Why loving yourself is key to a happy relationship

Love is forgiving, kind and also forgetting self. This could be a misunderstanding as it is very important to love yourself for any relationship to succeed

Looking in the mirror“You can only give to others what you have” is a well-known fact. Dr Robert R Carkhuff says, “The way you relate to others reflects the way you relate to yourself”. If you are respectful, empathic, loving and forgiving to yourself, only then are you able to show the same to others.

When we talk of love, we talk of “doing-love”, which comprises of “acts” done for others, which invariably leaves the “doer” with the holier-than-thou feeling of “I am the giver”, and he might often “give” without discernment only to satiate his own need to feel like the “giver”, often doing more harm than good in his “giving”.

On the other hand, there is another kind of love that is “being-love” which is a state of “being”, like a well full of water, which is happy in its own fullness or a flower happy in its own blossoming. A passer-by naturally benefits by quenching his thirst with the water from the well, and enjoying the fragrance of the flower without either the well or the flower feeling like a “giver” as they are simply revelling in their own actualisation. Being-love can never do any harm as it is a pure state of being without any ego-transactions.

This Valentine’s day, I would like you to reflect on a very different aspect of love – self-love and fidelity to self – because it is only love of self that can result in pure, natural and balanced love in all relationships.

Loving or indulging?

Why are we constantly being told that we must give in to our partners if we want our marriages to succeed? Be as giving as you can and your partner will love you forever, so the thinking goes. But this is not usually true at all. Not that I have anything against being a decent, loving and charitable person – mature people care for others, and a world without people who care and help out when a fellow human is in trouble is not worth living in. But having said that, there is something like too much unhealthy “giving”. Contrary to what is generally thought, you do not build a good marriage by chronically sacrificing yourself out of a distorted and warped sense of “deep love”. You only spoil the one you indulge and make yourself miserable, and no relationship can stay healthy for long under those conditions.

It is a known medical fact, that if you do not use your legs, they slowly but surely waste away, and the day comes when you can’t walk at all. Similarly, if someone indulges you all your life, and you get your way every time, you just can’t stand life with even the least frustration. Parents who indulge their children too much are actually being unkind and unloving to them in the long run, and adults who indulge their spouses under the guise of “deep love”, are in effect spoiling them. You now have to deal with the “monster” you have created. Such “spoilt” persons then start abusing the indulger, wherein the legitimate needs of the indulgent spouse are increasingly ignored, and they then start hating themselves, their abusive spouses and the relationship.

However, the most important reason for asserting yourself and not indiscriminately indulging anyone is the emotional health of the one you love. What better way to show affection than by being willing to endure the rejection and hostility of the one whose wellbeing means most to you. It is a tremendous sacrifice and a great risk. One who truly cares is careful not to spoil the one he/she cares about.


At this point, a distinction must be made between self-assertion and grandiosity. Remember, if you stand up for your rights and do what gives you a sense of satisfaction, you are not selfish, as long as you are not demanding and dictating that you get your way, or forcing your way on someone, or have an I-am-superior-to you attitude. I am not advocating a callous disregard of the feelings of others. However, to live life only on the basis of how others feel and to take total responsibility for their feelings is both unrealistic and personally unsatisfying. The healthy way is to live compatibly with others and yet not be subservient to them.

But remember, self-assertion has a not so pleasant effect on your relationships in the short term. If you have been a coward or passive all your life and suddenly develop a backbone, what effect do you think this great change is going to have on people in your life? Are they going to step aside as you come through the door? Or stop and listen to every word you utter? Or will they be wonderfully agreeable and fair when you make a request that’s going to put them out a bit? None of this will happen. Most people get nastier when you begin to expect fair and equal treatment. You will be accused of carrying out a revolution and there will be a great huff, as if you are the most unreasonable person in the whole world.

Things do get worse before they get better when you force changes on people who are not used to them. But, if you do not stand your ground in spite of the tremors and even a major earthquake in your relationships, you will only train your partner to be more unreasonable with you.

Very often, divorce is averted because the assertive partner is willing to weather the storm created by the oppressor for a while, as he/she realises that in the long run it is less uncomfortable than giving in. If you do not stir things up, the problem could perhaps get worse, and you would have to rebel someday and take that divorce anyway.

If the person who is oppressing you has some degree of maturity and understanding, the difficulties will be less when you press for a change, as he will see the fairness of your complaint and try to accommodate you.

However, if your oppressor is downright immature and hardheaded, the picture is different. It is in such situations that some of the worst storms occur in relationships, and a series of such assertive confrontations rip apart a marriage, a family, or even a friendship.

Kavita is married to an intimidating man, who casts aspersions on her character. He construes her denial as defensiveness, and her silence as an admission of guilt. In either event, he resorts to physical abuse and threatens to put her on the streets, as he knows she does not have parental support. She lived with this abuse for 10 long years till she saw that her daughter showing dysfunctional behaviour due to the emotional scars of witnessing this abuse.

Through counselling, Kavita realised that she and her daughter had a right to a peaceful life and decided to take action. She first put her daughter in a good boarding school and ensured that the school counsellor knew her background and had counselling sessions with her there. Having taken care of that, she went for economic independence by taking some dealerships along with a friend. She then mustered up the courage to tell her husband that she would make a police complaint if he ever raised his hand and would follow it up with a divorce petition. He ignored her and hit her again. She carried out her threat. She put her foot down and said that there would be no reconciliation until he agreed to be counselled. Today, both are in therapy with me, encountering some truths about themselves.

Strategies of the oppressor

Often, it happens that the oppressor tries to discredit the person who is counselling the oppressed person to be assertive. This is not unusual with clients in therapy. The person back home who is being frustrated by the new emerging assertive person, takes a serious dislike to the “shrink” who is “ruining” his / her life. The one who is not in therapy tries in various ways to make the therapist look like a meddler.

The oppressor makes every attempt to weaken the resolve of the assertive person. Several strategies are adopted by the dominant person, so that the status quo remains.

  • Yelling and trying to “reason”.
  • Weeping, pleading and trying to make the other feel guilty.
  • Threat of total rejection, or disowning the other.
  • Discrediting the counsellor/therapist who has helped the oppressed to be assertive.
  • Threatening suicide.

If you give in anywhere along the line, you lose the struggle and will have to either assert yourself again another day, or then forever give up the right to live your own life. But, if you stand firm, and don’t let yourself be dominated by any of the above strategies, you will definitely be exposed to increasing discomfort, but may well see the day when the pressure ends. Pain is usually unavoidable whether you protest or not. When you assert yourself, however, you experience less pain in the long run.

Ramola fell in love with a man who claimed that he was trapped in an unfulfilling marriage. She bought his sob story and decided to be his “saviour”. He divorced his wife and Ramola got into a marriage determined to “give” her husband all that the “poor soul” had been deprived of. She fulfilled his every whim and fancy, however immature or unreasonable it was, and soon found that she barely had a life of her own. When he cheated on her for the first time, she was in denial, but when it happened again, she blamed herself in some way. She tried harder and harder to please him, and he took her even more for granted. The last straw came when she developed severe arthritis and could no longer do as much as she could before. His total neglect towards her condition and his increasing demands depressed her to the point that she finally sought help. A few sessions later, she saw the role that she had played [too much “giving” and lack of assertiveness] in her problem. As she started loving herself, giving more time to herself and practicing self-assertion, her husband felt threatened to the point that he forbade her from seeing me, saying that they could sort out matters amongst each other. When she refused to comply, he tried to frighten her by saying that the counsellor was messing with her mind and that if she did not stop seeing her, she would live to regret it. He tried every trick up his sleeve but she did not budge. Finally, he came to see me seething with anger, and realised during the course of our meeting that he had no other option but to let her be. He gradually learned to respect her space and though he is far from being a doting husband, he has learned to “live and let live”. Ramola is now able to breathe easy and do her own thing, thanks to her own assertiveness and determination to love her self.

The “cold war” period, when things get worse before getting better, goes on anywhere from a few minutes to a few years. The point is that change generally brings on some degree of suffering. This suffering can either lead to a change in which now both feel that their valid needs are being met in the relationship. On the other hand, the “cold war” can also lead to an end of the relationship because of unwillingness to change. If one person is miserable while the second person is content, the relationship will usually break up. And it is good that this happens. Two persons do not belong together if they have to take turns being happy or miserable while trying to please each other.

Nilima was suffering from low self-worth due to molestation by her father. She married a man who made her feel accepted, only to discover that he himself was on anti-depressants along with being hooked onto alcohol and pornography. He demanded that she engage in certain sexual acts, which were distasteful to her. When she refused to comply he withdrew from all intimacy with her, frequented commercial sex workers and resorted to verbal abuse. He also gave her no money, saying that since she was of no use to him, he should not have to pay for her upkeep. She accepted this as her fate believing that she was undeserving of love, sank into depression and tried to take her life. A neighbour saved her and provoked her to see a counsellor. She is now staying in a working women’s hostel and working for an NGO while pursuing her Master’s in Social Work. She has learned to love herself.

Inner discipline

“Good” and “bad”, “right” and “wrong” are relative terms. Lord Krishna is worshipped as God incarnate, but for many moralists, it is difficult to understand his life. He measured up only to the highest standards of life’s truth and not the personal truths of people.

Lord Krishna’s asking Arjuna to take up arms in the battle of Kurukshetra, and living by the principle of “all is fair in love and war”, Jesus’ expression of wrath at the merchants at the holy shrine of the Jews where he destroyed their shops, the assassination of Ravana by Lord Rama or Kansa by Lord Krishna – all these “acts” considered as “wrong” by moralists, were for the larger good of humanity, and for upholding truth and justice.

According to Abhidhamma [Buddhist Psychology], every action is conceived as neutral from the ethical point of view, its moral or immoral nature can be determined only when we take into account its underlying mental state/s. Thus, if the underlying mental state of an action is evil, malicious or tinged with greed, even if the behaviour resulting from it may seem apparently “innocent”, “good” and “kind” to the observer, it is regarded as immoral. The act in and by itself is not immoral, but the motive resulting from the underlying mental state/s makes it good or bad, moral or immoral.

Assertion vs Aggression

The same can be understood by seeing the difference between assertiveness and aggressiveness. Assertiveness is a mature way of relating which creates a good feeling in oneself and is life-affirmative, whereas aggressiveness is most definitely immature and creates a bad feeling in oneself and is life-negative.

Assertion Aggression
We stand for our right respecting others right too. We stand for our right only and we don’t bother about others right.
Not meant to wound others. Meant to wound others.
Will increase self-esteem. Reduces self-image due to bad feeling.
Doesn’t always result in accomplishment but leads to good feeling. May result in accomplishment but always with bad feeling.
Constructive for self and others. Destructive for self and others.

Fidelity to Self

If you are true to your SELF, you will know “right” from “wrong”, and self-awareness is the key. Get in touch with yourself and become more aware about what is going on inside.

As a result, you will make choices about your life that are expressive of the truth of who you are, not who you think you should be, or who someone else wants you to be. This experience of fidelity to your inner SELF is beyond the realm of another’s judgement. What appears as infidelity to another, maybe for the person involved, a courageous decision to be faithful to the truth within. And what seems like faithful living on the behavioural level may be primary infidelity within. So, no one can judge. Only the individual in touch with his/her truth knows.

Very often, there are outside pressures that make us lose sight of the centre of truth within us. Fidelity to doing what is right in carrying out the prime responsibility to life is arduous; yet, if we lose sight of this priority, we lose touch with fundamental fidelity. We have been entrusted with the gift of life, and it is only fidelity to the inner SELF that allows life to shine through us enriching the lives of others.

Therefore, I hope that you choose wisely and be your own valentine this Valentine’s Day.

Minnu Bhonsle
Dr Minnu R Bhonsle, PhD, is a Mumbai-based consulting psychotherapist and counsellor. She conducts training programmes in Personal Counselling [Client-centred Therapy] and Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy, and also workshops in Stress Management, Art of Listening, Couple Therapy, and Communication Skills. Minnu has co-authored the book, The Ultimate Sex Education Guide along with Dr Rajan Bhonsle.


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