HOW COUPLES SHOULD TAKE CARE OF THEIR INDIVIDUAL MENTAL HEALTH
Words by Liz Colizza
When a flight attendant advises parents to put oxygen masks on themselves first, it’s not that parents value their children’s lives less. Rather, they value their children’s lives so much that they strive to keep themselves safe.
The truth is, when it comes to caring for others, there’s a necessary starting point: yourself.
But what does this mean for your marriage? How do you put on your own oxygen mask first in order to care well for your partner?
Through my work as a couples therapist, I’ve found some essential practices for keeping your marriage healthy, starting with you.
1. Pay Attention to Your Own Emotions
In order to care well for your partner, it’s important to stay connected to your own emotions. This means checking in with yourself in much the same way that you check in with your partner. Try asking yourself how you’re doing, what emotions you’re feeling, and what’s impacting you today. Give yourself time and space to feel what you’re feeling.
Remember, emotions come and go. You can’t control how you feel in response to what’s happening to you, but you can control how you respond to your emotions. The healthiest approach to emotions is to pay attention to them and learn to express them in healthy ways. Emotions are your body’s way of telling you that someone or something is impacting you.
2. Set Aside Guilt and Judgment
We all have feelings toward our feelings. These meta-emotions are informed largely by how others responded to your emotions when you were a child. From these experiences, you learned how to feel about different emotions. You might feel guilt or shame for experiencing certain emotions like anger, sadness, and fear. As an adult, you can choose to set aside guilt and judgment. You can choose to accept your emotions and to engage with them rather than protect yourself from them.
Learn how to soothe yourself. You might not have learned this as a kid, but you can teach yourself this as an adult. Instead of telling yourself to get over something, or calling yourself names for what you’re feeling, try asking yourself what you need. Practice kindness and compassion with yourself. What do you need when you’re feeling a negative emotion?
3. Take Care of Your Physical Body
Your emotional, physical, and mental health are intertwined. Taking care of your emotional health means taking care of your physical body as well. Take responsibility for eating well, getting enough sleep, exercising, and drinking enough water.
Learn your physical body and how you respond to stress. Stress manifests itself commonly through: headaches, insomnia, aches, pains and tense muscles, upset stomach, indigestion, diarrhea, and constipation. Become an expert on your physical body. When you experience any of these symptoms, explore whether you’re also experiencing stress. Use your physical body to learn about your emotions and what impacts you.
4. Nurture Other Relationships
You and your partner are emotionally dependent on one another, and that’s a good thing. It becomes unhealthy if you rely solely upon one another. You both need other relationships outside of your marriage. You need other people on whom you can depend, and with whom you can connect and process your life. Find friends who will support you and your relationships. Find people with whom you feel safe and upon whom you can rely.
Just like on an airplane, taking care of yourself is not superfluous business. Your whole family will benefit from your intentional decision to prioritize self-care. And remember, if you’re not feeling strong this spring, know that it’s never too late for a fresh start. It is possible to strengthen your relationship by strengthening yourself. You’ve got this!
Liz Colizza, MAC, LPC, NCC, is a psychotherapist and Head of Research and Programs at the nation’s leading relationship counseling app, “Lasting.”