What Makes a Relationship Successful?
Can anyone really be sure that his or her relationship with a partner is a “success?” About two years ago what I thought was a successful relationship really wasn’t. Sure, I loved the guy I was dating and he loved me (well, that’s debatable now), but we laughed a lot, we had sex and we never fought. Of course, I still fretted over whether or not he could be trusted. And I would catch him in little lies here and there. And there was always that sense of dread in me that he would go out with his friends and drink or smoke pot. But I stuffed those feelings and ignored them, because, in my mind, the bigger picture was that we were getting along so well. The bigger picture, in my mind, was to keep the peace and not sweat the small stuff.
And it worked. Temporarily. Until it didn’t.
And when we split up, I was dumbfounded. How could something so perfect have failed? After a significant amount of time crying and mourning the passing of this relationship, the obvious made itself known (it always does). We, as a couple, liked each other, we were even extremely attracted to each other mentally, physically, even spiritually. But we did not share certain core values that, after time, started to betray both of us. He really believed in the healing powers of marijuana. It was a huge part of his “spiritual life”. I, on the other hand, felt it was merely an addiction and mere bottom line behavior. I believe in clean living and the idea that spirituality is presence when we remove things from our system, not put it into our system. But he, even though I rarely said anything directly, could still pick up on my disapproval of him and he sensed a rift. Likewise, I felt increasingly uncomfortable, as if I were betraying myself. I was. We both were. We were not honoring our core values. And when people do not share the same core values in life, the relationship has a much bigger chance of failing.
So, what does any of this have to do with a successful relationship?
For starters, sharing the same values with your partner is the key most important ingredient to a healthy relationship. If you don’t share the same values, you are building a rather shaky foundation. For love addicts, this means it is imperative to know what your values are before you go out looking for a life partner, before you accept just anyone into your life. For example, one of my values is: Whether it’s right or wrong, I cannot date men who do drugs or have a drinking problem. I realized this value of mine late in life. For the longest time I knew I had an extreme aversion to even the most socially harmless recreational drug use. For years I tried to be like everyone else and just accept it from other people. I even partook in it so as to be with the “in” crowd. But each time it came up, it interfered with my emotional and mental peace of mind and literally put me in pain. I realized too that it didn’t so much bother me when a friend did it (because I had no dependence on that friend), but it bothered me enormously if my boyfriend did it. Because I spend so much time with my boyfriend, his drug use has a greater impact on my life. Finally, I realized something very important: this aversion of mine to drugs may not be balanced or healthy, but it’s not going away and I better start making peace with it and I better start honoring my own spirit by staying away from people who do it. As soon as “no drugs” became a value of mine, I was able to look for someone who also shared that same value. It helps when two people share the same interests, but it’s essential for them to share core values.
Suggestion: write a list of your core values. It can be anything from “I need a partner who desires me physically,” to “I will only date men who do not lie, cheat or steal.” A value is stronger than a preference. “I prefer women with red hair” is not exactly a value, it’s a preference. If you don’t find it, you can live without it. A value, on the other hand, you cannot live without. Once you have a clearer picture of what is most important to you start to practice maintaining those values. For example, if you have children, one of your core values might be “I only want to surround myself with people who accept my children and treat them with kindness and respect.” How does this value stack up to the people currently in your life? Do they adhere to this value of yours? If they don’t, you need to reassess the relationship. Remember: values are in place to keep you safe and to allow you to honor your core self and help you maintain a peaceful, healthy life. Your values are what you are worth. They should be more important than love or sex with a partner who does not share or respect your values. When you let your values go, you let toxic people in and you compromise you worth.
Second, and equally important for a successful relationship is trust. Both you and your partner need to trust each other and be trusted. Without trust, almost any relationship will fall apart. If you are anything like me, a love addict who grew up in a family where she was unable to trust one parent (or both!), then you will have a very difficult time learning to trust someone you just meet. You inability to trust is there for a reason. You were taught to mistrust. And when you enter into a new relationship you need to take it slow and you need to spend a fair amount of time mistrusting and questioning the honesty and validity of the relationship. It is your way of protecting yourself from diving into something too quickly, or possibly getting hurt again. Building trust is a slow and oftentimes awkward process. Even if your new partner is completely trustworthy, there might be times when you harbor doubt. Remember to have patience with yourself and ask for patience from your partner. In time, you will learn to trust again. If you don’t see yourself making progress and you constantly find yourself doubting your partner and mistrusting him or her, you need to be completely honest with yourself. Do you feel this way because there is cause to doubt? Do you feel uncomfortable trusting your partner? If this is the case, he or she may not be entirely trustworthy and your instincts are picking up on it.
Suggestion: think of all the people in your life, friends, family members, co-workers, etc. Is there anyone you spend time with where you feel completely relaxed and trusting in their presence? If yes, this is the “feeling” you want to achieve from your partner. If you are not feeling that same sense of calm, trust your instinct. There probably is a reason to doubt this person.
A third component to any successful relationship is communication. There are literally hundreds of books on “how to communicate” and I think that if anyone feels they could benefit from a book like this, bury the pride and go out and get one. Communication is essential to a successful relationship. Body language is great. Physical attraction is great. Compatibility is great. But if you and your partner can’t understand one another, and if there isn’t a mutual platform of comprehension for each other, then there is, in my opinion, no relationship. Communication embodies everything form “pass the potatoes,” to deep conversations about the meaning of life. It also embodies every emotion you possess and the way you express those emotions. Do you scream when you don’t get your way? Do you pout when no one understands you? Do you throw things during an argument? Do you close down completely and sometimes refuse to talk if you’re angry? How is your ability to negotiate? Do you lie to get your way? Are you passive aggressive? Are you a poor listener? All of these are ways in which good communication can be completely sabotaged. The key to good communication is an ability to get your feelings and thoughts across to your partner, in a calm, respectful, adult-like manner. It is to negotiate peacefully and respectfully, and to realize you will not always get your way or be understood. When we go through recovery we tend to need better tools, better ways of doing things. Communication is a prime example. Our old tools, our old ways of getting what we want or avoiding situations don’t work in a healthy relationship. Pouting if we don’t get what we want doesn’t go over very well with someone who doesn’t communicate in that way (guilt). If we have any hope of communicating with a healthy person, we must speak their language, which is based on give and take and mutual respect.
Suggestion: how do you communicate with friends and family members? Do you find that you communicate differently with a partner? Why? How do you communicate with a partner? Are you communicating in this way because the relationship draws it out of you this way, or because you communicate with everyone this way? Write a list of some of the faulty ways in which you have tried to get your point across. Do you think if you were with someone healthy, who was a better listener, who didn’t judge you that you would not communicate the same?
A fourth component is respect. Respect for self and for others lays the foundation for love, tolerance, patience, pleasure, gratification and so much more. When you have self-respect you have dignity. And when you have respect for others, you have a deeper understand of what it is like to be human. The value of respect in a successful relationship can be measured by the strength and empowerment it creates between two people. Think back and remember the respect bestowed upon by a teacher or a parent. How did that make you feel? Did it make you feel loved, empowered, motivated to return the respect? Respect begets respect. It’s as simple as that.
Suggestion: Research the definition of “respect.” For our purposes, it is a “feeling of deep admiration for someone elicited by their abilities, qualities or achievements.” How does your partner size up to that definition? Does he or she have enough admirable qualities to earn your respect? If your partner has cheated on you repeatedly, how does “respect” play into your feelings for him or her? Do you respect yourself? Do you respect your partner? If there is an abundant lack of respect, you need to assess yours and your partner’s reasons for staying together. People who love each other, respect each other.
Finally, every successful relationship needs love. The word love to a love addict is complicated. But for starters, I can tell you that “love” is not the only driving force of a healthy relationship, nor is the definition of a healthy relationship. I can also tell you what love is not: love is NOT butterflies in the stomach or lust or limerance or sexual compatibility. Love is generally NOT anything that comes during the first 0-9 months of a hot and heavy, passionate relationship. Love is not “attraction” or “love at first sight” or even “attachment, or “need.” Love is certainly a component of a healthy relationship. And although it is very closely related to all those things, it is none of them, independently. From my own healthy experience I can say that when I first met my boyfriend I experienced curiosity. Then I experienced doubt. Then interest. Then lust, butterflies, need, want, sexual compatibility; then friendship and closeness, and so on, all the while building a more solid foundation of trust, respect and communication while maintaining all my core values in the presence of this person. Under that scenario “love” was built. If this scenario continues, love will continue to be built and strengthen the two of us. And for the sake of our understanding here, I have to say that love is something that is built over time and though you can have strong feelings for someone, it isn’t necessarily “love,” unless you are MUTUALLY constructing a foundation of trust, respect and good communication while each maintaining your values.
I also want to add that two people can love each other very much, even after MANY years, but treat each other poorly, disrespectfully, coldly and neglectfully. Even though this may, by very low standards be “love” it is NOT a sign of a healthy, successful relationship. If you just have love and you don’t have respect or peaceful communication, or trust; if you lack values and allow your partner to treat you poorly or neglect you, this is NOT a sign of a healthy relationship.
Remember, the object of a successful relationship is to be happy, in spite of remaining realistic about the suffering and pain that inevitably comes with life. Happiness comes from the connections we make. And the more successful those connections are, the happier we are. If you are in a relationship where you love your partner, but your lives together are a constant struggle and you are constantly in pain and suffering, due to lack of trust, respect, warmth, kindness, hoping your partner will change, you need to recognize that the relationship in NOT working, and you need to move on.
Suggestion: many of us still believe that “love will save the day,” and “love conquers all,” and “if he loves me, then everything will be OK.” While this is great for Disney and Hollywood, it is not realistic for an actual, healthy, real, live relationship. A relationship is not as superficial as Hollywood makes it out to be. And love may be one thing, but a successful relationship is something else completely. The bottom line is this: a successful relationship is based on two people who have a mutual interest in loving the other, trusting the other, respecting the other, communicating with the other, being with the other and building a relationship, while maintaining their core values. Ask yourself if this represents your current relationship. Does your relationship have trust but not love? Does it have respect but poor communication? Why are ALL these things important to the whole of the relationship? Also, love is subjective. What is your definition of love. Do you need lots of space, or do you prefer closeness? How often do you prefer to have sex? What level of intimacy are you most comfortable with? A lot or a little? How do you wish a partner would show you love? Do you like to be called every day? Do you need him or her to buy you gifts every once in awhile? Do you need to hear, “I love you” often? The more you know about how you would like to be loved the better chance you have of finding someone who can love you in ways you would like.
Lastly, there are a slew of other things that every successful relationship should have. For example, little to no drama, peace and stability, humor, acceptance, common ground, compatibility, gratitude, etc. But I’ve found that these things tend to come organically, once the other components are in place.
This, of course, is a cookie-cutter version of what a “successful” relationship is. And it is my version—I have written it only after dating D for one year. Though that is a HUGE accomplishment for me (the first of its kind, mind you!), a year is a very small amount of time. Who knows if we will continue to try so hard to make “us” work. Nothing is certain. And yet, the more time we spend working on “us” the stronger the bond becomes. Will there be set backs? Yes. Will there be awkward moments? Of course. Will there be “winters” of our relationship, as D calls them? Inevitably. Can we get through them? I hope so. One thing is certain, the more you work on yourself and the more you KNOW yourself and the more you love yourself, and the more you remain intact and have an identity of your own, the easier a relationship becomes. I used to get so frustrated when I was younger when my mother would always tell me, “you have to love yourself before anyone can love you.” When you are filled with hate and anger, you attract hateful, angry people. When you are riddled with doubt, you attract mistrustful people. When you do not know your limitations and values and what YOU need to survive, how on earth can you filter out toxic people? When you are unprepared for war and you head into battle without knowing the landscape, without having enough ammo or support, you are sure to lose. Build a relationship with YOU first, create YOURSELF, so that when someone good comes along you will recognize him or her and you will have something to offer.