Despite the readily-available relationship advice, relationship-seekers are too often finding that what they expect to experience and what actually happens, rarely match up.
Undaunted, most of them continue to seek and master the skills that they feel will fulfill the promise of lasting love. Yet, in over forty years of working with individuals and couples, I have sadly watched their repeated disappointments when seemingly hopeful relationships just don’t work out. They wonder what they are missing.
I believe I know what is missing and how they can win this battle. It is just a matter of looking in the wrong place. I truly believe that, no matter how much effort and energy people put into mastering complicated and diverse relationship skills, they often overlook the more basic and crucial behaviors that enduring love requires.
Without these basic behaviors, no couple can deepen and maintain a long-term relationship. No matter how hard they search, learn, and practice, they can never obtain enough “How-To” instruction manuals. Unless people remember and master the core of these basic, successful relationship behaviors, the smorgasbord of available dating options will not produce the kind of partnership they want and deserve.
The ten behaviors I’m going to describe must be at the core of an intimate partnership and they have always existed in quality relationships, independent of time, era, or culture. They are both forever old-fashioned and ever-new. And, they absolutely work.
As you read through each of the ten behaviors, you may want to share your feelings with your current partner and tell one another how you would rate yourselves on them as your relationship now stands. If you are not in a relationship at this time, you can still evaluate how you have practiced them in past relationships and how you can incorporate them in future ones.
Please don’t judge yourself negatively if you have not put all of these behaviors into practice. Most people are good at some of them and not as good at others, and can do them better at some times than others, and with some partners better than with others. The good news is that anyone can get better over time with practice.
So often in my work with couples, one or both partners “cry injustice” when they feel they feel they are being treated unfairly by the other partner. They complain to me in sessions about inequities, double-standards, power-grabs, guilt manipulations, unkept promises, broken agreements, and one-way selfishness.
Most of these disappointed and disillusioned reactions arise out of misunderstandings. At other times, they come from hastily promised behaviors that are not well thought out and not fulfilled that undermine trust and faith in future encounters.
Fair relationship partners want their significant others to feel that they are being given a fair shake in the resolution of conflicts. They authentically and pro-actively negotiate the terms of what each partner wants or needs, making sure that they can talk openly about what drives their individual behaviors. Those respectful interactions create the foundation for fairness to thrive.
2. Respect for Vulnerability
As relationship partners get to know each other better over time, they are usually given access to each other’s emotional nakedness. They have likely shared their most vulnerable experiences, thoughts, and feelings with each other. Those admissions, confessions, and disclosures, have often been shared in intimate moments and some have never been confessed to any other partner.
Knowing these potentially embarrassing feelings or past experiences render each partner vulnerable to being more susceptible to being wounded if they are used as ammunition during a conflict. Partners who have been given access to the other’s inner world know what expressions or behaviors can wound, and those that can heal.
People who treasure and honor other’s sacred places do not use that information to harm the other. They know they have the power of an emotional laser beam that has the potential to hurt or heal. They point that symbolic beam with clear intention and take full responsibility for the outcome.
Parents of small children know what it is like to be up all night with a sick kid. When the fever finally breaks, and the child is able to sleep, they feel exhausted, but not resentful, grateful to have been able to do what they’ve done.
Being able to sacrifice without martyrdom or the need for pay-back is the basis of chivalry. The satisfaction for that kind of giving comes from doing the deed itself. There is no expected payback or holding the other in debt for that service.
No one can be chivalrous at every moment, or in every case, nor should it always be required, even in a quality relationship. But partners who know they can count on the other to be there for them when times are hard, feel a core security that cannot exist without that reliance. The sense of safety intimate partners feel when they have that guarantee also makes them feel generous in return.
There are times, in every relationship, when one partner has to stay chivalrous without rest or restitution for a long period of time. To keep their natural tendency to feel over-used at bay, they must have a deeply appreciative partner on the other end of them. They absolutely trust that, if the situation were reversed, the same sacrifices would be guaranteed.
4. Respect for the Beliefs of the Other Partner
No matter how compatible they might be, intimate partners often do not always share all of the same beliefs, desires, or opinions. Some of their thoughts and actions may be directly in conflict and successfully negotiated or accepted as they are.
Having respect for the other’s partner’s way of experiencing life is crucial to any quality relationship. Many people believe that successful partners must agree on everything that is important. But, even in quality relationships, there may be crucial differences that are not easily negotiable. Those situations are more difficult for relationship partners to weather and resolve. Listening, exploring, and stretching beyond biases and prejudices are absolutely necessary to ensure a good outcome.
Couples often tell me that they feel that if they agree to the other’s thoughts, that they will be bound to agree with them. Those two responses do not have to go together. Giving the other partner support does not have to require automatic agreement, but does require willing listening and understanding. When both people in a relationship welcome and make room for each other’s different thoughts and feelings, they often each grow more personally flexible through that process.
For many years, researchers have been trying to help people raise their basic happiness level. They’ve recommended behaviors like focusing on blessings, looking at the cup half-full, and glossing over things that are not important to help people feel joyful more of the time.
But striving for either continuous individual or partnership happiness doesn’t always work in an ongoing relationship. Sometimes it is actually the other partner that is challenging the other’s well-being. Those discrepancies can easily lead to conflict and cause temporary estrangement.
Given, then, that all relationship partners are bound to struggle at times, it is more important to focus on how quickly they can resolve and recover from those disputes. That is what resiliency is.
All relationships also have competing percentages of positive to negative interactions. Certainly, those that have a higher proportion of negative experiences undermine a couple’s ability to bounce back quickly. The fallout from too many damaging disputes creates a harder path to reconnection for both partners. Couples who know how important it is to reconnect after a disagreement work hard to put them behind them as quickly as they can.
6. Individual Commitment to Personal Health
Great relationship partners do not expect their mates to tolerate self-destruction or the unwillingness to change those behaviors. Partners who start to take responsibility for the other’s self-harm or neglect may think they are helping. But it is one thing to be a caring and supportive partner, and another to try to enforce dietary restrictions, exercise, medications, or addictive behaviors. Especially if those responses are ineffective.
It is especially difficult for a concerned partner to help when he or she is directly affected by the other’s continuing self-harm. Trying to be compassionate while feeling let down or sabotaged is a hard path for anyone, and unfair if the behavior continues unabated.
There are, of course, exceptions. Sometimes a previously health-conscious person buckles under the pressure of a serious illness or impending loss. These are the times when indulging the ailing partner is totally appropriate. They do not want to add criticism to what may already be an anguishing burden.
Sadly, there are times when partners are so attached in other important ways, that they cannot leave the relationship, even as they helplessly watch their self-destructive partners harm or neglect themselves. At those times, it is crucial that they maintain their own self-care, even if it means letting go of trying to help them.
7. Team First
Successful committed partners carefully balance their own self-development with loyalty to the relationship. They encourage each other to do whatever they need to do for personal transformation, but not at the expense of the relationship.
Trust is part of the basic foundation of any quality relationship. The agreements that keep trust alive must be followed by both partners. In order for the relationship to thrive, both partners must both agree as to what behaviors are ethical and moral. Both partners trust that the others will maintain those behaviors even when they are not in each other’s presence.
Relationships have only so many resources. Couples must agree as to how they will allocate time, energy, money, availability, and outside experiences. Personal needs or desires that take more of the couple’s combined resources over time will drain the relationship and eventually destroy it.
This relationship behavior requirement may seem to many as obvious, but it is too-often simply assumed to be present when it may not be. People in long-term relationships are likely to begin taking their partners for granted and forget how important it is to practice the consideration they would automatically give to strangers.
Committed relationships should provide a protective haven from the outside; a place where both partners do not have to be on call every minute. But they are not supposed to support words and actions that would not be acceptable or succeed anywhere else. It’s perfectly fine to groan about a hard day, feel irritated and angry that specific requests are not met on time, or express disappointments, but not as a consistent lament.
Everyone has bad days or discouraging interactions. They are part of life. But most people don’t burden outsiders with them in the way they do their significant others. Committed partners, sadly, often are the recipients of behaviors that the others would not express to anyone else. It can be a dubious honor.
Couples in new relationships typically go out of their way to be kind, caring, empathic, and supportive. Love blossoms in that environment. Unfortunately, as relationships mature, many people forget that truth and allow those behaviors to diminish.
Ultimately the best way anyone can truly evaluate self is to compare expressed behaviors to ideal behaviors. Those personal reflections arise from one’s cultural, spiritual, intellectual, physical, and emotional beliefs. They define and determine a person’s judgment of how a “good person” behaves in his or her life, independent of the evaluation of others.
When people don’t live up to those beliefs, they are likely to feel guilt, remorse, and conflict. Those responses will determine whether and when they choose to change the behaviors that create those feelings.
Relationship partners who are conflicted because they are not living according to what they believe do not blame the other partner when they cannot live as they know they should. Instead, they own that disconnect and strive to resolve it. They understand that blaming others for their lack of congruence is an evasion of their personal responsibility, and they recommit to correcting their course.
10. The Commitment to Becoming an Alpha Person
Alpha people are those most of us rely upon. They are known for their capability to maintain emotional stability under stress, to watch over their “tribe,” to successfully settle disputes and to solve problems with acuity and fairness. In essence, they are the ideal parents, actual or symbolically.
These qualities are respected and sought in almost every culture and, similarly, in every successful relationship. Some of us were lucky enough to have nurturers who displayed them, but most of us didn’t have that good fortune. Yet, even without those early, quality lessons, we can still get better at learning and expressing them in our love relationships.
Alpha men and women treat their partners with respect and help them to feel beloved and safe, without indulgence or disingenuousness. They are honest, direct, accountable for their own errors, open to new ideas, and willing to take risks for the betterment of the relationship. They don’t easily fold under pressure and they willingly sacrifice their own needs if the partnership needs that support at the time. (For more, see “Who Are the Keepers?”)