14 Secrets to a Great Relationship
2. Courageous openness.
Posted Nov 13, 2015
There are so many places for couples to get advice on what behaviors make a great relationship thrive, and last. Endless blogs, books, and articles offer suggestions about how intimate partners can be successful. Yet, even when they embrace great communication, sexual regeneration, trust, and endurance during the tough times, little more than 50 percent seem to make it long-term.
There is equally as much information about what can sabotage a relationship, how to avoid disasters before they occur, and new data that has rarely been addressed before. Because of the openness of personal information about so many populations, most people can find their place in almost every kind of relationship description.
Yet, so many are still struggling to find the right person, build a quality relationship, and hold on to it. They read the right books, practice the meaningful suggestions, and commit to making things better, yet still can’t seem to capture the essence of what makes a great relationship.
As a relationship therapist for more than four decades, I’ve watched these sources of advice come and go. I’ve seen which skills work and which don’t. Highly-respected relationship gurus have seen their ideas wax and wane as the media waves its biased wand.
I’ve also seen many couples in great relationships that don’t follow the popular advice, yet prosper anyway. They get that the well-worn suggestions are important, but know that they’re not enough. They have found their own ways to interact that are not commonly talked about.
In the last few years, I’ve watched these outliers more carefully, paying close attention to the subtle interactions that make them special. I’ve kept track of many of them for a decade or more, just to be certain that what I’ve noticed holds over time. Beyond mastering the skills of quality interactions, they practice a way of being together that is uniquely and emotionally reverent. These behaviors are not always obvious but they are rarely missing.
Below I share 14 of the underlying behaviors of partners who not only stay together, but get closer and more committed to each other over time. Praise yourself if you already practice them in your relationship, but don’t disparage your own efforts even if some of these are missing:
- They don’t share private knowledge of each other without permission.
With the Internet’s many open options for communication, there is hardly anything anyone can do or say that is not in some data bank, somewhere, and often forever. Even information shared in person-to-person contact can be taken out of turn in another situation, even innocently. Partners who deeply respect each other’s vulnerable secrets keep those between them. They don’t tell anyone anything the other partner hasn’t agreed what, or with whom, can be shared outside of the relationship. That honoring of individual boundaries results in a trust that each can rely upon. It is potentially humiliating if one partner finds out that the other has told someone something that is private and ends up in the company of the other confidante. That is especially troubling when the person betrayed finds out about it at some later time.
- They have courageous openness.
It is sometimes difficult to share emotions or thoughts with an intimate partner that might hurt or distance him or her. Truth can hurt, even when it is intentional. But unresolved anger, resentment, confusion, sorrow, or fear that partners withhold from each other can do much more damage over time if it is not shared. Unfortunately, many people, fearful that what they say will be heard incorrectly or used against them, keep those feelings inside. They may, instead, try to figure out the relationship in their own heads, rather than directly working it out with their partners. Couples who accept and embrace the fact that they can only heal what they can see, want to face whatever distress, embarrassment, or threatening thoughts they might have at any time. They want to know, no matter how much the relationship may need work, as soon as there is potential damage possible. They know that avoiding issues is much more likely to result in bigger problems down the line.
- They respect and honor unequal appetites.
No couple I’ve ever seen has exactly the same needs at any time, or feels exactly the same intensity when they do occur. Whether it’s about sexual frequency, social attachments, external family obligations, distribution of assets, personal availability, or external unshared interests, great partners don’t invalidate the other’s desires. They know that they must love each other when they don’t always get what they want, and they are committed to being fair when they negotiate their differences.
- They hold the same commitment to their mutually created relationship rules.
Underlying every great relationship is a couple’s parallel commitment to the same basic values that are unique to that relationship. Knowing that people change, they also keep those beliefs up to date, and don’t change their behaviors without checking in first. Voting up front is a guarantee for both of them so that there are no negative surprises or hidden exclusions. They can, and often do, disagree about how to go about manifesting those basic agreements, but they each know that those mutual agreements are the foundation that keeps their trust in each other alive.
- They keep an emotional “red phone” connection available at all times.
All couples argue and feel deep hurt and anger when they can’t seem to satisfy the other without giving up self. But, even in the midst of the most difficult moments, if either partner is in trouble, those resentments are instantly replaced with compassion and support. When faced with unexpected sorrow or significant loss of any kind, each partner knows that the other will be there unconditionally. That underlying support is not only guaranteed, but grows stronger each time it is called upon.
- They personally experience each other’s sorrow.
Even when the relationship is strained, partners in great relationships always care about the other’s pain. As soon as the issues between them settle, they immediately move to the other partner’s side and try to help heal the hurt, even if the issue between them has caused it. Even when the other can’t take in the caring right away, they don’t stop offering it until it can be received. There is genuine remorse and sorrow that intense personal needs can, and often do, temporarily get in the way of compassion and support of the other. They also maintain an emotional record of those hurtful moments, always working to lessen them and replace them with better interactions in the future.
- They practice mutual emotional chivalry.
Sacrifice is often required in great relationships, but martyrdom and resentment can annul the positive effects of that kind of one-sided generosity. Partners who love each other deeply give from the heart whenever they can, even when that sacrifice may require giving up of their own needs at the time. Both partners do not take unfair advantage of the other’s offerings, and keep a compassionate tally. They know that sometimes one partner must give more than the other, but there is no fear that won’t be reciprocated or not appreciated in the long run.
- They trust each other’s good intentions.
Everyone is self-centered and self-promoting at times and all behaviors are driven by a combination of altruism and selfishness at any one time. But people who trust each other’s basic selves, know that the underlying commitment to care for the other is always underneath and available. Both partners support the other’s right to be self-serving when they need to assert their priorities or needs, but they also know that they can ask for the sacrificing of those behaviors if they are in trouble. Even when there are pressing and mutually exclusive needs, the partners never fault one another for having them.
- They expect each other to be courageous and strong when needed.
Anyone can fall apart when stresses accumulate and resources diminish. The partners in great relationships are automatically sympathetic and compassionate when crises occur, but they do expect, and lean on each other’s strengths. Even when tragedy strikes, they are courageous in their teamwork to fight the challenges together, knowing that each will do his or her part to help in the best way they can. There is the expectation that each stays as strong as they can, but if either folds, the other is there to carry the load.
- They are committed to loving each other more deeply after each rupture.
Cynicism and pre-defeat are the true enemies of long-term love. They create thickening walls of withholding and self-protection. Great couples understand the dangers of not coming through hurt and misunderstandings with more clarity, insight, and renewed commitment. With each conflict that may threaten their relationship, they push to rectify wrongs and to learn from their mistakes. They are committed to starting each new interaction armed with greater understanding, undefeated by what they’ve lost in the past.
- They believe that the other is committed to doing the best he or she can.
So many intimate relationships end because one partner thinks that the other isn’t trying as hard as they could to make things better. Great couples know, trust, and care for each other so deeply, that they believe their partners are doing the best they can in each circumstance. Many behaviors can be changed, especially if people work hard at them, but some are harder to alter. Sometimes, no matter how hard someone works at something, he or she can only change so much. The last thing they need is to be pushed harder in areas that they already know they are less than okay. They give and receive hall passes for the things they cannot accomplish and know they are deeply appreciated for what they can.
- They are in it for the long haul.
The couples in great relationships literally never want to lose each other. They are simply not willing to risk the relationship by doing anything that would cause it to permanently rupture. They feel connected in each other’s hearts and experience a chosen inter-dependence that makes both of them better people for loving each other. Together, they make together more of the sum of their individual parts.These behavioral commitments are crucial to the fabric of every great relationship. They may not be widely advertised or routinely talked about, but they are unmistakably present. All relationships have their share of heartbreaks and ruptures, but people who deeply love each other don’t run away or shut each other out when their relationship is in trouble. When things go awry, they try harder to do what it takes to work out their problems and keep their love alive.
- They never kick the other when they're down.
Long-time lovers are in tune with each other’s failings and self-criticisms. They try to never make the other feel embarrassed or humiliated when he or she can’t live up to expectations of self or the other. When one partner feels down on him or herself already, the other doesn’t add to that pain and stays supportive. Part of the core trust of a relationship is that the partners know how much pain each other feels when they fail, and will not add anything that might increase that sadness or frustration.
- They treasure each other’s presence in their lives.
They know that tomorrow is a fantasy and that true security is an illusion. When they leave each other, they are very aware that seeing each other again is not an automatic conclusion. Goodbyes are always accompanied by that realization and when they see each other again, they are deeply grateful. People who have suffered great loss automatically know this, but it is a lesson well understood and remembered.
There are many more relevant relationship behaviors that I’ve seen, just not as often as these 14 that show up again and again in resilient relationships that don’t fold under stress, or weaken through challenge. The partners in these unions know what they have, know that it is rare, and do everything they can to keep it that way.
Dr. Randi’s free advice e-newsletter, Heroic Love, shows you how to avoid the common pitfalls that keep people from finding and keeping romantic love. Based on over 100,000 face-to-face hours counseling singles and couples over her 40-year career, you’ll learn how to zero in on the right partner, avoid the dreaded “honeymoon is over” phenomenon, and make sure your relationship never gets boring.