Great relationships uplift and empower you. They’re a place of refuge and nourishment, deep connection and understanding. They make life easier, not harder.
And even through the tough times, the strongest relationships weather the inevitable ups and downs with a sense of purpose and meaning.
The problem is, very few of us are experiencing this. We’re simply not taught how.
Instead, we stumble our way through, trying to work it out as we go along. With plenty of heartbreak, disappointment, and conflict along the way.
Thankfully, there’s another way.
It’s not for the faint-hearted. It requires super-human self-awareness, a willingness to have tough conversations, and a commitment to doing the work.
But the reward is a relationship that meets our most fundamental needs for security, love, and belonging, right up to our life-affirming needs for personal growth and spiritual development.
It’s called a conscious relationship. And here’s the complete guide to exactly what it is, how to create one, and why you’d want to.
What is a Conscious Relationship?
A conscious relationship is a relationship that’s created purposefully, decisively, and with intention. It requires clarity and choice around how you want your relationship to feel, how you like to love and be loved, and what your boundaries and non-negotiables are. And it’s intentionally structured to support those needs and desires.
But this definition is only the beginning. Understanding what a conscious relationship is – and more importantly, how to create one – requires more than three sentences.
We’ll get to the how in a moment. First, let’s look a little deeper – starting with why you’d want a conscious relationship in the first place.
The Old Way of Relating Doesn’t Work Anymore.
Over the past 150 years, relationships – especially marriage – have changed dramatically. What we want and expect from a relationship has grown infinitely more complex.
As professor Eli Finkel explores, relationships are no longer about simply teaming up to meet our basic needs for food, shelter, and security. Modern relationships go beyond biological needs and into the realm of the emotional and spiritual:
- We want to feel loved and cherished
- We want a partner to share life’s adventures with
- And we want our relationship to nurture and inspire us – to help us grow into our best selves and fulfil our highest potential
All relationships have the potential to meet these needs. But a consciously loving relationship makes this a priority.
But creating a partnership that can satisfy all of these needs – from the most basic physiological needs right up to self-actualisation – is incredibly challenging.
As we ask more of our relationships, our rising expectations lead to increased pressure, and create greater levels of dissatisfaction.
But the relationships that get it right experience more happiness and fulfilment than ever before.
So how do you do it?
By their very nature, conscious relationships are not prescriptive. You’re not following someone else’s rulebook. You’re writing the rules for yourself.
This means that from the outside, one version of a conscious relationship will look entirely different to another.
Having said that, there are some foundational qualities that distinguish conscious relationships from the default way of doing relationships.
Four Important Qualities of Conscious Relationships:
Conscious Relationship Quality #1:
Also known as ‘owning your shit’.
Radical responsibility requires taking ownership of your limitations and admitting your short-comings:
- The places where you can do better
- The relationship skills you need to improve
- Your triggers, past hurts, unhelpful coping mechanisms, and your neurotic and compulsive behaviours.
Because there’s no toxic behaviour that can’t be unlearnt. No skill that can’t be improved. No challenge that can’t be worked out. So long as you’re willing to hold yourself to a higher standard and do the work.
The problem with this is that our unresolved relationship baggage tends to lurk in our blindspots. Which by its very name makes it hard to see.
Radical responsibility therefore requires some next level self-awareness:
You have to be willing to show up and grow up. To continually develop your emotional intelligence, your communication skills, and your ability to understand and empathise.
Radical responsibility means taking 100% ownership for your 50% of the relationship.
And if that isn’t challenging enough, owning your limitations is only the beginning.
Radical responsibility also means taking ownership of what you want.
Which is surprisingly difficult.
From the day we’re born we’re subject to the relentless conditioning of society, culture, and the media. We’re told how to live our lives, and what our relationships should look like.
This makes it hard to differentiate between what you really want, and what you’re supposed to want.
It’s also incredibly vulnerable:
You have to show your true self, leaving you open to criticism and rejection.
And even if you can identify what you want, we’re taught to prioritise other people’s needs above our own in order to be a ‘good person’ and a ‘good partner’.
Maintaining the status quo feels like the safer (but exhausting) option.
Yet this is how we ‘lose ourselves’ in relationships – by sacrificing our sense of self for the comfort and security of relationships that ultimately don’t serve us.
Instead, radical responsibility asks that you:
- Take a courageous stand for yourself – even in the face of rejection or misunderstanding.
- Identify your non-negotiables and prioritise them over comfort, security and acceptance.
- Admit to having needs, and take responsibility for what’s truly important to you.
This isn’t demanding your own way or refusing to meet your partner’s needs. It’s not making your partner responsible for meeting your needs either. (Being open to influence and learning how to collaborate are essential aspects of a conscious relationship too.)
But it does mean that you refuse to compromise your standards, long-term happiness, or fulfilment for fear of conflict or rejection.
Your needs, your happiness – your LIFE – are your responsibility. If you don’t prioritise them, no one else will.
Conscious Relationship Quality #2:
We rarely come into relationships with the best toolkit for success. As radical responsibility identifies – we each have our triggers, past wounds, and unhelpful ways of dealing with conflict.
But a growth mindset assumes we can learn to do better.
All relationships provide the perfect opportunity for those hidden hurts to arise. (That’s why no one will push your buttons quite like your partner does).
A conscious relationship doesn’t see this as a problem however, it sees this as the point.
In a conscious relationship your baggage is brought to the surface so that you can learn to heal and grow through it. It’s how your relationship helps you become a more loving, compassionate, and courageous version of yourself.
There’s no better place to process and sort your shit out than a conscious relationship.
A growth-mindset acknowledges that there’ll be times of challenge and conflict in your relationship – but that’s not a bad thing.
Anticipating and encouraging these natural relationship growth stages invites us into higher-order thinking and problem solving. It’s an invitation to collaborate, work as a team, and face these inevitable challenges together.
The problem with a growth mindset however, is that growth can easily become over-emphasised.
Take a quick look around the internet and you’ll find that most definitions of conscious relationships focus on ‘prioritising growth above all else’.
While welcoming growth and change in a relationship is healthy, constantly seeking it out is not.
Over-prioritising growth will burn out a relationship just as quickly as avoiding it will.
A relationship that is constantly ‘processing’ creates imbalance and unnecessary drama.
Despite the ideology pushed by popular personal development memes, you don’t always have to be ‘pushing the envelope’ or ‘stretching outside your comfort zone’.
In secure, high-functioning relationships the comfort zone is prized and valued too.
Connection, fun, intimacy, security, relaxation, healing, bonding – even growth – all occur in the comfort zone.
Yes, facing your fears and challenging yourself is important. And, having a safe, nurturing place to integrate those challenges is just as important.
Ultimately, a conscious relationship doesn’t need to force growth. Life already presents endless opportunities to grow.
But by adopting a growth mindset you hold yourself to a higher standard in order to embrace that growth, and to move beyond limiting relationship patterns.
Conscious Relationship Quality #3:
Presence & Appreciation
Contrary to conventional wisdom, the leading cause of relationship breakdown isn’t communication problems, conflict, or affairs. It’s the slow decay of friendship and closeness.*
This breakdown is often seen as inevitable. That over time, a relationship simply loses its spark as you grow further apart. But friendship and connection only break down if you become complacent or check out.
Presence is the preventative medicine.
Being present means being actively invested and involved in your relationship. That you prioritise quality time with each other, and that you’re alert and engaged when sharing that time.
Which is a huge challenge in today’s world of smart phones and hyper-distraction.
Presence requires dedication and consistent effort. Not only in taming the never ending mind-chatter, but also in the effort to honour each other.
Presence means being there, in you relationship. Choosing it. Prioritising it. And showing your partner with words and actions that you’re here with them, not simply coexisting or taking them for granted.
However ‘just showing up’ isn’t enough. Honouring each other also means sharing your appreciation, and showing your partner that you value them and all they bring to your life.
The Importance of Appreciation.
Appreciation doesn’t come naturally and needs to be practiced intentionally. In fact appreciation contradicts the way our brains naturally function.
Let’s take a closer look…
Us humans have what’s called a negativity bias:
We notice what’s not working far more than we notice what is working.
This means that the problems in your relationship will take on far more emotional and psychological significance to you. Over time, this undermines your ability to recognise the joys and blessings that exist in your relationship.
Which is why mindfully practicing appreciation is so important.
Let’s be clear here: appreciation is not bypassing. You’re not neglecting problems or ignoring the challenges.
But appreciation does mean that you spend as much time actively looking for what’s right about your relationship as you do trying to resolve what’s wrong.
And the amazing thing about appreciation? It’s a self-reinforcing, upward spiral of acknowledgment, praise, and validation:
The more you look for things to be grateful for in your relationship, the more you find. And that continual positive reinforcement inspires you both to become better people and better partners.
Appreciation is so powerful that it has the ability to transform even the most dysfunctional of relationships. If you’re willing to try.
Conscious Relationship Quality #4:
In most modern-day relationships, autonomy (the right to be self-governing and independent) seems like a given. So how is this considered special in conscious relationships?
The truth is, conventional relationship paradigms have a tendency to diminish autonomy:
- Our fairy-tales and rom-coms speak of ‘soul mates’ and ‘happily ever afters’.
- We glorify sameness and the ‘merging of two souls’.
- Our two stories become one story, and over time individuality is lost.
It’s why so many people feel trapped by commitment.
Relationships feel like an impossible choice between our need for independence, and our need for intimacy.
But a conscious relationship asks, “why not both?”
In valuing autonomy, we’re not devaluing togetherness. Rather, we’re defying the idea of merging and identity loss, and giving equal importance to individuality and otherness.
Which of course brings its own set of challenges:
The happily-ever-after myth provides a sense of security and safety. Even if it’s only an illusion. Choosing autonomy as a higher value shatters that illusion.
Freedom in a conscious relationship means the freedom to make our own choices. Including the freedom to not choose the relationship.
Autonomy respects the right to our individual opinions, values and perspectives – which includes the freedom to disagree. It knows that we can’t control the outcome of a relationship, and that the best we can do is to show up each day and keep choosing each other.
But it’s that choice that makes a conscious relationship even more valuable and precious.
By valuing autonomy a conscious partnership overcomes one of the most challenging dichotomies that relationships poses – our need for closeness and our need for freedom.
A conscious relationship doesn’t make empty promises about forever after.
Instead, you make a daily commitment to give your best, to take radical responsibility, to embrace growth, and to celebrate and honour each other’s differences.
How Do You Create a Conscious Partnership?
Building a conscious partnership starts with reflection and intentionality:
- First, get clear on the purpose and vision of your relationship.
- Next, create a set of agreements to enshrine that purpose and vision.
- Then, commit to the daily habits and actions that shape your conscious relationship.
The following section gives an overview of these steps to help you create your very own conscious relationship.
(Want the specific questions and conversation prompts to help you implement this in your relationship? Download our Conscious Relationship Blueprint. It’s the exact framework we use in our own relationship, and with our couple’s coaching clients.)
1. What is the Purpose of Your Relationship?
Having a sense of purpose is what separates a floundering relationship from an exceptional one. Because without knowing why you’re in a relationship – what it gives you, what it helps you achieve, why it’s important to you – a relationship will become lifeless and directionless.
It’s also your ‘why’ that helps motivate you through the tough times.
Your purpose doesn’t have to be an altruistic vision for the benefit of all humankind. It just needs to feel inspiring and authentic to you.
One of our relationship ‘whys’ is to bring more joy into each other’s lives. Simple, but powerful. It helps us define our priorities and stay on track.
Getting clear on your purpose will instantly give your relationship more meaning and direction.
2. What is Your Relationship Vision?
If the purpose is your True North, then the vision is your compass. It helps you to know if you’re lost, or if you’re on the right track.
It’s informed by your why, but it’s more like the ‘what’:
- what it looks like
- what it feels like
- the way you relate to each other
- what you do together
It’s the day-to-day vibe of your relationship.
You’re answering the question: “what does an awesome relationship look like to me?”
Your vision also includes the nuts and bolts kind of stuff like how you structure your relationship. Are you monogamous? Are you in an open relationship? What constitutes cheating? How involved are you in each other’s friendships, work-life, and hobbies? How do you handle your finances? How do you communicate and deal with conflict?
You can’t create your ideal relationship until you have an idea of what it looks like.
3. What Agreements Govern Your Relationship?
Agreements are like the rules of the relationship game. And because they’re informed by your idea of a relationship (not somebody else’s), they empower you rather than restrict you. They make the game winnable by actively supporting you to achieve the type of relationship you want.
To create them, use your purpose and vision to decide what agreements need to be in place to support those ideals.
In our relationship we have agreements around almost everything we do. From how we handle conflict, to how we initiate sex, to what it means to be monogamous.
Our agreements also reflect the qualities of a conscious relationship itself. Such as our agreement that, “Our relationship is a vehicle for our personal growth. We’re dedicated to the highest potential of our relationship, and ourselves as individuals.”
4. What Actions Do You Take in Your Relationship?
Purpose, vision, and agreements are all important, but they won’t matter unless you take action.
What you do in your relationship counts. A lot. Over time, it’s the daily habits and actions that decide the health of your relationship and how successfully it functions.
Just like the previous three steps, there’s no one-size-fits-all here.
But if you want to build a conscious relationship, creating your Purpose, Vision and Agreements are the next best steps. They lay the foundations and will give you important insights about the key actions you need to take to help your relationship thrive.
Grab the free download below to help you get started.
Building a conscious relationship is an art.
In truth, it’s infinitely more complex than a single blog post can cover, because every relationship has its own unique challenges and needs. But with mindfulness and intentionality, you can create something that’s truly fulfilling.
When you shed the old paradigms of what a relationship ‘should’ look like, you make space for a new way – your way. A way of doing relationship that supports you in becoming your best self, and facilitates the profound connection that we so fundamentally crave as humans.
Reece Stockhausen & Jodie Milton have made improving people’s lives and relationships both their passion, and their career. With over 25 years experience in the Personal Development industry, and 7 years coaching singles and couples, their no-BS advice has been featured in Bustle, HuffPost, and MindBodyGreen.
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