Josh Zlatkus |
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?
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.
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.
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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.
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.
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.
Communication, therefore, is the single most important factor in the health of a relationship because it represents the relationship’s ability to self-correct.
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.
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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.
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.
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.
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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 are 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.
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.
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.
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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.