Intimate relationships require continual vigilance and work if they are to be successfully maintained. By “successfully maintained”, I mean that both parties involved are receiving “enough” gratification of their emotional, intellectual, and sexual needs over the long haul.
Because of my personal value system, in addition to my experience in treating couples, I do not believe that a relationship can be nurtured indefinitely if financial gratification is being traded for other, more basic and essential types of gratification. In other words, you can’t buy love forever. If more basic human needs are not being satisfied, the people involved in the relationship will feel hollow, experiencing a deep sense of emptiness in their lives, an emptiness which material goods just doesn’t quite fill up.
It is important to remember that even good relationships have their stormy periods. These troubled times may last a day, a week, or a year. A relationship may no more be perfect than a human may actualize all of his/her potential. The intensity of feelings in a relationship can be expected to fluctuate. That is why continual work and patience is required to maintain a relationship.
Experiences from the family in which one was raised have a great deal of impact upon how two people relate to one another. Hopefully, as a child, both people had the opportunity to observe a successful relationship in their family, be that with their parents, grandparents, or other significant family members. Such a model of a loving relationship is of inestimable value in providing behavioral guidelines and faith that a successful intimate relationship is possible.
People bring into their relationships expectations based to a greater or lesser degree upon experiences, which they had or observed, in their nuclear families. These expectations may or may not be modified in the marital relationship. Whether they are modified depends on how closely the person with the expectation feels the behavior of the other is conforming to that of an earlier family member.
To carry on a successful relationship, three ingredients are necessary. These three ingredients are honesty, communication, and flexibility.
My definition of honesty is very comprehensive. Each person must, first of all, be willing to look at himself or herself and analyze the basis of the desires that they bring into the relationship. Women are especially prone to submerge their opinions or preferences instead of honestly speaking their minds. Women are more likely to sacrifice their best interests. However, this martyr approach is dishonest, and in the end leads to both partners being miserable.
If both partners in a relationship can acknowledge openly that they are motivated by their own best interests, fewer games deleterious to the relationship will be played. Furthermore, if the motives of both parties are easily discernible, an atmosphere conducive to the development of trust will be present.
Communication is a very essential ingredient for a relationship to be successfully maintained. Sharing of the little events of the day, of one’s likes and dislikes, even of trivial events from one’s childhood, all of these help two people grow to learn about and to love one another. Experiences shared over time lead to a genuine understanding of the other person. The more we understand the other person, the less inclined we are to project distortions from previous experiences onto our partner.
Without communication, the benefits of honesty are severely limited. One can be as honest as the day is long, but unless one is sharing with one’s partner, honesty is to little avail in keeping a relationship viable.
One of the problems that can disturb a relationship is the attribution of motives to the other partner. For example, a wife may say, “He really forgot to pick up some milk (the laundry, an anniversary present) because he doesn’t care about me”. Negative attribution of the motives of one’s partner probably stems from one’s memories of unsatisfactory relationships, to which one has been a party in the past. One’s own disappointment is attributed to the deliberate wish of one’s partner to maliciously cause pain. Again, communication (“When in doubt, check it out”) is the only way to alleviate such destructive thinking. No matter how well two people know each other, they cannot and should not be expected to read each other’s minds. If one desires affection, attention, to go out to dinner and a movie, to make love, etc., one should ask. I do not believe that this devalues the activity, unless the person doing the asking chooses to believe the significance is lessened because he or she had to ask.
Without wishing to appear sexist, I do believe that women, on the whole, are more perceptive and nurturing to the desires of men. This is probably due to biological as well as cultural influences. Men, as I tell frustrated wives, often need to be hit repeatedly over the head with a 2x4 before they can sense their wives’ desires. Often establishing certain behaviors as regularly occurring habits helps to decrease the frequency of having to ask, but even with established routine behaviors, the partner will occasionally regress into a self-centered oblivion. This is where the third important ingredient in successful relationships enters into play.
The third important factor in successful relationships is flexibility. I see very few successful relationships where one or the other party is rigid and controlling. One subsidiary of flexibility is acceptance of imperfection in the intimate other.
In a good relationship, each member understands that the other person can forget or occasionally will put work or interacting with another person as a higher priority to the relationship. It’s a fact of life that at times the partner won’t be there physically or emotionally when the other needs comforting or attention. This does not mean that the relationship is a failure, merely that we are all imperfect human beings who can continue to grow and improve, both personally and interpersonally, for as long as we live.
There are many, many other important factors that contribute to both successful and problematic relationships. One suggested reading on this topic is The Intimate Enemy by George Bach and Peter Wyden.
Beaumont Psychological Services, P.C.