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  • Writer's pictureAlexandra McGee

How to work on your Relationship by working on yourself

Updated: Jul 17, 2023

A metaphor used in IFIO Couples

Counseling is the “Second Responder” role of a partner. This is because each partner is meant to be the “first responder” of their own needs. This has two main effects on the relationship and relational difficulties. The “first responder” to their own needs must take time to figure out what their needs are and then attend to those needs, before asking for auxiliary helpp for the needs they are not able to meet completely.

The “second responder” is meant to be available to provide support, but they are not in a position to either “fix” their partner’s needs by changing them or “save” their partner by meeting all their needs. The sorting out of needs often is helped by identifying likes and interests as well. This ultimately leads to an outline of a person’s authentic self. Another word for that outline is boundaries.

Defining likes, interests and needs (boundaries)

Boundaries is a word that is often defined incorrectly. My boundaries are not demands I make about your behavior. Nor are boundaries the bubble of space around me that I wish people not to cross. When I know my boundaries, I can ask you not to say or do t hings in my presence, but it is ultimately up to me if I am going to listen to you as you say or do those things. This is true for adults who are not stuck in an abusive relationship. Children who cannot remove themselves from interactions with caregivers need caregivers who will mirror their likes and interests so that a child develops a sense of self that can grow into an adult who knows their boundaries and has had basic psychological needs met already in childhood.

The autonomous adult, with at least enough agency to end a conversation or to walk into a different room is the person who can more easily define their own boundaries. Our boundaries are made up of our likes, interests and needs. The different things we like (for example, hiking a 2 mile flat loop, romantic comedies and steak) and our interests (possibly: psychology, spirituality, pickleball) define who we are as a unique person.

Our boundaries are merely the expressions of these likes and interests. When another person tries to control our likes or interests - either by gaslighting that denies our reality or by pushing us to do things we don’t like or are not interested in - that is crossing our boundaries. We will, of course, sometimes do things that are more the interest or liking of our partner. But if our activities always center around our partner, then our boundaries are not being respected and we are in an enmeshed relationship. 

Individuation is the process of determining our likes and interests and pursuing the means of fulfilling them. A balanced partnership, where there is significant overlap of likes and interests, will also have whole areas of the personality that are not the same. And this is often what makes the relationship more exciting and fun.  My partner’s difference makes them “novel” at times and this is the way that romantic fires are lit. Romance burns for the long haul with a safe and comfortable commonality, but then it is reignited when our partner is different enough that we can be excited by them. 

How to Meet your Needs

When basic needs are triggered in a relationship, a whole new level of interdependence is needing attention. The triggered partner who suddenly feels unsafe or unprovided for or rejected or jealous of attention or put down must first do a U-turn to determine where that need is coming from. The big mistake in partner break ups is to think that a partner should be able to meet all those needs that seem to come up in a relationship; and if they cannot meet that need satisfactorily then we must find another partner. Instead, the first thing to do when triggered is to become the first responder to that feeling that came up.

This means doing a U-Turn and determining where that need came from (usually from sometime in childhood) and what can we do FIRST to comfort and soothe that inner child. So we meet the need first, rather than react to our partner who triggered the need. We turn inward to identify the need adn to meet it initially through an act of reparenting ourselves. This is what is practiced in both individual and couple therapy.

The therapist models mature adult relational behavior, while facilitating the clients U-turn and meeting of their one needs. Then in couple’s counseling, the partners learn how to turn toward each other to ask for and offer additional support and possible meeting of needs that can be partially met by another person. Often only some of the externally met needs are even met by a partner. We all need to identify others who can meet some of our needs as well (a parent, a friend, a group or a community).

At the end of a session recently I identified myself as a “third responder” because I will be holding the space overall and facilitating the learning of these practices between the partners. The recognition of these layers of response to the needs that are triggered in clients every day are what will help a couple be strong enough live for years with each other.  

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