What Makes Relationships Work?

Dear Neil:  There are so many failed marriages and/or relationships anymore—including my own—that I would like to know if you could write about what people need to do in order to make their relationship work?   What separates a “normal” relationship—the one most of us have—from a good one?   What is required in order to make a relationship work well?

Longmont, Colorado

Dear Curious:  Here are the behaviors, attitudes and skills that couples who remain happily in love over time tend to have: 

  • Reciprocal give and take.  What I give is moderately equivalent to what I receive.  Its two people being responsive to each other.  I am responsive to you, and I make what’s important to you, important to me.  We have both adopted the assumption of “us” and “we” rather than “you” and “me.”  No one-way street relationships.
  •  Emotional presence.  There is a willingness to share our inner lives with each other, our thoughts, feelings, hopes, hurts, yearnings and fears.  We are nurturing to each other, often best friends, and are generally helpful and compassionate about our partner’s struggles and caring of each other’s and well-being.  We have both taken down our walls and have opened up our hearts to each other—and we keep open hearts toward each other, even in the face of our partner’s insensitivity, withdrawal, anger or mistakes.
  • We treat each other well.  With good will, with an absence of malice and the benefit of doubt.  Our positive, kind, supportive, friendly, compassionate comments and behaviors toward each other far outweigh the critical, angry, judgmental, unfriendly comments and behaviors.  There is an absence of unwarranted hostility, and we don’t regularly dump our negative emotions about other things onto our partner.  We both control our anger and reactivity, and express those appropriately, knowing that we’re not trying to injure love, trust or our partner’s happiness.
  • Trust.  We trust each other and proactively clean up anything in the way of our not being able to trust each other.  This includes each of us behaving in a reliable and trustworthy manner as well.
  • Good communication.  We both open up and share our inner worlds with each other, and we are both good listeners.  We both feel heard and acknowledged by the other.
  • Connection.  We as a couple value the connection between the two of us, and we actively look for ways to further that connection.
  • We create time to be alone together and tend to do things with each other.  We make our intimate relationship a top priority in our lives.
  • Touch.  Touch is the most powerful aphrodisiac that exists.  It brings people closer and keeps them close.  Happy couples tend to be physically affectionate with each other.
  • Stability.  We keep our relationship on solid footing, making sure not to destabilize, threaten or withdraw from each other.  We’ve learned how to be independent without being distant.
  • We both use good conflict resolution, problem solving, negotiating and compromising skills consistently and regularly.
  • We have learned how to have fun together on an ongoing basis.
  • Chemistry.  Both of us understand that being attracted to and desiring each other is like a glue that keeps us close, connected and looking forward to being with each other.


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