I remember all those years ago sitting around a suburban living room with my closest girlfriends ready to be asked trivia questions about my soon-to-be husband. I was unreasonably nervous for someone playing something as low stakes as a wedding shower game, I knew I’d be mortified – and slightly worried – if I didn’t know these details about my partner. As the over-thinking perfectionist I was (okay, am, but fairly less so), I wanted it to be clear that I had all the knowledge I needed of the person I was committing to.
Fast forward and I sit in a very different living room deconstructing a marriage that got too far off course. How did this happen? It wasn’t not knowing his favorite ice cream flavor or with whom he shared his first kiss. It wasn’t even not knowing his love language or what he needed when feeling stressed.
Early in a relationship, we love to soak in knowledge of our new partner. We’re hungry for what lights them up, what makes them tick, how they take their coffee. We make lists of their favorite recipes and vacation spots and we commit their meaningful memories to our own.
What’s ironic, though, is that while we spend immense energy on learning our partner, we spend so little on learning ourselves. And this is where partnerships fall apart.
Knowing ourselves in the context of relationships is the most powerful tool we have to engaging in successful partnership. Now, I’m not saying that self-knowledge is fool-proof or divorce-proof. We have to be able and willing to use that information. And sometimes we just marry an a**hole (I didn’t, just to be clear).
But we’re less likely to marry that person if we have a clear sense of who we are. And assuming our partner is a relatively good human, self-knowledge makes the difference between a relationship that goes the distance and one that drowns both partners in its wake.
After consulting with the Galia team to validate my choices, I’m sharing with you four things I wish I knew or was much clearer on before embarking on committed partnership in the past:
1. Attachment Style – The book Attached and the TikTok subculture have popularized attachment as of late, but if you’re not yet familiar, I’ll offer a very cursory explanation here. Attachment theory suggests that the way that we relate to our primary romantic partner has to do with our early experiences of connection with our primary caregivers.
If we had a relatively healthy relationship with our parents, we would likely end up with a more secure attachment style, meaning we have a stable sense of ourselves and can tolerate conflict, distance, and other challenges with our partner while staying connected and grounded. Many of us didn’t have the ideal caregiving relationship, and thus struggle with less secure attachment.
Insecure attachment comes in the form of anxious attachment and avoidant attachment. Anxiously attached folks will struggle to maintain an internal sense of connection with themselves and with the person they love, which can look like fear of abandonment or an over-reliance on them. Avoidantly attached folks struggle to connect emotionally, holding back for fear of being overwhelmed or losing the independence they’ve come to rely on for safety.
Knowing your attachment style (and that of your partner) is absolutely key to understanding your own reactions and patterns in a relationship. It helps to conceptualize why even the smallest situations can trigger a cascade of feeling and why you find yourself in conflict wondering how you even got there in the first place. With the knowledge of your own attachment style, you’re empowered to use that information to connect more deeply to yourself and your partner and to move through the stickiest places in a relationship.
2. Core Values – My experience tells me that most of us believe that we have a good handle on our values, but when pressed, struggle to really articulate even one. We also often confuse things like goals or where we spend our time with our values, and we get caught up in what our culture wants us to value instead of what we really do. So spending time clarifying our values before we are in a committed partnership, or at least as soon as we are able, gives us the guideposts we need to navigate the hard stuff.
Consider that the same action – washing the dinner dishes – could be a function of vastly different values. For one person it’s about the importance of clarity of mind that they get when they have an empty sink. For another it’s an act of service for their partner. For a third, it reflects a commitment they’ve made to themselves to nurture themselves through chores. Without knowing our own or the other person’s values, we actually know very little about what we are seeing.
Knowing our own values helps us understand what and who are most important to us. The reality of life is that we are constantly faced with decisions about how to spend our time, money, energy, and love. Our values are our guide to how to use those most precious resources.
3. Conflict Style – Even the word conflict can carry such different emotional responses for each of us. Some of lean into conflict, intrigued by the energy it holds and the new ideas and progress it can offer. Others of us learn as far away from it as possible, committing ourselves to protecting our peace at all costs.
Knowing our comfort with conflict and what we do in its presence is core to healthy relationships. The reason seems too simple, but it bears repeating:
All genuine and healthy relationships involve conflict. There is no way that two messy, different humans can commit their lives to each other and not find difference. And so relationships are about moving through conflict in a way that produces knowledge and growth instead of shame, hurt, or anger.
We have to explore where we learned our conflict style and how those experiences shaped our approach to it now. Do we withdraw in conflict? Get passive aggressive? Lob insults? Focus on silver linings? Stay focused on ourselves?
Awareness of our style gives us power to do something different and more productive, which prevents the ultimate killer in relationships: resentment and contempt.
4. Enneagram Number – The Enneagram is a framework that offers insight into the core motivations of individuals. Unlike a lot of systems of personality, the Enneagram doesn’t box people into a “type” that ends up feeling self-fulfilling and limiting. Rather, it sheds an awareness of core wounds, personal drivers, and pathways for more fulfilling lives.
When it comes to romantic relationships, I’ve yet to find a tool that helps two people understand each other more than the Enneagram. I think the magic of this framework is that it’s non-pathologizing. It lets us look at our own and our partner’s behaviors through the lens of their motivation rather than as a personal affront. That in and of itself is game-changing, because when we can stay open-hearted rather than defensive, it leaves room for real curiosity and connection.
Knowing your own Enneagram type enables you with a deep intelligence of your needs and vulnerabilities. Having this insight allows you to work toward finding wholeness, whether on your own or in partnership.
At the end of the day, being in a true partnership with another human is probably the most challenging thing that you will ever do. It’s worth cultivating your relationship with yourself so that you can show up to the relationship with the tools you need to create something beautiful.