Relationships

Ten Crucial Behaviors That Nurture Intimacy

These vital behaviors form the crux of sustaining and regenerating love.

Posted Oct 15, 2018

Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock
Source: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

Many committed couples come into therapy concerned that the magic of their early love is waning, and wanting to know what they can do to reignite it.  

Whether they have been together six months or several years, they feel the same way. They’ve watched their friend’s relationships fall apart, because they waited too long to get help, and they don’t want to succumb to the same outcome.

Many of these couples have tried everything they could do on their own before seeking therapy. They’ve read countless articles and self-help books, and followed every piece of advice. Some have attended multiple relationship workshops or entered into their own personal therapeutic journeys. Others have tried trial separations, spiritual guidance, or even significant lifestyle changes, doing whatever they could to work their way out of how they feel. Yet, they are still struggling.  

By the time they come to see me, they realize that they are fighting more often and taking longer to heal. Their resources are dwindling more rapidly than they can restore them. Crises that they once could easily resolve now trigger deeper fears and anxieties. They know their relationship could be in serious trouble if they don’t do something that works to bring back the love they once knew.  

Some are truly at the end of their rope and just want help in ending their relationship with as much honor as they can. But most who come in are still fully in the game. They truly want to regenerate their love, to put their sorrows behind them, and to know they can have faith in a better future together.

The pathway back is not easy. When a couple is at this state of relationship exhaustion, it takes significant commitment and courage to go through the sorrows that have brought them to that place. They have to have faith that wading through those initial therapy sessions will be worth it.

It would have been so much better if they had known what they could have done to protect their love before it began to falter. Had they known the crucial behaviors that protect love, they could have put them into effect earlier and not suffered so needlessly.

I’ve spent four decades interacting with individuals and couples, observing and learning what those behaviors are and how to teach them to couples at the beginning of their relationship. The partners who master them have not only kept their love intact, but have watched it grow deeper over time.

As you read through these next 10 behaviors, you may each want to score where you are now from 1 to 10 to create a baseline from which to compare your changes over the next few months. If "1" translates to the fact that you never do that behavior and "10" means that you already practice that skill, pick the number that best describes where each of you is currently on that continuum. That way, you can compare that number each week to track your progress.

1. Living in the Heart and Mind of Your Partner

Trust is one of the most basic components of every successful relationship. Those that fully honor the set of attitudes and behaviors do not act differently when they are away from their partners than they would when they are in each other’s presence. That is especially true if any of those behaviors could cause the other partner to be hurt, even if those experiences might never emerge. Whether shared or not, they will negatively affect the relationship.

In relationships that continue to regenerate and thrive, both partners know that they are still representing the other in all they say and do, whether they are together or apart.

2. Keeping Private Knowledge in Confidence

Intimate partners tell each another many things that they might never tell another. They do so having faith that those thoughts, feelings, or behaviors will be held in confidence, and never shared without the knowledge and consent of the other partner.

Both also know that they can tell one another vulnerable experiences from the present or from the past, without fearing that knowledge will ever be used against them by their partner or by an outside person.

When those secret pacts are held firmly, both partners will continue to share openly. That trusted confidante relationship allows the partners to continue searching within themselves and between each other for deeper and more shared transparent experiences.

3. The Acceptance of Imperfections

Most people will begin to withhold intimacy over time if their partners express mockery, disdain, suspicion, anxiety, or prejudice when they reveal difficult or embarrassing mistakes.

When love is new, people rarely criticize their partners when they share these vulnerable experiences. Sadly, as relationships mature, many partners may forget how fragile those “confessions” are, and may bring them to light irreverently or insensitively at later times. If that happens, the other partner will pull back, wondering if it is safe to continue opening up in the future.

In relationships that grow in intimacy, both partners know that they can always go to each other confident that their imperfections will be received without judgment.

4. Freedom to Differ

Compatibility usually implies that the partners in an intimate relationship just “get along.” Most people strive for that harmony in as many areas as they can. But successful partners know that differences are also an important part of their relationship. They realize that new thoughts and behaviors, even if they are at odds with comfort, add sparkle to their partnership and challenge them to learn new ways of being together.

New lovers often make the mistake of avoiding or failing to recognize any differences between them that might threaten the relationship. When understandable and predictable differences finally do emerge, they haven’t learned how to navigate them. That is often the reason for the unfortunate six-month’s bump that so many couples experience when they fear that they are incompatible. That relationship might have worked had the couple openly talked about those differences when their love was in abundance.

Differences and discovery are intertwined characteristics of all truly intimate relationships. In order to take advantage of the excitement they provide, couples have to know how to welcome them and successfully weave them into their relationship.

5. Not Taking Anything for Granted

The emotion most often correlated with satisfaction and happiness in all phases of life is wonder. When people feel wonder, they experience perspective and a sense of deep gratefulness to have each other. If intimate partners stop feeling that magic, they begin to lose that emotional gratitude and start taking each other for granted.

Partners who stay in love realize that there is no certainty, and that they can never know that they will see each other again when they part even for a day. That awareness keeps them blessing each new chance and maintains the wonder that all successful relationships continue to experience.

Intimate partners who always remember that their presence in each other’s lives is not a guarantee, and that great relationships are re-created anew every day, stay more tuned in to that realization and recommit each day they are together.

6. Courage in the Face of Threats to the Relationship

There is not a single relationship that doesn’t face challenges. Even the most well-intentioned of partners can make mistakes, and some of those may threaten the future of the relationship. The way intimate partners resolve those challenges can make or break even the most beautiful of relationships.

Some threats come from inside the relationship. For example, many partners go through their own intrapersonal issues that may create fear, anxiety, and uncertainty, which can transfer to the relationship if their partners are not available to help resolve them. A partner who must face internal heartbreak, insecurity, or loss and cannot share it with the other ends up feeling abandoned, left to resolve that crisis on his or own.

Threats can also come from unexpected crises from the outside that may overwhelm the couple’s resources. Long illnesses, accidents, financial or personal losses, shattered dreams, or natural disasters can easily obliterate and deeply threaten the once-sturdy bond of even deeply committed partners.

People who love each other make sure that they keep each other well-informed of their internal conflicts and confusions, and pull together when unexpected disasters loom from the outside. They are committed to prevention, experts at damage control, and are able to shift their priorities when either partner needs that support.

7. Keeping Perspective

The pressures and demands of daily life can easily allow love relationships to forget the most important reasons they are together. Successful long-term partners keep those feelings close at hand.

Whether mired in repeated negative interactions or faced with an unexpected and unpredictable crisis, every couple must intend and commit to remembering what keeps their love alive. Many truly wonderful relationships can die from a thousand little uncaring or thoughtless actions that mount up over time.

In these days of ever-changing and emotionally turbulent times, it has become even more important for committed partners to practice love-perspective rituals much more frequently. Some couples renew their vows every so often to remind each other of where they’ve been, where they are now, and what they want from the relationship in the future.

8. Havens of Healing

When people are newly in love, they see each other as islands of safety, secure in knowing that they will find comfort and forgiveness if they are frightened or insecure.

People who know how to stay in love truly understand that no matter what they must face in their lives together, they can count on their partner to be fully present and available if that emotional red telephone call sounds a crisis of any kind.

In order for intimate partners to continue to remain havens of healing for each other, they must make certain that they protect those connections that keep that faith alive, ever-ready to be present and available whenever their partners need them.  

9. Belief in the Other’s Inherent Value

Successful stay-in-love partners all share one irrefutable relationship quality: They irrevocably believe in each other’s basic goodness.

In many long-term relationships, that certainty may waver. If either partner feels they are on trial for their core worth, they will become defensive, pleading for their inherent value.

When the partners in a long-term relationship feel they have lost that certainty of irrefutable value in the eyes of the other, they will not be able to maintain their commitment or closeness. There is a formidable difference between challenged for an error that is healable and being told that one is basically flawed. The former is resolvable; the latter is not.  

People who stay in love do not let minor irritations define the core of their partner’s inherent value. They face the things that offend or disappoint each other and see them as behaviors to work through, rather than labeling their partner as innately worthless in any way.

10. Recognizing That Love Is Not Ownership

Of all of the quality relationships I have had the privilege of observing, the principle of non-ownership is always present. Those partners who live and believe in it do not see their partner as a possession. They are totally committed to each other’s happiness, whether it is within their current relationship or may someday need to come from somewhere else.

They know that if they exhibit insecurity, jealousy, competitiveness, or territoriality towards their partners, they are not thinking of what might be best for the other. All of those thoughts and behaviors are expressions of the same need: to control the availability of the other partner.

It is both human and natural to want the security that the other partner will never abandon the relationship. But intimate partners who truly love one another do not allow those needs to take precedence if they entrap the other.   

Coercion, threats, pleadings, or demands will not change those feelings, and they are likely to have a more deleterious effect. To love fully is to commit to the other partner’s well-being, even if it means letting them go.

An interesting observation: I have not yet, in my four decades of doing therapy with couples, witnessed couples who love this way ever losing the love they have created between them. Non-ownership love seems to create a remarkable bond of support and trust. Within its existence, partners are free to express their deepest desires. They can talk over whatever each needs to experience without defensiveness, reactivity, or judgment.

That freedom within commitment is a wondrous combination and those who have achieved it know how rare it is. That understanding seems to bond them together, whether their relationship continues or ends.  

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These crucial 10 behaviors form the crucible of sustaining and regenerating love. Yes, it also helps if there is continued emotional and physical attraction, acceptance of the other partner’s foibles and fancies, and continued discovery and intrigue. But when these behaviors are practiced as an integral part of the relationship, all other mismatches or differences are easier to resolve.

All of these behaviors are related, and they integrate and support the outcome as they meld. That means that as partners get better at each one of them, they automatically become better at the others as well.

There is an additional bonus. When people practice these behaviors in their personal love relationship, they begin to practice them across the board in all of their interactions. That process continues their mastery of the most important components of successful relationships everywhere in their lives.