Many factors determine how and why a relationship comes into being, and whether or not it continues over the course of time or is severed. The determinants that make up who we are, how we see the world, what we expect from life, and how we’ve learned to relate to others inevitably have a huge hand in the formation of our intimate relationships. In the best-case scenario, we find partners who enhance our existence; they are truly there for us “for better or worse.”
That most of us will have a few “learning experiences” before we settle down with someone who is on the same page with us is pretty much a given. While it’s clear that experience is a great teacher, taking the “lessons learned” into any new relationship is a crucial step. If you don’t leave old beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors behind, they will inevitably come back to haunt you. Simply put, you will continue to find people who will allow you to repeat all of your old patterns, and as much as you may want to blame them for whatever doesn’t work out, the bulk of the responsibility rests with you and your choices.
Take a moment to reflect on relationships you’ve had. I’m sure you remember what you didn’t like about a given person, or why a relationship didn’t work out. Now think about what you did like, even if it’s just one small thing. And think about what you admire in other people's relationships.
So now let’s just focus on a few of the essential building blocks that help create and sustain healthy, fulfilling, and, yes, great relationships.
1. Trust. Our first essential task, according to Erickson’s theory of the psychosocial stages of life, involves trust versus mistrust. It should be no surprise that our first goal in life is to master trust, since that is the basis for all of our relationships moving forward. For many of us, our earliest experiences have been positive enough to allow us to adopt a trusting attitude. Some, though, have great difficulty with this, perhaps as a result of instability, inconsistency, invasion of boundaries, or even actual threat of harm or alienation. Mistrust can manifest in isolation and avoidance of intimacy.
2. Commitment. Once trust is established, our focus shifts to a decision about whom we will invite to share ourselves and our lives with; those to whom we will commit our full attention, time, and energy. Commitment is reserved for only those people who have proven that they are capable of sticking around for the long haul and are ready, willing, and able to share themselves with us, and to have us do the same. Think loyalty.
3. Intimacy. This means that we care enough and are comfortable enough to share all aspects of ourselves. We feel the desire to open our soul to someone who cares enough about us to understand and support us fully in most everything we do. Intimacy implies vulnerability: We are willing to show parts of ourselves we are not so sure about—our weaknesses, our neuroses, and the things we like least about ourselves. We feel down deep that the ones we choose to have in our lives know us and accept us, warts and all.
4. Respect. The word literally means “regard,” or “to look back at.” Interesting, since most of us would probably say that respect has come to mean a kind of veneration—having a deep reverence for someone or something. And certainly, those with whom we are most intimate deserve this, as do we. But the origin of the word shows us something very different. When it comes to an intimate relationship, it’s about the mutual mirroring of emotions, feelings, and beliefs. Respect says, “What I see in you I hold as just as important as what I see in myself.”
5. Communication. This can mean any kind of transmission between people, including non-verbal. We are all too familiar with times when our communication seems to be at cross-purposes. People are talking, but not really listening; their own agenda is far too important to include someone else’s. Good communication is facilitated by trust, commitment, and respect. We communicate in a healthy relationship for a common purpose; which also, by the way, is what the word actually means. We are trying to express how we feel and what we believe in, and we need to do so in an environment that is safe, supportive, accepting, and loving; one that is totally free of judgment, criticism, alienation, and anguish.
6. Empathy. In essence, empathy means being able to feel and understand, as well as anyone can feel and understand anyone other than themselves. And it means being able to walk in someone else’s shoes. Once you intimately understand and experience another, the ability to feel what they feel (as close to the way they actually feel it), to know what they’re thinking (almost reading their mind), and to understand how they process what is happening to them becomes easier.
7. Equality. The “division of labor” may vary during the course of any relationship, but equality here implies that each partner carries the same weight; each has a “vote” in decision-making about such essential things as the values you live by, and establishing a quality of life in sync with the ideals and beliefs of each partner. No partner should ever overshadow the other; each should learn to practice flexibility and compromise.
Needless to say, each of us must learn and apply each of these qualities to ourselves first and foremost. When we trust ourselves, our judgment, and what we believe, when we respect and honor ourselves in all we do, when we commit to being the best we can be and continue on that course for a lifetime, when we can converse, commune, and communicate with ourselves, when we are intimate with ourselves, practicing openness, honesty, and integrity, when we are empathetic to ourselves, practicing kindness, patience, and understanding, and when we are aware of ourselves as equal and sacred to all other beings, then are we able to enter into partnership with another to the fullest and most satisfying extent.