We talk about our relationships in interesting ways. We "have" relationships, or we might "be in" one. We also talk about "being with" somebody. The real fact is that we have some sort of relationship with everyone around us and even the strangers we meet, so we need to be much clearer about what makes the "relationships" we care about relationships that work and are healthy for everyone in and around them.
Hammers and nails have a relationship. Predators and prey have a relationship. What do you want your most significant relationships to look like? What should they feel like? How do you get from where you are now to where you want to be? What does a "real relationship" or a healthy relationship look like? What's should you expect, work for or pay the most attention to?
If you find yourself in a higher conflict, unhappy relationship, the two of you might struggle with blame, victimhood and responsibility. Feeling like you're the only one that really cares or is doing the work is common and may have more than a little truth in it. The questions you need to be confronting revolve around, "What can I do about my thoughts, feelings and behavior today?" This is really important. It's not about the other person. It's about you. This doesn't mean the other person is off the hook in any way. It's about coming to grips with the fact that your current, or any future, relationship you have is going to require a "new and improved" you. Like it or not you're part of the reason your relationship is the way it is.
You seriously doing something about yourself lays the foundation for your life and relationship to change. The other person in your life at some point needs to do the same thing on their own and without your pushing or nagging. It's up to them to recognize that, to make the needed choices and to start carrying them out. You simply can't make them. Trying to force the issue will almost always delay or prevent what you want. Your living a better life can encourage it. Your affirmation of any work they do work and or progress they make may encourage it, too.
If the other person remains unwilling, uninterested or not working at it for a significant period of time, you need to recognize it and seriously consider what it means and what you want to do about it. Relationships always require two committed people. It requires two people who are both committed to being "good people" and interested in building and maintaining a relationship together.
What You Should Have in a Relationship
There are four basic pillars holding up any relationship:
If you really like, care about and love someone, that means you find something about them truly worthwhile. There's room for honor and respect there. If your level of respect waxes and wanes with your feelings, it's time to look at how you've come to look at and value the other person. What's happened to your thinking about this person? How are you valuing them now? Do you see them as fully human as you yourself are? Do you even think about their struggles anymore? While any of us can disrespect someone it the heat of the moment, if respect is chronically in short supply in your relationship, it's time to find ways to restore it. If you don't or if you can't, your relationship will die.
2. Love and Affection
You might think this is a real no-brainer, but I've been around a lot of long term relationships and genuine ongoing love and affection is not as common as you'd think. It tends to get replaced with familiarity and toleration. We become roommates, and we often share our mutual dissatisfactions in many small unpleasant passive aggressive ways. The petty acts tend to accumulate and ultimately blow up into fights.
Love and affection includes enjoying each other's company most of the time. It also requires at least a few common interests and activities. If you'd rather be alone or look forward to the other person being out of the house, things aren't good.
3. "Freedom of Speech"
You have to be able to talk about your needs, wants and concerns. You need to listen to all of these from your significant other, too. For this to happen a non-judgmental atmosphere needs to exist. Anger, frustration, anxiety and loss exist in everyone's life and you both are going to have to find healthy ways to express yours to each other. How someone feels right now is simply a fact. It isn't right or wrong. It simply is. It's your current starting point. What can't be expressed, simmers or festers and create problems down the road. Resentment and contempt find opportunity to grow and hurt you both. Conflict is inevitable, but fighting isn't. You can talk to each other like grownups if you really want to. It might take work. It might take practice, but you can do it.
4. Healthy Physical Intimacy
Sex should be more than a fact of intimate life. Respect for each other's bodies and the preciousness of your intimate relationship should never be in doubt. If you or your significant other has experienced sexual abuse and trauma, you need to be sensitive to that. If professional help is needed to work your way through to a healthier place together, find ways to do it. Withholding sex, demanding sex or demanding forms of sex the other person is uncomfortable with are all relationship killers. If your relationship struggles here, take a careful look at how well you're handling the other three pillars, too. If cheating has ever been a part of current or past relationships for either of you, it will continue to throw a shadow over you and color your intimacy at least from time to time.
It's important to note that sex too early in relationship, that is before it has had a chance to really develop, frequently causes problems further down the road. Being too involved physically before we really know someone and have a foundation for really being together tends to lock us in too early. We're distracted by the high of physical intimacy and fail to deal with the incompatibilities and problems we both have. We don't want to lose the sex, or we don't want to be alone again, and we just keep trying to make it work. The relationship, such as it is, fails because it just doesn't have a solid foundation built on friendship and genuine affection and respect. It's built on the sand of infatuation or lust instead.
Relationships and Levels of Maturity
We all come to a relationship with a level of relational maturity, and although we're all very capable of performing at the lowest level of maturity at any time, a few of us struggle with getting to or staying at the higher ones. Dr. Paul Jenkins (of the Live on Purpose YouTube channel), talks about this frequently in the context of kids, but it applies to us as adults, too.
At level one, we tend to be selfish and short sighted. For all intents and purposes relationships don't really exist, my needs and my wants are my focus. I will do things to make you do what I want or pay a price. I will often refuse to do what you want. I may whine or bully, but I will be emotionally unpleasant at the very least a large part of the time. Attitudes and temper tantrums are often the weapons of choice.
At level two, we tend to be interested in cooperation and understand that we have to at least make the other person somewhat happy to get what we want consistently. We might do the minimum to keep the peace or be pleasant and good about doing what's needed. We can get very focused on "fairness" at this level and cooperating in one area may be turned into demands for something as an "earned" benefit. Cooperation can be turned into selfish manipulation.
At level three, we're interested in making the things in and around our relationship really work. We notice more things and just take care of them. We do things without being asked. We do them because we care, because we feel good about being able to contribute or because it simply makes us happy. We don't do it expecting some kind of payback.
Take a few moments and reflect on your own tendencies here. Most people are really only at level two, on a good day, when their relationship isn't at its best. We grudgingly cooperate. We expect the other person to do certain things, and we might keep score. If your relationship isn't at least frequently operating at the happier end of the cooperative level, you're in trouble. It's time to take your mutual dissatisfactions and unhappinesses seriously.
Do You Have a Relationship?
Just how much of a relationship do you have in your "relationship"?
- Do you really want to know and understand the other person?
- Do you really want the other person to know and understand you? (Are you afraid they won't really like you if they do?)
- Can you to enjoy each other's company most of or pretty much all of the time? Would you prefer for your partner to go out or be off with friends frequently?
- Can you have a decent time figuring out what to do when things aren't working for one or the other of you? Can you solve problems instead of fight reliably?
- Can you have decent conversations fairly often? Do you even want to talk?
What You Need to Live Well
- You want to be understood and to belong. You want to be special to at least one other person on this planet.
- To do this, you have to practice doing it for other people, too. (It's a reciprocity thing. You have to give to get and keep the cycle going. It's also what makes you attractive longer term.)
- The better you are at helping another person feel understood, the more understanding you can freely get back in return.
- You need to take care in choosing friends and partners. You need to recognize the things you often initially find attractive in someone else that don't or can't work out longer term.
- You need to be aware of how you treat and think about other people.
How Do You Treat Others?
You may tend to treat others in ways that don't offer much toward building a quality relationship. How often do you treat people in the following ways?
- As Vending Machines ("tools") – You put in a few "coins" and "get" or demand something come out (perhaps right down to banging on the machine if it doesn't). "Rules" come first. One size fits all.
- As Generic People ("strangers") – I more or less treat you like any other person, or I might treat you as a role rather than as a person. I may be decent or nice to you, but I don't seem to understand you, and I don't seem to be very interested in what makes you tick. "My model of you is right. Don't mess it up. My model is reality."
- As Unique ("you") – I'm interested in you as an individual person. I want to know what makes you different. I'll play to your strengths and usually avoid stuff you don't like or enjoy. I want to build and maintain our relationship. Understanding you is an ongoing process. My model of you is a work in progress and we are co-creating it.
Gorski's Relationship Levels
You're just getting to know each other. You try to see if you can share an interest or two. You do a few things together. You share a little personal, but not too personal, information with each other. You pay quite a bit of attention to courtesy and respect. You might be a bit "formal" with each other.
You explore your common interests a bit. You spend more time together and introduce each other to your friends. You enjoy your time together. You enjoy each other's company. Your time together is more relaxed.
You begin to get more deeply connected to each other through shared time and personal stories. You get to know each other's points of views and values. You like each other for who you are. Your relationship is now about more than just having fun.
Your friendship has become more intense. You should know at this point whether or not the other person is emotionally safe. Romantic or passionate feelings are present. This is the first level at which sex may enrich rather than hurt your relationship.
Your interest in and commitment to each other has developed to the point you decide to stay together and make long-term plans. You've worked through a few problems together and still respect each other. You know enough about each other to continue to handle the baggage you have each brought into the relationship. Passion still fuels your relationship, but it no longer controls it. You can each see the other for who you are fairly clearly.
How to Talk About Your Relationship
Here are two simple ways to get started with talking about your relationship again. You may have to come back to them a number of times to get started.
- I know we aren't doing very well. I want to understand it from your point of view.
- What bothers you the most right now? If we could do something small today to start changing it, what do you think it could be or might be?
Terence T. Gorski, Getting Love Right: Learning the Choices of Healthy Intimacy (1993)
Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT, Wired for Love: How Understanding Your Partner's Brain and Attachment Style Can Help You Defuse Conflict and Build a Secure Relationship (2012)
Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT, Wired for Dating: How Understanding Neurobiology and Attachment Style Can Help You Find Your Ideal Mate (2016)
Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT, Relationship Rx (Audiobook 2018)
Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT, Your Brain on Love: The Neurobiology of Healthy Relationships (Audiobook 2013)
Questions for Journaling
- Of all the serious relationships you’ve been in, what has contributed to their becoming difficult and failing?
- Have you repeatedly gotten physically involved in your relationships before you knew each other very well?
- Did you learn any positive lessons about relationships from your parents?
- What lessons have you learned about relationships on your own?
- Have you learned any lessons about relationships from your friends?