Are you living the good life? Would you like to?
These are the penetrating questions that visionary psychologist Carl Rogers asked throughout his career as a passionate proponent of what he termed a “people-centered” approach to psychotherapy. He believed that everyone had the capacity to orchestrate their own change and growth and to become the best version of themselves. That is excellent news to anyone hoping to build a loving and lasting romantic partnership. The good life begins with individual fulfillment and empowerment, but radiates outward from there to transform our relationships as well. It is the pathway to partnerships that are mutually satisfying and enhancing.
Of course, Rogers was not talking about the pop-culture definition of the “good life” that idolizes self-gratification and conspicuous consumption above all else. He meant the kind of life that is possible when you are free of self-imposed and inherited judgments and limitations; when you are able to accept yourself as you are, to express your true needs and desires; and when you trust personal experience more than rigid rules to guide you deeper into growth and positive change. In Rogers’ view, this required challenging work that didn’t always lead directly to feeling “happy”—but was well worth the effort.
He wrote: “This process of the good life is not, I am convinced, a life for the fainthearted. It involves the stretching and growing of becoming more and more of one’s potentialities. It involves the courage to be. It means launching oneself fully into the stream of life.”
Would you like to have a romantic partner like that? Would you like to be a partner like that? Of course! And happily for us, Rogers did more than identify a lofty goal — he suggested how we might get there. In particular, he showed psychotherapists how to help others reach their full potential by simply providing a safe and conducive environment for real change to occur. He identified three necessary qualities in successful “people-centered” therapists. Coincidentally, these are the very traits that make one a truly remarkable partner and set the stage for creating the “good life” in any relationship. Here they are:
1. Genuineness. For a therapist to empower people to undertake the work of real growth, Rogers said, she must be transparent, without hiding behind a personal or professional façade. In other words, she must be a human being, first and foremost—honest, vulnerable, present, and without pretense or conceit. The idea is to level the playing field and help the other person feel safe and fully competent to solve the problems they face.
The reasons are clear. First, it is true that we are all just people doing the best we can. Second, “solutions” that are imposed on others by authority figures—even ones they’ve sought out for help—are more likely to be resisted or rejected than ones they find themselves.
Being genuine in your relationship means shunning the false security of posturing and manipulation. Leave nothing about yourself for your partner to “read between the lines” to discover—and he or she will be more likely to respond in kind.
2. Unconditional Respect and Regard. Unless people feels accepted just as they are, free of judgment, criticism, and condescension, they are unlikely to risk the openness and vulnerability necessary for deep introspection and change. Defensiveness is a natural response in anyone who feels threatened or undervalued.
Rogers cautions therapists to guard against an attitude of superiority at all times. Doing so requires an ironclad commitment to listen intently without interruption or unsolicited advice, to consider all points of view without prejudice, and to honor a person’s right to decide important questions for themselves.
3. Empathy. Simply put, Rogers said that in order to be most effective, therapists have to actually care what their clients are going through and make the effort to see things from the client’s perspective. Only then would a person feel truly safe and be able to consider new ways of living.
In romantic relationships, it is easy for you both to consider only how particular issues feel to you and what effect they have on your life. This naturally results in lines in the sand that make the first two of Rogers’ desired traits much more difficult to sustain. Any effort to walk in your partner’s shoes will diffuse tension and open up new possibilities for compromise and understanding.
The romantic good life is not a pipe dream—it is the real prize waiting when you do what it takes to be the best “people-centered” partner you can be.