It’s an age-old debate — What actually is the most important thing in a relationship? Is it trust? Is it communication? And, more importantly, why do some relationships work, while others, no matter how much you love the person, just don’t make it? If you’re struggling to find answers, you aren’t alone — even Goop guru Gwyneth Paltrow admits that it’s taken her some time to get to a healthy place in the romance department.
I, too, have done my share of work to reach romantic bliss, and it’s paid off tenfold. I can proudly say that I’m in the healthiest, happiest relationship of my life and, like the curious Leo I am, have been very thoughtful about why this the case. After some much-needed introspection, I discovered the unexpected: The top priority in my relationship actually has nothing to do with my significant other.
Let me preface this by saying that if you asked me what the most important thing in a relationship was in my early twenties, I would tell you without hesitation that trust was the most critical piece of the puzzle. It’s an obvious answer (and not necessarily a wrong one): You need to feel mentally, physically, and emotionally safe with your partner. While I of course still believe the validity of this, I’ve learned that trust doesn’t exist within a relationship unless you have a solid foundation of something else to build upon: self-love.
To give you some context, I’ve been in a few serious relationships over the last 10 years, each one embodying different sides of the spectrum. Whether they were toxic, heartbreaking, or a classic case of the all-too-common “we’re better off as friends,” every breakup resulted in me spending several weeks (let’s be real, months) considering the reasons why things didn’t work out. At first, I factored in typical rationalizations like lack of trust, bad timing, laziness, and insecurity … but it wasn’t until recently that I started thinking about how my relationship with myself had impacted my romantic endeavors both past and present.
For instance, my 2008 self tolerated things that my 2018 self would absolutely never stand for. Why? The answer is simple: I wasn’t as emotionally stable or connected to myself at age 20 the way I am at age 30. I didn’t realize it back then, but an unhealthy amount of my self-worth was dependent on the validation of other people. I worried so much about what others thought about me — why didn’t I consider what I thought about myself?
Todd Swagler, LMHC, NYC-based psychotherapist says getting to know yourself is a valuable component to any relationship. “I’ve found that we all have issues in our relationships, but it’s our own baggage that we bring that often creates more challenges,” he says. “Once we decide to focus on our own self in a compassionate and loving way, we begin to view our own partner with patience and empathy; all of a sudden we start receiving love because we love our true selves.”
It wasn’t until I experienced one particularly rough breakup, in which the rejection caused a surprising shift in perspective, that things dramatically changed for me. In an effort to distract myself from the post-split pain, I spent a lot of time around good friends, successful peers, and mentors who had their sh*t together. It didn’t take much time to realize that there was a common thread that attracted me to this group: They all truly valued and prioritized themselves. I don’t mean in a self-obsessed, narcissistic way. They were grounded, strong, goal-driven individuals who knew what they wanted and weren’t afraid to ask for it — and that inspired me.
Spending more time around these people forced me to look inward and ignited that same spark within myself. I reset my focus, made a list of goals, and held myself accountable. Sometimes that meant skipping happy hour to go for a run after work to clear my head; other times it meant reinforcing small but significant reminders, like not being too hard on myself.
It took time, tears, and asking for help when I needed it, but eventually I started shedding the belief that I had to live up to someone else’s standards or expectations. Once I became more comfortable in my own skin, I didn’t have to question whether or not I was “enough” for someone else. By honoring and loving myself more, I entered my current relationship with confidence, and it’s made a world of difference.
Three years in, I’m more in love now than ever, and I finally figured out what works for me: My partner and I both know exactly who we are, and we don’t compromise our authentic voices to appease the other person. It takes constant work to maintain an open line of communication — but we both love each other (and ourselves) way too much to have it any other way.