Each and every day as a therapist, I talk to couples who are having issues. Issues serious enough that they have reached out for help. My job is to help them come to a decision about whether to move forward together or separately, which can be difficult. Sometimes, I have found, love and communication are not enough to stay together.
This article will help you understand what IS enough to stay together — what’s required to create and maintain happy and healthy relationships.
1. Get back on track with communication
No relationship, romantic or other, is going to proceed without conflict. What ends up getting the relationship back on track is good communication. Communication, therefore, is the single most important factor in the health of a relationship because it represents the relationship’s ability to self-correct. But what makes for good communication? Entire books could be written on this, but for now let’s keep it simple:
- Preemptive: Easier to be upfront because then problems can be spoken about instead of experienced.
- Consistent: No point in communicating some of the time, or only on certain issues; it only works if it’s always happening.
- Honest: Good communication is a trust-building act, bringing you and the other person closer (see below). Dishonesty has the opposite effect.
2. Start with trust
A relationship must have a foundation of trust to succeed. I could make a logical argument for why this must be the case, but instead, imagine what it would be like to have a relationship with someone you fundamentally mistrusted. Not enjoyable, am I right?
A lack of trust often initiates a vicious cycle. The one who is distrustful often causes the other partner to become secretive, even about things he or she does not need to hide, just to secure some privacy and control. This gives the suspicious person more to suspect.
Overall, a lack of trust or a breach of trust is one of the most difficult situations to overcome in a relationship.
3. Align on core values
Core values can be defined simply as those you cannot tolerate a partner NOT to share. Most relationships can have healthy disagreements about a wide variety of subjects, but each person has their “non-negotiable” beliefs. For some, this might be politics; for others, it might be whether to have children; between friends, it might be a matter of ethics.
Whatever your non-negotiables, it is important that your partner share them; otherwise you will constantly feel as if you are compromising on a deeply personal level.
However, keep in mind that not all beliefs are set in stone. If both people are willing to hear each other out, they might be surprised at the compromises they discover.
4. Use intimacy as a gauge
Although intimacy often stands in for sex in the psychological community, it can mean much more than that. I would define intimacy as an ability to communicate in a uniquely interpersonal level with another person, which can certainly happen between friends and family members as well as romantic partners. One subset of intimacy is sex, though, and in a romantic relationship this is one of the major readings of its health and happiness.
Sex in a relationship is similar to flossing, in that people who floss tend to live longer. It is not that flossing increases your life expectancy directly, but rather that those who tend to floss also tend to care for themselves in other ways, all of which lead to a longer life. Same thing with sex: a healthy sex life does not equal a healthy relationship, but it is an indication of many other positive things going on in addition to the benefit it brings by itself.
If your sex life is not where you’d want it to be, use it as a starting point to figure out what part of your relationship could change for the better.
5. Nurture vulnerability
One of the cherished things about being in a close relationship is that you can share things with another person that you do not share with anyone else. As a therapist, I am acutely aware of how much this contributes to our mental health. Simply being able to confide in someone about all the small and big things of your life is of enormous value — and the major reason why we enter into relationships in the first place.
Being able to share intimate details relies on a willingness to be vulnerable. This is a two-way street. Both you and your partner must develop an ability to be open as well as accept, nurture and respect the other’s openness. Vulnerability depends on this positive, reciprocal cycle.
6. Discuss the future: Children
Surprisingly, sharing a common past does not necessarily result in better relationships across the board. But sharing a vision of the future is essential in certain key areas: children, finances, and lifestyle. All of these are intertwined, of course, but it is important to understand your partner’s vision for each of these things.
One of the most common scenarios is a married couple who cannot agree on whether to have children. As you can imagine, both people feel very strongly about having or not having children. The heartbreaking thing is that there may be love, good communication, trust and shared values, but over time the couple cannot find a compromise for this extremely important life decision.
7. Discuss the future: Finances
At first, it is difficult to see how finances have anything to do with a relationship, but among couples and even among friends, differences in attitude toward money can create a serious rift.
Two friends who have two very different attitudes toward spending, for example, will have a hard time deciding what to do together. A couple in this situation will have a constant stressor on their hands, especially if finances become tight.
While it is not absolutely necessary to have identical attitudes toward money and spending, it is an important topic to discuss.
8. Discuss the future: Lifestyle
Lifestyle is sort of a catch-all phrase that includes aspects of life outside of children and finances that a couple will have to negotiate. This includes big things like how to spend leisure time or whether to be exclusive sexually as well as seemingly little things like diet or sleep. The point is that we all have preferences and needs, and when another person enters the picture with their own preferences and needs, we are forced to compromise.
When it comes to lifestyle, I have found in my practice that those who meet in their younger years have a harder time adjusting to their partner’s lifestyle. This is probably because our preferences and needs crystallize as we age. Couples who meet when they are older have a greater knowledge of their likes and dislikes, and tend to factor this into whether they would be compatible with each other.
9. Find a balance between dependence and independence
As mentioned in the trust section, the ability to rely on each other is a sign of strength. In fact, a relationship will stagnate without it. But as with everything, there must be a balance.
Too much dependence is just as tiring as too much independence. Without any dependence, neither partner feels as if he or she is part of a team, whereas with too much dependence, one or both partners is likely to feel overwhelmed.
In short, each member of the relationship has the responsibility to maintain a balance between relying too much on the other person and not relying on the other person at all.
10. Remember friends and family
This is an often-overlooked feature of a happy relationship because much of the beginning part of the relationship does not involve family and friends. Two people get to know each other by themselves and find they are beginning to form a strong relationship. But then comes the next stage when that person meets the other important people in their lives.
Couples tend to forget that how they fit into each other’s friends and family groups is important. As with core values, the important thing here is tolerance. Even if the person does not get along perfectly with your family and friends, is it tolerable? Can everyone basically get along?
Of course, the more seamlessly they fit into your circles the better, but this only really becomes a problem when the fit is so bad that you hesitate to bring them around.
11. Maintain commitment
In the beginning of most relationships, very little commitment is needed. Everything is rosy and you cannot imagine anything going wrong. I see many couples who are just coming down from their dating or marriage highs and are lacking one key component: a commitment to each other.
Commitment may be defined as a willingness to stay with the other person through times where it is no longer fun or easy to do so. Successful long-term relationships weather many such periods. Here are some other things to keep in mind about commitment:
- Commitment is easier when we appreciate qualities in a person that do not change with circumstance — when we appreciate their sense of humor, for example, instead of their salary.
- Too much commitment can be harmful. It can cause many people to stay in abusive relationships far too long. Healthy commitment is keeping a perspective on the qualities of the person that you love, whereas unhealthy commitment is elevating commitment itself above your happiness.
- Commitment is also a two-way street: it is more sustainable to stay committed to someone who is staying committed to us.
Hopefully you have recognized each item on this list as at least a factor in your relationship. Problems are especially troublesome when you or your partner are not even aware of them.
If an item or two on the list jumps out as being problematic in your relationship(s), return to item #1: Use communication to get back on track. Communication or the relationship’s ability to self-correct is always the starting point for change.