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7 Essential Keys to a Successful Relationship

6. Treat each other as special.

Twin Sails/Shutterstock
Source: Twin Sails/Shutterstock

It is distressing when a patient tells me that they have never observed—or experienced—what they consider to be a successful romantic relationship. Statements like, “Maybe good relationships just don’t exist," or, "No one in my family ever had a good relationship” usually follow such a declaration. Many patients enter psychotherapy because of relationship difficulties. Some eventually feel that they are doomed to always have trouble or fail in their effort to enjoy a successful romantic partnership.

My disheartened patients often tell me that the trajectory of their romantic lives has been downhill. Frustrations and disappointments develop in long-term relationships as early as a few years—sometimes even a few months—after the honeymoon ends and “normal life” begins. One patient told me that he and his wife suffered from the marital equivalent of a “postpartum depression that never ended.” Frequently, in order to comfort themselves, it seems, people in this situation suggest that the downward trajectory is “standard” and “everyone’s experience.” But I fear that these assertions, while primarily designed to self-soothe, also confirm the belief that any long-term romantic relationship is likely to be a doomed enterprise. When I comment that it's normal for relationships to change over time, and that change does not necessarily imply that a relationship turns from positive to negative—or when I mention that some relationships actually deepen and improve with age—some patients look at me in disbelief.

Through my work, I have had the satisfaction of seeing positive outcomes when two people work hard at relationship self-improvement. This facilitates my conviction about what may be possible—a perspective that patients in distress, especially in the beginning of the therapeutic process, often lack.

Following are 7 ingredients I find can help to establish—and sustain—a positive and successful romantic partnership:

1. Handling anger and avoiding arguments.

A major problem with anger and the resulting arguments is that neither partner does much, if anything, to avoid them. Perhaps motivated by the need to prevail, or be “right,” about the conflict-arousing issue, one partner “takes the bait” and gets sucked into an argument that could have been avoided if one of them had seen to it that the conversation—however emotionally charged—had remained conversational or been postponed until calm was restored. This is not always easy, but certainly possible.

2. Listening to each other.

This is extremely important. Couples in conflict are often so busy preparing their indictment of the other person, or their defense of themselves, that they simply do not listen or hear what is being said. Thus, their responses are often not responses at all, but just statements that may be entirely unrelated to what was just said to them. This is one of the main reasons why so many couples repeatedly recycle the same arguments and rarely, if ever, feel as though any conversation (or “attack and defend” exchange) accomplishes anything. Couples often need help to learn to listen to each other so that the dynamic between them changes to one that is productive. That is the job of good therapy.

3. Saying “I’m sorry."

I continue to be amazed at how difficult this is for so many people, both in and out of romantic partnerships. I often hear statements like, “I know it’s the right thing to do, and I feel sorry: I just can’t say it!” Such responses suggest the likelihood that the individual might feel “weak” or “defeated” if they publicly acknowledge sorrow or regret.

4. Expressing gratitude.

When partners feel and express gratitude or appreciation for each other, each feels cherished and valued—and it enhances the relationship. Expressions of appreciation do not have to be confined to major gestures or actions. “Thank you, honey, for feeding the dog," or, "I really appreciate your picking up my prescription,” can be just as meaningful as a thank-you for a monumental gift or kindness.

5. Changing.

Yes, changing. By this I refer to what might be considered the “little things” that become big when they persist over time. These are the kinds of changes that, with some effort, might be easy to accomplish and deliver far greater dividends than the investment required to achieve them. If a wife tells her husband, for example, that she really appreciates getting a greeting card on her birthday and anniversary, I am bewildered by his seeming refusal to gratify her, regardless of whether or not it means anything to him. If a husband informs his wife that he does not want to be interrupted by phone calls while at the gym, unless there is an emergency, I am similarly bewildered by her not cooperating and calling about nonessential matters during that time. When people feel ignored or, worse, devalued by their partners, resentments develop that can become toxic.

6. Treating each other as special.

A wife once complained that upon leaving a party, her husband helped every other woman guest on with her coat—except her. When she questioned him about this, his reply was, “Well, that’s because you’re my wife!” Her response: “That’s the point!” That she felt taken for granted was not surprising. Moments like this may be insignificant if they are infrequent, but if they typify an attitude or are common in the relationship, they have the potential to cause diminished regard and affection for the offending partner.

7. Hurting with words.

The damage potential of comments made in the heat of battle is extremely high. There is a tendency on the part of the offending partner to dismiss or trivialize those remarks afterward. Saying, “I didn’t really mean it, I was just angry,” often makes things worse, especially if there is no sincere apology attached. Words can cause wounds that may not easily heal when calm is restored. They are often referenced when a subsequent argument occurs, i.e., “I’ll never forget the time you told me, ‘Drop dead.’”

These are but a few of what might be considered “ingredients” of a successful romantic relationship—and, perhaps, any relationship, especially ones that may involve conflict. Every one of these ingredients is best used by both partners when, above all else, they remember that the person with whom they are having conflict may be the very person whom they love the most, and who loves them the same way.

For more, please see my follow-up post 7 More Essential Keys to a Successful Relationship.

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