Most of us want a fulfilling lifelong partnership with someone to love and be loved by. Those that say they don’t want this have usually been seriously wounded in their important relationships. They are protecting themselves, but underneath their defenses they too long for love. Through my life and my work I have come to my own understanding of relationships and how to make them work.
To be lifelong and fulfilling, a relationship must be healthy. Both persons in the relationship must be fully committed and take responsibility for themselves and the relationship. It requires effort to stay conscious and emotionally present. It takes skill to handle our insecurities without distancing our partner- initiating conflict, escaping in work, kids, friends, family, alcohol, TV, etc.- or drive them away by clinging too tight.
As we grow into adulthood our capability to function effectively in a relationship is developed and challenged. When we graduate college we do not have all the skills to succeed on a job, and when we leave our family of origin we do not have all the skills to succeed in a relationship. We must strive for self-awareness and learn the intimacy skills needed to sustain and grow a life partnership.
The following are 5 Elements of a Healthy Relationship:
- Being Fully Committed: Fulfilling relationships can be hard work (and mostly self-work). Intimacy can be scary, raising fears of suffocation, rejection, engulfment, and abandonment. Intimacy touches our upper limits of how happy and secure we can allow ourselves to be before fear of failure or success causes us to unconsciously sabotage ourselves.
A healthy, fulfilling relationship starts with commitment. True intimacy, defined as being fully emotionally present and available for each other, is only possible in this context. Our fears and defenses create the temptation to cling or seek distance. Commitment means choosing to take responsibility, handling our fears, and working to be present and emotionally available in our relationship.
- Accepting Personal Responsibility: A child holds the world and the people around him or her responsible for meeting his or her needs. A child’s “experience” (internal state-mainly thoughts and feelings) and behavior are reactive to the world. Typically a young child’s reaction to being hungry is “My stomach is empty and I need you to feed me now!” The responsibility is put on the parent for the unmet need, and a demand is made to meet it.
A child does not have the skills, resources, or personal power to take responsibility for his or her own needs, and then take care of them. A baby learns that crying will get his or her needs met; as language develops, speech is used to get needs met. How needs get met at these stages lays the groundwork for the future.
As a healthy person develops he or she learns to take responsibility for his or her own needs, and cooperates with others in getting mutual needs met by communicating effectively and being pro-active. This can be called “Mutuality”. People who do not practice mutuality continue to hold others responsible for their needs, often blaming others for their unmet needs and expecting others to take care of them, often responding in anger when others do not see things their way.
There are no victims in the healthy adult world; you are in charge of your life and are in this relationship by choice, nobody made the choice for you. Accept your partner as he or she is. Assume he or she can not and will not change for you. Be responsible for identifying your needs and cooperating with your partner in getting them met. Your partner is not in the relationship to take care of you; his or her role is to be responsive to your needs, your role is to be responsive to his or hers.
Your partner can not make you “happy.” You can not make your partner “happy.” But you join forces and make happiness possible for each other by being emotionally and physically responsive, and by each of you taking full responsibility for creating your own outcomes.
- Taking Care of Yourself: You can best take care of yourself by being responsible for getting your own needs met. In addition, you are not taking good care of your partner if you enable him or her to not take care of himself or herself. You can practice mutuality by asking your partner to cooperate in meeting your needs, you by responding cooperatively when your partner asks you.
Taking care of yourself means not mindreading your partner or anticipating his or her needs, and not expecting your partner to mindread or anticipate your needs. Do not try make Life “OK” for anyone but yourself, and do not expect anyone to make Life “OK” for you. Realize only you can make yourself happy. In addition, take care of yourself means making it a priority to maintain a balance in your life between your own needs, and the needs of your partner, children, employer, etc.
- Telling Your Truth: Communicate your issues, wants, needs, feelings, and boundaries honestly and directly. Do not avoid conflict to protect yourself or your partner’s feelings. It must be OK, indeed it is necessary for you to have issues, needs, boundaries, feelings, and you must tell the truth about them. Communicate your truth firmly, lovingly, pro-actively, effectively. Communicate your truth responsibly so that it neither offends nor results in an unproductive conflict.
Doing Your Work: A healthy, fulfilling relationship is mostly self-work. Continously strive to live consciously, push beyond your upper limit, refine your relationship skills, heal your emotional issues, control your knee-jerk reactions and projections, let go of your need to be in control, heal the past, let go of your parents, bring down defenses, handle fears, and increase your capacity for unconditional love.