5 Ways To Cultivate Self-Love In A Relationship

“… to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part.”  The words roll off your tongue with soul-gazing ease. Perhaps you’re so in love that you don’t realize the full extent of what you’re promising. Perhaps you just want to say “I do” and get the reception rockin’. And perhaps you think these vows are all about “other-love” and not self-love. In a relationship, after all, it can be easy to lose your footing in the name of love.

What? No one told you that you first have to live these vows to yourself before you can commit them to someone else? That self-love in a relationship is foundational to true intimacy, satisfaction, and growth?

Well, in defense of the relationship educators of Hallmark, you probably do remember the lesson. But it has become so cliché that it sounds more like a bumper sticker or high school valedictory speech than an imperative for relationships.

Yes, it’s true. You do have to love yourself before you can love someone else or have an authentic relationship of any kind.

The danger of ignoring (or even deferring) self-love in a relationship is that you inadvertently put the relationship itself on hold. Your voice and all your “I love you’s” are effectively muted, or at least muffled.

If you don’t first make and keep those vows to yourself,  you deny your relationship the pearl of those vows: intimacy.

Not physical intimacy, but emotional intimacy that provides the safety and invitation for vulnerability, disclosure, struggle, and growth. (And the same emotional intimacy that ultimately raises physical intimacy to another, unimagined level of satisfaction and connectedness.)

We’re talking about the “real” stuff here – the kind of love you assumed came with the vows you made on your wedding day. The kind of love you dreamed about and assumed would “appear” when the “right person” appeared.

Self-love + other-love = intimacy.

So what is this “self-love”? And why is it essential for being in a relationship?

Contrary to how many think of it, self-love isn’t a feeling or a fleeting acknowledgment of things you like about yourself. And it’s certainly not just an “I love myself” battlecry.

Self-love is a lived mantra of self-appreciation. It evolves and grows out of behaviors that reflect and support a love of self.

It rises above how you may feel at any given moment because it is anchored in choice. You choose behaviors that honor your inherent worth, your body, your mind, your purpose.

And, by doing so, you become anchored in who you are, what you value, and what you stand for. You accept responsibility for nurturing, maturing, and protecting them.

Cultivating self-love in a relationship is similar to maintaining self-esteem in a relationship. Both require a self-focus that, on the surface, might sound self-ish, even though they are examples of emotional maturity and relationship readiness.

Finally, because you are grounded and centered in self-love, you don’t flounder in search of someone else to “complete you” and make you feel loved.

You then attract to yourself others who are equally grounded in self-love.

In a relationship, “opposites attract” may apply to interests and general skill sets. But, when it comes to essential qualities and preparedness for relationship work, like attracts like.

So what does self-love in a relationship look like? And how do you cultivate it?

Here are 5 ways to cultivate self-love in a relationship.

  1. Be mindful.

    Mindfulness isn’t a practice that belongs only to yogis and people without day jobs. It’s a discipline of turning inward and recognizing your thoughts, feelings, and sensations as they are and without judgment.

    It’s the practice of being in the present. “How do I feel in this moment, this experience?” “Hmm, I feel my body becoming numb/cold/hot/tense/relaxed.” “What thoughts are flashing into my mind as he’s talking?”’ “I’m hungry/thirsty/angry/sad/happy.”As a conduit to self-love, mindfulness is a way of better knowing yourself. What do you really think? What triggers you? What inspires you? What makes you feel loved and why?

    What do you need – physically, emotionally, spiritually? What are you trying to avoid? What do you want out of life?

    People who are mindful know “who they are.” They are comfortable asking for what they need and standing up for their values. They recognize their own strengths and weaknesses and acknowledge, use, and work on them accordingly.

    From this centered place, mindful people are able to extend compassion and empathy and forge authentic connections with others.

    Here are some insights about mindfulness in relationships.
  2. Face your emotions.

    It’s both ironic and sad that one of the graces of relationships – the ability to heal “ancient wounds” – is often thwarted by an aversion to emotions. We carry them into relationships/marriages, looking forward to “forgetting the past and moving forward.”But emotions don’t simply fall away like autumn leaves when you find love. Love isn’t a magic wand. It’s a safe place to land…and do your work.

    You’ve heard the saying, “What you resist persists.” It applies to emotions as much as it does to mowing the lawn and doing taxes.

    Emotions don’t go away on their own. And they don’t always exhibit maturity when it comes to time and place. Left unattended, they will make themselves heard and felt, often in insidious, confusing, and hurtful ways.

    Facing your emotions is an extension of mindfulness. It’s a way of bearing courageous witness to your own story so you don’t have to remain stuck in it.

    Only when you are able and willing to face your own emotions are you able to help others face and accept their own. And this is the foundation of compassion and empathy, both of which are qualities of a healthy relationship.

    Facing and understanding your own emotions isn’t something you have to do on your own. Whether your exploration is something you do on your own or as a couple, working with a therapist will make you wonder why you waited so long.
  3. Set boundaries.

    Boundaries are not walls! They are a mindful, loving, respectful acknowledgment of where you end and another begins.

    People are not doors. They’re not meant to be walked through.

    They’re also not stepping stones or grass to be trampled on en route to a personal destination.

    These rules apply not only to others, but to yourself, as well. Cultivating self-love in a relationship means not trampling on yourself.

    Learning to say no when you mean no. Not keeping company with people who aren’t a reflection of your values. Honoring personal space during conversations. Not using a person’s vulnerabilities/weaknesses/confessions/secrets against him/her in an argument.

    These are all examples of setting healthy boundaries as part of cultivating love – for yourself, your spouse, and your relationship.
  4. Be kind to your body.

    Give your body what it needs, even when that’s not what it wants.  Your body is at lifetime service to the aspirations of your non-physical self. It relies on your choices to nourish, protect, strengthen, and rest it.

    That often means forfeiting what your body craves and giving it what you know it needs. From nutrition to exercise to sleep, acting on the needs of your body shows that you are giving it a voice and paying attention to it.
  5. Forgive yourself.

    So much agony persists because of a refusal to forgive. And, as essential as forgiveness is to the health and healing of any relationship, it is first essential to your relationship with yourself.

    Would you ever chain someone you love to a mountain and say, “Stay there! For the rest of your life – for mistakes, grievances, ignorance, weakness, accidents, oversights, and all other faults.”Is that how you would treat someone you love?

    So why would you treat yourself that way?

    There is no way you can grow, move forward, evolve, or heal without forgiveness. Lack of forgiveness – for yourself and others – keeps everyone stuck. It creates and perpetuates the Promethean tragedy of being chained to a mountain and forced to suffer a daily renewal of reminder and punishment.

    And there is no way you can genuinely forgive your spouse or partner if you believe yourself to be unforgivable.

The incomparable Whitney Houston had it right when she piped out the great secret of love: Learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all.

The irony of self-love, in a relationship with others or just with yourself, is that it must be lived, often before you even recognize it as “love.”

Mary Ellen Goggin offers relationship coaching for individuals and collaborates with her partner Dr. Jerry Duberstein to offer private couples retreats. To learn more about working with Mary Ellen, contact her here.

Mary Ellen Goggin

Mary Ellen is a highly skilled and intuitive relationship guide. She brings over 35 years’ experience with individuals and businesses as a lawyer, mediator, personal coach and educator. She received her J.D. at University of New Hampshire Law School and a Master’s Degree at Harvard University. Mary Ellen co-authored Relationship Transformation: How to Have Your Cake and Eat It Too with Jerry Duberstein — and they were married by chapter 3. Mary Ellen brings a unique blend of problem-solving, practicality, and warmth to her work. She’s a highly analytic person, with geeky and monkish tendencies. She’s a daredevil skydiver, a voracious seeker of knowledge, and an indulgent grandmother. Her revolution: helping people become the unapologetic rulers of their inner + outer realms. Read more about the retreats