you would love to change about them.
Think of their actions, inaction, attitudes, habits, and thoughts. What are the things you always hoped they would learn? Consider the obvious and the more subtle things.
Focus more on recurring patterns than single incidents.
2. Make an equally long list of what he/she/they might say about you in #1.
In this step, you will complete exercise #1 from their perspective. Make the list equally long.
If you get lost, think of things they have told you in frustration, hurt or after a fight. Listen underneath their words to try to understand what they might be asking for.
3. Eliminate any changes you would never want to make.
Looking at the list in number 2, cross off any changes you don’t want to make or can’t make.
If you are a vegetarian and he wished you ate meat, that might be an example. The goal is to tune into their feedback without being at odds with our own values.
Your Self-Growth Plan
Picking a Goal to Start With
In this step you will pair down your list and decide where to start.
- Highlight the smallest change you could make with confidence that would have the biggest positive outcome on your relationship. In this strategy I want you to balance how achievable a goal would be for you, with how big a priority it is for you partner.
- Prioritize goals that have deeper value on emotional connection. Even if we argue about money, parenting and chores, the deeper issue is always whether we feel connected, understood and important to each other. If there is a goal in your list that relates to these deeper issues then focusing there is a great idea.
Make Your Goal a SMART goal
Research shows that we are more likely to achieve personal development goals that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-bound. (Aghera et al. 2018).
“S” Specific: Be extremely clear about exactly what you want to achieve.
“M” measurable: Choose a method of evaluation for your habit and decide when and how to track it.
“A” Achievable: Make sure your goal is reasonable to accomplish within a time frame. Are there skills you need to hone before achieving the main goal? Consider setting a moderate goal that is sustainable for you.
“R” Relevant: Your goal should line up with your values and larger goals in life.
“T” Time-Bound: A goal should be set within a limited period of time, so there is an end-date for the goal
1. My goal for this exercise was to control how defensive I got in discussions with my husband.
I defined defensiveness as “reacting in a strong, negative way when I think I am being criticized”.
Next, I tracked the behavior each day for 2 weeks with the goal of reducing the frequency and intensity of the pattern.
This was successful. I felt more heard and understood as a result of my own change. It definitely led to fewer negative exchanges and more productive communication overall.
2. One woman’s self evaluation led to the goal of “being less controlling”.
She started by defining what she meant by control: commenting on better ways her partners could complete a task and micro-managing them.
Her goal became, when I notice an urge to correct my partner I will stop and take 3 breathes and reflect first on whether that is necessary.
She decided to self-assess each day on how she was doing and how she could improve.
This one change on one side of the pattern was very helpful in reducing the tension for both of them.
The Role of Self-Esteem in Happy Relationships
A discussion about self-improvement for stronger relationship would not be complete without mentioning self-esteem.
One of the quotes from Lancer (2018) summarizes it well, “Research has well-established the link between good self-esteem and relationship satisfaction.
“Self-esteem not only affects how we think about ourselves, but also how much love we’re able to receive and how we treat others, especially in intimate relationships.”
Self-esteem and personal confidence have an important two-way relationship with romantic love. An increase in self-esteem leads to increased relationship strength and vice versa (Luciano, Orth, 2017).
How to Improve Self-Esteem
Any steps you take to improve self-esteem will create a positive cycle in your relationship.
If you want to turbo-boost the specific goal you set above, build the following strategies, tips and skills into your self-growth plan as well:
- Adopt a “no-bullying” policy in your own mind. Make a decision that you will speak to yourself the way you would speak to a close friend.
- Break the silence on negative self-talk. Negative self-talk thrives because it’s invisible and private. When you become aware that you are breaking rule no.1, interrupt the habit externally to cue your brain of the desired change. For example, you might clap or speak your intention for being kind.
- Train your mind to see and take in what you are grateful for. Make gratitude a project throughout your day to catch even the smallest moments of beauty and slow down for a few milliseconds to take it in mindfully.
- Train your mind to celebrate your strengths. If you have trouble finding strengths, then one strategy is to modify the statement with qualifiers until it feels more true such as, “sometimes I connect well with people.”
- Interrupt worrying about the past or future. Worrying is a habit that lowers self-esteem. Interrupt it as you did with negative self-talk and replace it with something positive.
- Have fun. Build as many fun activities into your calendar as possible.
- Be around positive people who make you feel good.
- Exercise in as fun of way as possible.
- End social F.O.M.O. and comparison. I encourage people to do an evaluation of the effects of their social media time. If your social media habits weigh you down, consider taking a break.
- Practice every day and be patient with setbacks.
Finding Support for Self-Growth
While the steps outlined above can be accomplished on your own, I want to encourage you to find as much support as possible for your self-growth plan.
Building a variety of support into your life will make your effort more sustainable. Given that all changes take time, sustainability is key.
Consider these tips for supporting your self-growth:
- Find an accountability buddy who is also working on self-improvement and agree to check in weekly.
- Look for facilitated community groups and drop-in centers. Service groups for women can be a good place to start.
- Hire an EFT trained professional therapist for individual or couples work.
- Download my free video course. Through 5 short video and written exercises, you will make key changes in support of a sustainable, happy relationship.
- Join an exercise, fitness, or yoga class.
- Find inspiring podcasts that help you to stay motivated in your relationship, self-esteem, and mindset.
- Read Self-growth books.
- Listen to self-improvement audiobooks.
Invest in Self-Growth Books
Self-growth books can be an incredible tool for transformation, provided that we actually read them. It can be tempting to procrastinate on our self-improvement reading.
Below is a list of some of my favorite self-improvement books. Some of them relate to relationships, and others are more universal. I would love to hear your suggestions for other titles as well.
1. Hold Me Tight – Dr. Sue Johnson
2. Love Sense – Dr. Sue Johnson
3. 7 Principles for Making a Marriage Work – Dr. Gottman
4. Daring Greatly – book and/or in-person workshop/coursework – Brene Brown
5. Rising Strong – Brene Brown
6. The Body Keeps The Score – Bessel van der Kolk
4. Mind Over Mood – Padesky and Greenberger
5. A New Earth – Eckhart Tolle
Frequently Asked Questions:
1. Are there differences between men and women when it comes to personal development in relationships?
While much has been written about how women and men are different in relationships, any gender patterns are far from consistent. The need for emotional closeness, feeling known, understood, and seen is not different across gender identity or sex.
2. Is it necessary to do your own healing before trying to have a successful relationship?
This is a widespread belief that I don’t think is true. Read this article for more on this topic.