Relationships are as unique and personal as the people in them. In the course of a lifetime, they are always starting, shifting, growing, retracting, and redefining themselves. Even ending a relationship leaves shadows of your former lover that can continue to touch you in the most unexpected circumstances. Given that most of us (though not all) desire relationships, we still feel like there are things we know and don’t know about what makes a relationship solid.
I polled a few people on social media for some advice from their personal experience about what makes for a kind of relationship they are willing to work for, and was fascinated by the diversity of experience, as well as the common threads.
1. “Do not, under any circumstances, take my advice,” “Don’t do it,” and “Don’t listen to me” made me laugh, but also deeply resonated. We seem to feel that if we aren’t in the perfect relationship, or have had a history of things “not working out,” that we are less-than in terms of what we know about relating. This just isn’t true. Relationships are full of risk, and sometimes when they don’t work out we do the most learning about who we really are, if we allow ourselves to stay with the vulnerability of the feelings we have. Likewise, avoiding relationships can mean staying safe and protecting your heart, and there is nothing wrong with choosing your own safety and security over the risk of intimacy. That said, if you feel as though taking the “safer” path is causing feelings of isolation and depression, you might not actually feel as good about being alone as you think you do. This is a good time to talk to your therapist about the tension between the parts of you that want to stay “safe” and the parts of you that want to feel intimacy and connection.
2. "Be happy instead of right.” “Keep up the sex and the appreciation.” “Communicate honestly and often.” “Two things: No one else is responsible for your happiness, and never stop courting each other.” “Listen, especially when it's hard to do so.” All of these seem to speak to being grateful for and appreciative toward your partner(s). It’s said that showing gratitude and appreciation for someone else actually increases your own gratitude and appreciation for yourself. Growing your self-love while in relationship can also help you stay engaged and connected, and can help you work through disappointments when your needs are not met.
3. "Take the time to have the uncomfortable conversations. Articulate and follow through on bettering yourself in the relationship. And maintain a healthy sex life by adhering to a GGG (Good, Giving, Game) mentality. And find someone with whom you can mutually grow and evolve.” This makes me think about how both (or all, if in a non-monogamous relationship) people need to be fully invested in the relationship to allow it to take shape and be an element of support in each person’s life. “Bettering yourself” in the relationship takes time and direct communication about what each person needs from the other, and an understanding of what’s yours to deal with and what’s your partner’s to work on. Sex can mean putting your body and your well-being into someone else’s hands (literally and figuratively). Consent means knowing, naming, and being respected for your limits, boundaries, and needs. It means listening deeply to your partner(s) and responding to their needs, limits, and boundaries. In this way, sex (whatever sex means and looks like to you) is excellent practice for deepening the trust in your relationship.
4. “Have shared values and interests. Be committed to being accepting, affectionate, considerate, kind and communicative and expect the same from anyone you date. Don't accept anything less. Don't give anything less. Don't date someone you want to change. Physical chemistry is important; it should be as much a priority as those other things.” I really feel like this piece of advice is about valuing yourself. Know what you need and want, and know that you are worth it. When you believe in your own worth and value, there is room to trust yourself to make the right decisions in the moment. In Katherine Woodward Thomas’s book “Calling In The One”, she writes that in order for you to bring the right person into your life, you must make space in your life for them. “There is a huge chasm between wanting to find your ideal partner and being truly available for that partner when he or she [or ze, or they] appears,” she says. Make it a practice of getting to know yourself, and there will be more room for another person to step in there with you if you want them to.
5. “Listen, be kind, be open to growing together as well as individually. Laugh together. Make time for each other and the relationship. Recognize that there is you, the other person, and the relationship - all separate entities, but interconnected. Seek first to understand and then to be understood.” The last line in this advice is worth highlighting again and again: When we are overwhelmed, we shut down. When we shut down, we can’t listen. When we can’t listen, we can’t understand. When we can’t understand, we can’t connect. So this idea of seeking to understand first—even if you think you’re right, and the other person is wrong, setting that down for just long enough to try your best to understand your partner(s) will actually allow you to start to re-regulate your overwhelm, calm yourself, open your heart, and this practice offers another opportunity for communication rather than a dead-end street.
6. “Your partner is not your parent. They can't anticipate your every need as a mother is with their infant. You have to ask, be vulnerable and share - a lifelong process of loving and caring for each other.” You and your partner(s) may be intensely attuned to each other, but I guarantee you, neither of you can read each other’s minds. Your limbic systems may be aligned and you may have an exquisite sense of body language and verbal cues, but always always always strive to be an active participant in the loving process by sharing and receiving real-time communication.
7. “Have goals as a couple. If at any time your dreams don’t match up, solve the vision issue before moving forward with other relationship milestones. i.e. don't move in with someone who doesn’t share your visions of the future 5, 10 or 15 years from now.”“Have your relationship shit sorted out before you have kids. And don't have kids expecting that to mitigate your relationship shit.” And on the other hand, we have: “Make a baby! It's the best! And twice-weekly therapy for the both of you! And get a housekeeper!” What is your vision for the future? Do you talk about all the gritty, raw, and hard stuff? If you do want, or have, kids- practicing communication will be ever so important with your partner.
8. “This thing people say: "If it’s meant to be, it should be easy"-this is not necessarily true! Great relationships can require some hard work. Find someone you want to do the work with and who is willing to do the work.” Great relationships really are hard work. They aren’t excruciating and they aren’t about sacrificing all of yourself for another person. But if you are really “in it,” all of your old patterns will arise, and all kinds of unexpected situations will present themselves. It’s up to you and your partner(s) to grow your strength together by facing (and caring for) the parts of each other you wouldn’t present to the rest of the world. If the goal is to be with someone who sees and knows and accepts all of you, you have to learn to be comfortable being all of you with that person, and letting the other person be all of themselves with you. Try being vulnerable- pace yourself- and take a risk. You might have a better chance of finding someone with whom you can really, truly get what you need.