what makes a relationship work

The Point of a relationship
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The world is at times a harsh and hostile place.  With our individual hopes and dreams, in a sea of hopes and dreams we are like dinghies set in the ocean.  When all is calm, we can row out in the direction we want.

But when the storm comes and the wind lashes us from wave to unforgiving wave, it becomes too strong and turbulent for us to fight.  Then our hopes and dreams get smashed against the rocks of life.

In these turbulent times, as children, we reach for the safe comfort of our parents.

As 37 or 54 year old adults we can’t run in the same way to our Mummy or Daddy, but if we have a partner that we can run to we’ll be healthier, happier and live a longer and richer life.

We can always seek solace with friends or other family members, but these may have their own Partners, children and lives and so it’s not quite the same.  Your partner and your lives are entwined and so the support that they can give you is more encompassing and comforting.

When we are under fire at work.  

When we lose our job.  

When the wolves are at the door.  

When the world is against you.  

When everyone else wants a piece of you.  

The place you should always be able to flee to are the warm arms of your lover who will be strong when you need them to be.  

Who will soothe you. Comfort you and tell you that you can do it… and make you believe it.

A loving and healthy romantic relationship is the safe haven from the turbulence of the world.  This obviously is based on the condition that both parties are fully invested, functioning and capable of living up to all the things discussed here. 

If you’re in a relationship with someone who can’t or won’t fulfill all of these requirements then nothing you do is going to make the relationship work.

The fact is that life is always going to challenge all of us.  

There is a perception that some people are luckier and have an easier ride than others.  The reality is that while hardship is subjective, we all go through tough times. We are all tested by life.  And while we might seemingly have everything going for us, if we are empty and eaten up on the inside none of that matters.

In a groundbreaking Harvard study, a cohort of graduates have been tracked since 1938.  With 80 years of data we’re able to make some interesting observations.

All suffered challenging situations.  All of them had lucky breaks. Some got rich.  Some struggled.

George Vaillant, who managed the study for 35 years was asked, “What have you learned from the Grant Study men?”

His conclusion: “That the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.”

Here’s Robert Waldinger, the person currently in charge of the study, talking more about the study’s findings..

A good relationship is when two people bond in a love that they know in all circumstances their lover will be there for them, putting them before all others and will always have their back.

Sue Johnson has done a lot of research into the emotional attachment of couples.  That is to what extent they feel safe and secure with their Partner. She says we are constantly unconsciously asking our Partners:  

Am I special to you?

Can I trust you to choose me?

Will you always be there for me?

We need to know that we are secure in our partner’s affections just as children want to know they are the favourite of their parents.

John Gottman, who has 40 years of data from researching couples and following how their relationships die, survive or thrive, also believes the issue of trust and betrayal says that what usually finally kills relationships off is a betrayal.  

The most obvious one is an affair, but there are many other ways other people and life can come between a couple.  Gottman talks about three main ones.

Emotional Cheating

Wherever there is lying or a lack of transparency.  You may be open about who you’re with or what you’re doing, but there’s something you’re not telling.  If you wouldn’t be comfortable with your Partner seeing what you’re doing then it’s a wedge that will come between you and tear the bond.

Anytime you choose someone or something other than your partner whether that is work, your family or your friends they learn that they can’t trust you.  Whether that is choosing their needs over your partner’s or discussing things about them or about your relationship that your partner wouldn’t be comfortable with, these are the cuts that rupture the relationship bond.

Not Fully Committed

For a relationship to work we need to feel that our partner is fully committed to us.  Having one foot in and one foot out and knowing you have alternatives means that there isn’t a full commitment.  Without that, you’re in for the ride until it gets rocky and so your partner knows they can’t really count on you.

Looking outside of the relationship and thinking you can do better with someone else breeds resentment and bitterness.  

The quality of your lifestyle is influenced by the raw ingredients you both bring to it.  Resources, wealth, income and so on.

But the quality of the relationship, and how you feel, is set by the commitment you have to it.  Any outside option means there is a lack of commitment and this begins to create a sense of resentment that will shatter the inner walls of the relationship causing it to crumble in time.

In all relationships sooner or later there are difficult discussions.  If you avoid these then you cannot build that strong emotional bond.

Strong bonds are formed when you come through trials, where the consequences and emotions are high.  It’s knowing even when your partner is totally pissed off with you that they won’t hurt you.

As Gottman says the mantra is “When you hurt, the world stops”.

Emotional Withdrawal

Gottman talks about bids for attention and affection being at the heart of a healthy relationship.  Communication is a process of transmitting thoughts. We encode what we mean in a message and then our partner has to decode it.

When we want to reach for our partner we are rarely open enough to say I’m feeling vulnerable and want your attention or approval.  So we make a comment to start an interaction. This usually isn’t direct. It could be a jokey comment or on observation on the weather, but the meaning behind is an attempt to repair a rift or to reach out to connect.

If the partner takes this at surface level and doesn’t respond positively that is withdrawing or moving away from the partner.  If however the partner accepts the invitation to connect, it strengthens the bond.

It is these attempts to connect and how often they are accepted or rejected that over time creates trust and connection or lack of.

Gottman’s research shows that happy couples turn towards their partner 67% of the time they were observed and unhappy couples just 33% of the time.

Couples will always argue, hurt one another and frustrate each other.  

Yet what differentiates a great relationship from all others is that they trust the other enough to know that despite the heat of the moment or the conflict in question, their happiness and wellbeing will always matter more to their Partner.

This allows them to eventually transcend any conflict because ultimately the bond matters more than any  single issue or needing to be right.

This foundation for a relationship makes it much more rewarding and enjoyable.  A strong emotional bond creates deeper intimacy and so there is more passion and both feel more comfortable physically, emotionally, and sexually.

Besides the relationship being more rewarding, much like the earliest farmers having an stored food as an advantage over hunters, lovers with that sanctuary of love can take more risks because they have a safety net.  

And because they know they have a safe sanctuary to return to, the relationship frees them up to be themselves more and more.

Yet though most people ultimately want that kind of relationship when people talk of what they are looking for from a partner they talk about physical appearance, fashion sense, height, occupation, status and so on.  

All of these are important in the early days of dating, but have no bearing on creating a deeper longer term relationship.

This is why many people get captivated and fall for the charming and dashing guy who promises to be everything you ever hoped he would, but who then turns out to be controlling, cold or manipulative.  Or the beauty that turns out to be vacant and self obsessed.

Of course it’s impossible to know what someone will turn out to be.  It always takes time to get to know someone because in the early days you are both putting forward your best sides.

But you have to think logically.  The fact that someone looks or physically feels like they make you feel safe is one aspect.  However, emotionally they may not be the person that would make you feel safe or care for your needs.

The qualities that make for a great relationship are things like empathy, understanding, kindness, self-esteem, confidence, respect and the willingness to commit.

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