“The most painful thing is losing yourself in the process of loving someone too much, and forgetting that you are special too.” ~Ernest Hemingway
When I was in my early twenties, I was in a relationship with a man who abused me emotionally and psychologically for many months.
It turned out I was his first serious relationship, and this had often made him feel overwhelmed and insecure. He didn’t feel “good enough” for me or deserving of my love. Ironically, we’d both suffered from low self-esteem but had shown it in completely different ways.
During my time with him I often felt insecure, stupid, unattractive, and utterly unlovable. That dysfunctional relationship stripped me of much of my self-esteem, and damaged my faith in human nature.
But in hindsight, my ex did me a big favor. My experience with him made me, for the first time in my life, give serious thought to what I wanted from a future relationship and partner, as well as how to strengthen my self-esteem and confidence.
I read as many books as I could on self-confidence, self-love, healthy connections, and boundaries (there was no Internet in those days). I learned how to meditate and trust my intuition, and I stopped being a people-pleasing pushover who put everyone else first.
As a result of what I learned, I created the following ten relationship rules for myself, which I believe are essential for strong self-esteem and loving long-term relationships.
1. No relationship can flourish on love alone.
No amount of love for my ex-boyfriend could alter the fact he treated me badly and his behavior toward me was destructive. Love alone was not enough to salvage our relationship.
In order for a relationship to survive and thrive, it needs trust, respect, attention, kindness, patience, empathy, commitment, communication, understanding, mutual liking, loyalty, compromise, and security. And you need a partner who is also willing to work at nurturing the relationship.
All relationships require work and effort; there are no exceptions. Love is an essential part, but it does not conquer all. You can love your partner with all your heart and still end up in a relationship that is damaging and dysfunctional.
Love alone can’t turn a bad relationship into a good relationship, and you can’t change an abusive person into a loving, respectful partner if they don’t want to change.
2. Self-love is never selfish.
Most of us have been conditioned to think self-love is selfish or conceited, but in reality there’s nothing further from the truth.
The most powerful relationship you’ll ever have is your relationship with yourself. Other people may come and go, but you’ll always have yourself, so it’s vital to like and love the person you are.
I discovered that when I’m more loving and compassionate toward myself, my capacity to love others in a more selfless and caring way increases. I no longer crave love or acceptance from other people.
When you feel good about yourself, you treat others well. Looking back, I realize my ex-boyfriend didn’t like, let alone love, himself very much.
The only person who can give you self-love is you. You don’t need anyone else’s permission, only the willingness to be more compassionate and attentive to yourself and your needs. To do that, you need to identify your needs—spiritual, physical, mental, and emotional—and then prioritize them. Even when other people have conflicting wants.
3. Perfection doesn’t exist.
Movies, magazines, and social media all have a lot to answer for when it comes to creating unrealistic expectations of a “perfect” relationship, partner, and life.
No relationship, even between “soul mates,” is perfect because perfection doesn’t exist.
We do our partner a great disservice when we expect them to complete us, read our minds, understand all our feelings, fulfill all our social needs, always be romantic and passionate, and always make us happy. Such pressures are all too often unbearable.
And we do ourselves a great disservice, and make ourselves miserable in the process, when we demand “perfection” in everything we do, or how we look or live our lives.
4. Kindness always counts.
Acts of kindness, no matter how small, always have an impact. They always make a difference.
One day, at the end of my relationship with my ex, my then manager found me crying in the restrooms at work. After coaxing me to tell her why I was so upset, she gave me a hug and sent me home for the rest of the day. It was precisely what I needed at the time.
I’ve never forgotten her kindness, and now I consciously try to be as compassionate as possible in my daily life.
Kindness reminds us of our shared humanity, our innate need for other people, and our sense of connection to everything around us, especially our loved ones. Our actions count. We count.
When we show kindness to others, we are also showing kindness to ourselves because our acts of compassion resonate within us. The positive energy, good karma, whatever you wish to call it, is good for us; it makes us feel better about ourselves.
Whenever possible, choose kindness. Be kind to your loved ones, friends, and colleagues even when they are driving you crazy. Show kindness to strangers. Be kind even to those who have hurt you. It will benefit you in more ways than you can imagine.
5. Love is meant to be shown.
No one likes to feel they are unappreciated or taken for granted in a relationship. I know that only too well from personal experience.
We can’t just assume that our loved ones know how important they are to us, so it’s vital to show them in words and actions.
Say “I love you,” praise them, and give them compliments. Show your partner how much you appreciate them. Express your admiration for them to other people too.
Take a genuine interest in their interests. Celebrate their successes and comfort them when they’re upset. Say “thank you” often and “sorry” when necessary.
Life is short, so show your love for others without embarrassment and don’t forget to show yourself love too. (Remember, self-love is never selfish.)
6. You’re different but always equal.
You and your partner are two unique individuals in a relationship, both different but always equal.
It does not matter if one of you earns more money, is older, stronger, healthier, or more educated—you both deserve equal levels of respect and an equal say in your partnership. You are both equally worthy.
Respectful compromise is vital, as is give and take. An equal relationship offers us a safe, loving place to grow.
Just as you are both different, all relationships are different. Don’t waste your time comparing your unique relationship to other people’s unique relationships. Your relationship doesn’t need to look like anyone else’s; it just needs to work for you.
7. Communication is key.
One tactic my ex used when I tried to express a matter that was important to me was to laugh at me, mimic me, or declare I was wrong, crazy, stupid, or paranoid. His verbal bullying was a way to not only belittle me but to also deny me my voice, my right to be heard.
A lack of effective communication causes resentment, arguments, and misunderstandings among even the most loving couples. A healthy relationship requires that both partners listen to each other and communicate in a respectful way.
When we listen to our partner, we must focus our full attention on what they are saying, and not interrupt them or hastily respond with our viewpoint, blame, criticisms, or anger. Anger always clouds our judgment and can make us say hurtful things we later regret.
Instead, we need to first pause to digest what they said, see their perspective, and then consider our response.
It’s important to remember that you and your partner are a team, not combatants.
Of course, you can only control yourself, and just because you listen fully and focus on understanding and compromise, that doesn’t guarantee they will as well. But most people are more apt to open their minds when someone has offered them the same courtesy.
8. Boundaries are meant to protect your well-being, not close off your heart.
My relationship with my ex clearly revealed to me my inability to set effective boundaries. I let him walk all over me, which worsened my already fragile self-esteem.
As I mentioned before, partners work as a team in healthy relationships, and teams work best when there are clear boundaries—when both people clearly communicate what they’re comfortable with and say no when they need to. The intention of setting boundaries is not to close off your heart or limit your love, but to ensure there is respect and greater understanding.
You need to first recognize and understand your feelings in order to set boundaries and realize when those boundaries are crossed. Vague or unrealistic boundaries can alienate you from your partner, which is why you must be clear so no misunderstandings arise.
What do you like or dislike? What are your preferences? Where should the line be drawn and what actions would cross that line?
You must think about how to please yourself too, not just other people. It is your right to say no as much yes, and voice your needs.
Boundaries don’t lessen your love, but serve to protect you from situations that threaten your love, feelings, and well-being. Partners who respect each other’s boundaries ask permission first, take each other’s feelings into account, show gratitude, and respect differences.
9. The most precious gift is time (and attention).
All too often we give our precious time to things, tasks, and people that don’t enrich our lives. We work overtime every day instead of going home to our loved ones or we spend hours on social media instead of talking to our partners.
When we give time to our loved ones, we show them clearly that they matter to us. When we spend time on our relationship, we show that we value it and our partner.
In the same way, when we give time ourselves, we reinforce that we matter. Whether we enjoy a hobby, sleep, or read a book, it’s time well invested. Self-care always needs moments of solitude and reflection. We all have the right to spend time alone.
When the time comes to look back on our lives, we are likely to regret working long hours in a job we didn’t like, or people pleasing those who did not care for us or appreciate our efforts. We will never regret the moments we spent with our loved ones and friends, doing things we enjoyed, or moments spent taking good care of ourselves.
Choose wisely who and what you give your time and attention to; it really is the most precious gift you have.
10. Forgiveness opens our hearts.
Grudges, regrets, and resentment poison relationships and lives. They steal our present moments and keep us imprisoned in the past. It takes more energy to be angry and full of resentment than to forgive, and that energy is damaging and toxic.
None of us can change our past experiences, but we can change our perception of them. When we choose to see our past hurts, betrayals, and mistakes as valuable learning tools, we’re better able to forgive others as well as ourselves. Forgiveness is incredibly empowering and it frees us to focus on the present moment.
We really do forgive for our sake, no one else’s. It is an act of strength and an essential part of healing because it releases our pain and, crucially, releases the hold the experience once had on us.
When my ex turned up unexpectedly several months after we split up seeking reconciliation with me, I of course refused but I also forgave him and wished him well.
Our conversation that day was an important part of closing that chapter of my life and moving forward, and hopefully it was the same for him too.
I was determined to not let my relationship with my ex cast a shadow over the rest of my life, and instead wanted to learn from it so that I wouldn’t repeat the same patterns in the future.
And I succeeded.
Today I have strong self-esteem and know how to set healthy boundaries in my relationships. I’ve been happily married for many years to a wonderful man who believes in these ten rules as much as I do.
And that’s made all the difference.