I was recently vacationing on a cruise ship where the majority of guests were middle-aged to “young elderly." Of course, there were many single passengers or those traveling with friends and family. But I was drawn to the couples, and there were many. Seeing people who looked as if they’d spent years together got me thinking about just what it was that kept people together for so many years, through so many experiences. Obviously, my own life experience and interest as a psychiatrist colors my personal point of view, and my imagination as well. But I thought that it would be interesting to try to identify some qualities that bind people together and that might help explain what sustains a relationship over the long haul.
Obviously, since everyone’s experience is unique, you may want to identify your own essential qualities. But it is a very telling exercise to see what you consider to be the important elements, the building blocks that keep your relationship cemented together and yet allow for room to grow, for the benefit of you, personally, as well as for the couple.
Here’s my list A to Z of what qualities create a caring relationship.
Adaptable: This is an essential element for living life in general. Adaptability implies the ability to change over time. Life changes all the time, but sometimes the change is huge and requires mustering the strength and fortitude to withstand what happens to us in the midst of change.
Benevolent: This means being kindhearted and compassionate to your partner, which allows for the creation of an environment and a general atmosphere where a partner feels heard and understood.
Conscientious: Relationships need constant attention, work, and tweaking. This implies the recognition that by being consistently attentive to your partner and the life you are building together, you are paving the way to accomplish your goals and most desired achievements.
Dedicated: This quality defines your commitment to yourself and your partner. When you fully commit and give of yourself, you are saying that you’re putting your full energy, desire, and love behind whatever you feel is important to the future of the couple.
Equal: Equal speaks for itself. Each person is an integral part of the relationship, and although there may be certain times and certain projects where one partner takes the lead, on an ongoing basis each person counts as much as the other; one person’s desires and needs are equal to those of their partner.
Flexible: This means that people are capable of change and can move with the flow in order to accomplish whatever is necessary. The opposite would be rigidity and stubbornness, which block the flow of change and keep people stuck in ways that don’t advance the individual partners and/or the couple. Other F words high on my list are faithful, which means staying true to your partner, and friend, a coveted role since it expands the level of feeling you give to those who are tried and true and have your back.
Generous: There are so many ways to be generous. Certainly, you can give gifts, but true generosity means that you freely give of your time, energy, and effort.
Honest: As much as you are able, you share your thoughts and feelings openly. You speak conscientiously from your heart, even if your honesty shakes things up, simply because sometimes that’s what is needed. There are other H words that are high on my list as well. Humor helps enormously. Healthy-living implies the desire to take care of yourself, not only for your own benefit, but for the benefit of the couple as well.
Interested: Maintaining an interest in what your partner enjoys outside of the couple allows them to continue doing what is important to them personally. It adds to the conversation and often engages the other partner in activities and projects they might otherwise not do.
Just: This means being fair to your partner, honoring who they are as an individual apart from the couple.
Kind: Kindness speaks for itself since this is a trait we need to be practicing in general with all people. Everyone deserves consideration and compassion, especially in those times when you may not understand what they are experiencing and when they are difficult to deal with.
Loving: What's an intimate, caring relationship without love?
Mature: This means often taking the high road, trying to understand someone else’s perspective (especially when it’s different from your own), and being able to see into the future for results over the long haul.
Nurturing: When we nurture, we take care of someone’s needs and desires, oftentimes even more than our own. This implies that we offer attention and compassion, things that feed the heart and soul.
Open: This is similar to honesty and says that we keep ourselves aware and willing to take in new ideas and points of view. We keep ourselves available and willing to listen.
Present: This is a very hard thing to do, but awareness and practice help. Being present keeps us focused in the here and now, allowing us to accomplish what is immediately important and necessary. Being present helps us solve/resolve what is right in front of us. The past and the future drop away when we are present. Another P word high on my list is passion — feeling intensely and fervently about something.
Quality: This is the ability to distinguish that high ideal and/or standard may be far more important than quantity. We strive for the best we can achieve as individuals and as a couple in order to better our lives.
Reasonable: We are able to take things into consideration and weigh ideas, beliefs, and perspectives thoughtfully and without prejudice.
Soulful: This implies that we are in touch with our essence, that which makes us uniquely who we are. Bringing our essence, our soul, into a relationship with another enhances the quality of the relationship immeasurably.
Truthful: Although this is similar to honesty, it further implies that we openly express our personal views and feelings, as much as we know them at any point in our life, to the best of our ability.
United: Regardless of differences, the couple agrees to compromise in order to create a united front, to work together for a common goal that ultimately benefits everyone.
Virtuous: We strive for standards that are high-minded, morally and ethically. As individuals and as a couple, we honor those principled standards that are the foundation of what it means to be a human being.
Willing: This means that to the best of your ability you are present and open to meeting the challenges and tasks of life moving forward. It is the ability to want to try.
X-traordinary: Although the nitty-gritty of daily life is enough for most of us to get through, many of us strive for extraordinary moments during the course of a lifetime. The willingness to push and persist in order to achieve these stellar moments during the course of a lifetime may unite a couple in a special way, and may add to a sense of satisfaction and contentment.
Yin/Yang: This may seem a bit odd, but for me, the ability of each partner to develop an appreciation for the male/female within each of us helps us to appreciate our partner’s perspective in a unique way.
Zeal: We wholeheartedly dive into life with enthusiasm and a sense of wonder.
Your list may be very different from mine, but which words you choose may help you to better understand what you’re looking for in your closest relationships. Your A word may be adventurous. Your E word may be emotion. Your I word may be inspiration. There are no "right" words — it’s just what is essential to who you are and what you’re looking for in a partner.
As an exercise, it might be interesting to choose a word/concept that you then work with every day, week, or month to help you refocus on a quality that is important to you in a relationship, but that you might have lost sight of along the way.