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A Surprising Ingredient for Lasting Relationships

Can't live without your partner? That's a problem.

Source: wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock

Knowing you can survive without your relationship is a key step to strengthening it.

Here's why:

Relationships are most likely to fail when we don’t address problems ,or hold our partner accountable for unfair or irresponsible behavior. But it’s difficult to navigate clearly within a relationship that feels necessary to our survival. The strongest relationships are between two people who can live without each other but don’t want to.

Consider the workplace: If you’re dissatisfied with unfair circumstances at work, you can complain to your boss and request a change. You can state your beliefs about unrealistic or unfair demands, and what you would like to see change. But you cannot take a bottom-line position (“I’m simply not able to take on the extra work you gave me”) unless you know that you can survive economically and emotionally without that job.

Romantic relationships are no different.

Marriage and couplehood require that when something really matters, we can take a position and really mean it. Even a small move in this direction requires a great deal of courage. If we take a clear position on a seemingly small issue, we are likely to feel an internal pressure to speak to other larger issues in the relationship.

As we become clearer about what is acceptable and tolerable to us, our partner will also become clearer about where he or she stands and what he or she will and will not do. When we move from non-productive complaining to assertive claiming, we will begin to see both our self and the other person in a sharper light.

If your partner communicates over time, through his or her actions, that they’d sooner get a divorce than seek treatment for addiction, look for a job, or become a fair and responsible mate, you may have some painful choices to make. Do you leave? Do you stay and try to do something different yourself? And if so, what?

As I explain in Marriage Rules, there is always something different and new to do when things get stuck. But these are not easy questions to answer, or even think about.

Being your strongest and best self will give your relationship the best chance of succeeding. Having a clear and courageous voice is not a recipe for divorce, unless your partner truly has no commitment to you, or can only tolerate an overly-accommodating partner.

You need to know in your own heart that you can make it on your own, if necessary. Many people think they can't, but manage to survive without the relationship when they need to. If you think you can’t, put your energy into strengthening your own self and your network of family and friends—a good move whether you stay together or not.

No couple can thrive when the glue that holds the relationship together is anxiety, fear, or shame. The best relationships are committed, but entirely voluntary partnerships.

More from Harriet Lerner Ph.D.
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