I was recently reading yet another article on what it takes to succeed in a marriage, and the article proposed ten or twelve necessary attributes of such marriages. All of the individual bits and pieces made sense— and yet there seemed to be a lack of overall coherence and synergy between the proposed “success factors”.
After some reflection, it occurred to me that there was a set of three earmarks of success in a committed relationship (whether a marriage or less traditional forms of intimate relationship). Each of these underpins a sort of essential simplicity in relationships.
First, it’s important to bring a well-established sense of self into a relationship. In our society, self-“full”-ness is often equated with self-ish-ness. It’s not somehow wrong or petty to know and take proper care of oneself; quite the contrary, it’s crucial to do so. Without self-knowledge, self-acceptance, self-love and self-caring— all “s”-words— we lack richness to bring to a relationship. Education and reflection can help put us in touch with what is truly important to us— and thus, with what we should not compromise in entering a relationship. Carving out a fair share of time and resources for ourselves is necessary to properly valuing ourselves. Even in an intimate relationship, it’s crucial to retain one’s individuality. Partners can derive great satisfaction from sharing a life together, but “fusing” into one pseudo-entity denies the reality that we always remain individuals.
A second contributor to successful intimate relationships is found in stability. Life deals wild-cards, and facing too many unpredictable or uncontrollable factors can be very stressful. Ongoing high stress is an enemy to relationships. Pursuing a good job— one that provides for a rich and varied life, without commandeering all of one’s time or imposing an unsustainable stress-level— provides needed stability in one’s life. For a new couple, postponing child-bearing can also provide needed stability, while the partners get to know each other well and adjust to each other.
In seeking stability, it’s important to avoid stasis, that soul-killing sameness that can make both a relationship and life overall lose its sweetness over time. We humans are constantly tugged by the opposing gravitational fields of predictability and the safety of sameness on the one hand, and of the excitement and promise of novelty, on the other. (Esther Perel has written an excellent description of this conflict, in her TED talk on “The secret to desire in a long-term relationship“.)
A third key contributor to lasting intimate relationships is a willingness to invest in the relationship. This is an area in which the self-knowledge that two partners bring to the relationship can allow them to share the core beliefs and values that are important to them. Fundamental differences at that level can fracture the relationship. As another dimension of mutual “investment”, partners can take genuine interest in one another, validating each other in the process. Caring for one another, by showing tenderness, gentleness and acceptance, is likewise very validating and reassuring. Working at communicating well with one another is yet another form of investment in a relationship. Good communication promotes mutual understanding. Taking time to share both the large and the small things in life is an investment in a relationship. Fighting fairly is also a communication skill that “deposits” into the relationship “account”. That skill promotes the fair and constructive resolution of the differences that inevitably arise between partners, while minimizing the creation of resentment and other emotional “scar tissue”.
As seems to be true of many or most good things in life, intimate relationship is simultaneously challenging and rewarding at a soul-deep level. The art of intimate relationship is something that one can work at throughout a lifetime; it’s essential to happiness, though deceptively simple in appearance.