This post is the text of a video essay I’ve hosted on YouTube here:
What leads to a nourishing intimate relationship?
What makes a relationship work?
It’s a pretty important question. If we knew the answer — really knew it — and believed it in our bones — it might go a long way toward influencing who we select, how we prepare when single, and how we show up in relationships.
Most people want a healthy, nourishing romantic and intimate relationship. But I think there’s a lot of warranted confusion around what will get us there, because the answer isn’t simple.
When I was younger, I didn’t choose partners or show up in relationships all that consciously, which is fairly typical. When we start out dating, we don’t know what we don’t know, and we assume there can’t be all that much to it. I followed my heart and my butterflies and physical attraction. And while every relationship was a mixed bag of blessings and pain, I think I would have benefited from listening to someone older and wiser giving me a more conscious and rational explanation of what tends to make relationships work — from selecting a good match, to doing the individual inner work needed to show up in a loving way, to doing the hard work of communicating and compromising together.
So in these videos, I’d like to talk about each of these three, fundamental determinants of a successful and nourishing relationship:
- Hard work that we do together with our partner within the relationship
- Compatibility and skillful partner selection
- Hard work that we do individually to heal and become better partners before and during a relationship
My current view is that all three of these determinants matter, and that they might be visualized as a three-legged stool that keeps a relationship standing. To the extent that all three of those legs are solid, the relationship will be nourishing for both individuals.
Three determinants of a nourishing love relationship
I remember talking once with someone I was dating about what makes a relationship work. We had both gotten out of long term relationships that had been close, but challenging. She told me about her landlord who was in his 80s, and who had been married to the same person for a long time, who shared his opinion with her. He told her that it wasn’t supposed to be hard, and that you just have to find the right person. That it was all about compatibility.
I remember that conversation because it felt like a very different perspective than the one I had. At the time, my view was much more that relationships were what you made of them, that it was more about each person putting their best foot forward, and working through things together. This was based largely in my studies and work as a Marriage and Family Therapist, which is focused on turning troubled marriages into loving ones, and the hopeful view that almost every couple in distress can, with solid dedication and guidance, right the ship and rekindle the romance and intimacy they felt when they first got together. This view was also based largely in my family conditioning, in which I saw couples generally struggling but staying together, loyally sticking to their bonds and commitments despite pain.
I’ve also since been quite persuaded by a more psycho-spiritual lens that suggested that relationships are not equipped to bring us happiness, but only give us a venue to celebrate the happiness we’ve discovered from the true source of happiness, which is called things like inner-peace, surrender, being, presence, source, and acceptance of what is.
From this perspective, our relationship success is going to depend on the extent to which we’ve healed individually and don’t put pressure on a partner or the relationship to make us happy. While this view seems perhaps over-simplified, I’ve long felt that it also has a lot of merit.
I imagine that many people have also encountered these three basic ideas and assumptions, which seem to contradict each other on the surface. If relationships heal us, then why are we also told to not look to someone else to complete us, to not be codependent? And if relationships are really about commitment and working hard together, then why is there so much advice floating around about finding a compatible match?
My intention here is to illuminate, clarify, and integrate these various theories about what makes relationships thrive and flourish, to hopefully dispel confusion and guide others toward finding and keeping nourishing love.
The relationship garden
Early relationships in life often fail due to a lack of preparation. Many of us are not taught, explicitly or by example, about how to communicate assertively and compassionately, how to listen empathicly, how to learn the needs of our partner and make our own needs known, and how to negotiate and compromise.
We aren’t necessarily taught that relationships take work to grow and maintain, and that they tend to get sick and wither when they are neglected for too long.
Movies and media give us the fairytale version of relationships, often ending right at the exciting beginning of a relationship, with the “happily ever after” prediction that can give the impression that relationships don’t take much work.
There’s a very compelling camp of relationship experts who say that it’s not about who you pick, but about the work you put into it. Some of the forefront leaders in the field of marriage and family therapy actually believe that our true healing can only take place within the secure attachment of an emotionally and sexually intimate pair bond. I would say that such bonds can be profoundly powerful routes of healing, if they are in fact secure and intimate, but I’m not convinced that they are the only way or even the most powerful way for many people.
A good image for working together on a relationship might be a communal garden, that both partners need to water and weed often to keep it bearing fruit. If a garden is neglected, then even fertile soil and abundant sunlight will not necessarily lead to a bountiful harvest.
Work is uncomfortable
What does it mean to “work” on a relationship? The word “work” is typically associated with something difficult we do in exchange for compensation. The difficult thing in relationship is deviating from our preference to some degree, in order to have the intimacy and other benefits of the relationship. We go to the garden to weed and water in order to enjoy the fruits later. All relationships require this to some extent. And, not all relationship gardens are the same amount of work to maintain. There’s a connection here between compatibility and hard work. To the extent that our needs and values are similar, less compromise is required. It’s easier to grow crops in some climates than in others.
Needs, synergy, and compromise
Need fulfillment is the point
We get into relationships to fulfill each other’s needs, in a mutually beneficial symbiosis. And sometimes meeting a partner’s needs requires effort.
They may really like the living space organized in certain ways that don’t matter to us. There’s an opportunity there to “water” the relationship garden by putting away clutter and cleaning dirty areas, because we know that will make the other person feel better. They may like a lot of physical touch, and we can make an effort to give this even if it isn’t as important to us. They may enjoy walking and talking, or road trips, or homesteading projects, or going out to restaurants, or making gourmet meals at home, or dancing, or philosophizing, or a thousand other things. They may value security or variety, exploring or building, socializing or introspecting, thinking or feeling, doing or being. And their needs and preferences will fluctuate over time depending on their mood and context and a complex mix of other variables.
When we embark on a relationship with someone, they are placing their hearts in our hands, as someone with some — but not total — responsibility to meet various needs of theirs, and we are doing the same.
The case for compromise
If our own needs happen to coincide with our partner’s needs at a given moment in time, we can simply do what we’d do anyways to take care of ourselves, and take care of our partner at the same time, catching two fish with one cast. This happens when my partner and I both want to go hiking in nature. It’s good for us both as individuals and it’s good for our connection.
What do we do in more challenging instances in which individual needs are in conflict with one another? What happens when one person wants to go out and be social together, and another wants to have a mellow time at home? When one person wants to keep the home immaculate and minimalist, and the other wants to dedicate the energy to other things besides cleaning and organizing, and keep more objects around in case they are needed in the future?
The ideal case is to “synergize” or come up with creative “win win” solutions, to borrow Steven Covey’s 6th and 4th habits of highly effective people. This is some previously unseen and novel solution that creates a new path forward that makes both people happy in a seemingly conflictual situation.
One partner wants to travel and the other doesn’t want to leave home. Rather than argue about who should be deprived, they rent a motorhome and both have a good time on a road trip.
An ongoing conflict over clutter and what to get rid of vs keep could be solved by getting furniture to organize and store things. If there are money spending vs saving conflicts on top of that, they might synergize by making some furniture themselves to reduce the cost.
An argument over one partner’s idea to go out and socialize and the other’s to stay home might be resolved by inviting a few close friends over for a mellow dinner.
Any situation that involves an outside-the-box, non-obvious solution that suddenly eliminates or decreases the conflict and adequately satisfies both partners is a pretty ideal synergistic solution.
The synergy-compromise continuum
There’s a continuum between total overlap of need fulfillment with a partner and total sacrifice for a partner’s needs. Every decision we make with a partner lies somewhere along that spectrum.
Even in best case scenarios, there’s some amount of compromise. We’re dealing with separate human beings who would do things differently, if even in subtle ways, if they were single and totally free. Even a “win win” solution typically changes our plans somewhat. When my girlfriend and I enjoy hiking together, our focus is more on each other than on our individual thoughts and feelings, which is also important to us. We both occasionally need time alone to connect with ourselves, so there is always the possibility that one person’s need to focus on the other will be in tension with the other’s need to focus on their individual self.
The third entity
It’s helpful to think about the relationship as a 3rd entity, in addition to the two partners.
On the surface, relationship challenges often look two dimensional: there is what he needs and what she needs. And decisions tend to look like a tradeoff between those needs, which can create resentment.
If we think of our partner getting their way as us not getting our way, it can be easy to slip into self-pity, resentment, deprivation, and a story of not being loved.
But if instead we remember that there’s a 3rd party, the relationship, we can consider that sacrificing for our partner is also a sacrifice for the relationship.
When we take care of someone, the trust and love grows, in addition to the person’s well-being. That trust and love will come back around and benefit us later, because love is what motivates our partner to care for us in return.
3D need fulfillment
In a two person relationship situation, there are three spectrums that range from total sacrifice to total need fulfillment.
- The needs of partner 1
- The needs of partner 2
- The needs of the relationship
For example, I recently stayed home to watch our sick dog while my girlfriend went camping with friends. My needs took a back seat for both her needs and the needs of our relationship.
Another time recently she drove me to a trailhead to have my own solo outdoor adventure while she was working. In that case her needs were put aside to take care of my needs and the relationship’s needs.
If partners focus primarily on meeting their own individual needs, there could be situations in which both partners are getting 80% of their needs met, but the relationship needs are not being met. The fruits are being harvested, but the garden is being neglected.
I could imagine that a couple making the conscious choice to go to couples counseling, which could be difficult and taxing for both partners, resulting in their individual needs being put aside to mend and attend to solely to the needs of the relationship during that time, as they’d rather be doing more relaxing or fun activities than delving into their long-standing relationship issues. This could be seen as similar to two parents taking time out of their busy lives to take their sick child or pet to a doctor. They aren’t thrilled about the errand, but they know it’s important for the integrity and overall health of the family. Calling a babysitter so they can go out on a date together could be seen as giving their bond an emotional booster to care for the relationship.
Just because the bond between two people doesn’t have a physical body, doesn’t mean it isn’t real or that it doesn’t have needs of it’s own in order to carry on and continue to bear fruit for the couple.
There are three entities in any relationship and we should try to be aware of the health status of all three parties when we make decisions together.
Degrees of mutual dependence
No deal over win-lose
Sometimes a “win win” solution is not in the cards. No deal is considered a better option in general than “win lose” or “lose win” deals.
One time recently, my girlfriend went to visit her family on vacation by herself, because I didn’t think was a good idea for me to go at the time. If she had not gone, it would have been a “win lose” with her losing. If I had gone, it would have been a “lose win” with me going. So we opted for “no deal”, and we both were fine with that. We didn’t feel it would have been good for the relationship if either of us lost.
One of the reasons that we’re satisfied with “no deal” decisions when those are necessary, is that we’re both good at being with ourselves without the other. This reduces our level of dependence on each other so that we can tolerate the times when one or both of us doesn’t give the other what we want.
There’s a phrase I like that I heard in Spain: “No hay dos si uno no quiere,” which translates poorly to “there are not two if one doesn’t want.” This refrain points at the same idea that we should try to find “win win” paths forward so that both parties are benefiting, and if we can’t, at least we can prevent harm by opting for no deal.
Some say that partners can have no codependence and instead be “interdependent”. I think these kinds of statements can symmantically create confusion by attempting to make a spectrum into a binary (that one is either codependent or interdependent).
Dictionary.com defines codependency as “a state of mutual dependence between two people, especially when one partner relies emotionally on supporting and caring for the other partner.”
I would say that intimate relationships by nature do make us depend somewhat on eachother for emotional care and support. Why exactly would we be in them and invest in them if we were utterly emotionally self-reliant? There’s clearly such a thing as being too needy in a relationship, but the idea that any mortal human doesn’t get into relationships to fulfill at least some needs, is overly simplistic.
I think how dependent two people can be on each other and still be healthy depends on many factors, such as their compatibility, stability, level of commitment, and the maturity and development of the individuals involved. A couple that has raised children together for a decade is rightfully going to be more dependent on each other than a newer couple who is less emotionally committed to each other.
I don’t think it would make sense or be healthy to be in a relationship in which we don’t need anything from the other and feel no sense of responsibility to try to meet the needs of the other. That view neglects the 3rd entity of the relationship, and is most often based in individuals not being ready to sacrifice their own needs in order to care for a communal emotional garden. Readiness to give generously to a partner depends on having healthy attachments in the past.
On the other hand, it’s not healthy to depend on a partner for meeting all of our needs or being “there” for us every time we want them to do something. That’s also based in wounding and discomfort avoidance.
How dependent can you be on a rock-climbing harness? I’d say it depends on the integrity of the harness. The same goes for relationships. The degree of mutual dependence we can and should have on each other is a balancing act and specific to the particular relationship.
This paradox between the conflicting ideas that we should not need someone else to take care of us, and the idea that the point of relationships is to take care of each other, may result from looking at relationships from different timeframes.
Healthy trees in a forest often share resources — such as water and nutrients — with sick trees, because it benefits them to be part of a forest rather than being isolated and separate. Trees provide each other with physical and root support, shade, ecosystem stability, and disease resistance.
Humans form relationships for analogous reasons. Our social cooperation is what has largely contributed to our species’ success. Partners, friend groups, communities, and nation states are all human “forests” of varying sizes and complexities.
But just because care and resource sharing happen over time, it doesn’t mean it’s always going to be happening at every moment in time. There are also times when we need to be “selfish” and withhold. The idea that someone should “always be there for us” is unhealthy and ineffective, because whether they should be or not depends not only on our need, but also on their state and the state of the broader ecosystem, all of which we’re only watching from our own subjective point of view. Because our small portal to view reality is narrow and limited, our sense of how much care and support we should receive at a given time by any given person can be way off. It’s important to ask for what we need, and it’s also important to try be independent enough at times to go without and maintain the relationship by not overburdening the other person.
Over the long run, emotional care, time, and energy, are shared within healthy relationships. That’s their essential function. The shorter the time frame we zoom in on, however, the more unpredictable and uncertain it is that even a good relationship will give us what we need. And being patient and understanding about those shorter-term timeframes when our partner can’t be there for us in the way we’d like is crucial for their sense of safety and well-being, and therefore the well-being of the relationship.
The greater good
Democracy of two
Just like individuals often want something that a democratic society does not want (which is why we vote), sometimes the two partners in a marriage both want things that the relationship entity does not want, and vice versa.
Two individuals will often get into a power struggle in which they are both attempting to influence the other in a way that gets them what they want.
A compromise is when neither side gets what they want, and also neither side gets what they don’t want. Sometimes the relationship needs a middle ground. The relationship should be in service of the individuals, but the individuals are also in service of the relationship.
This is similar to how states or communities or tribes are in service of individuals, and individuals are in service of their communities. A democracy is largely a system of compromise. We vote for our individual ideal preference, and typically get back something that’s far from it but also not the exact opposite of it at least not on every single issue or decision. We don’t get our way all the time, but we have some influence.
A marriage or relationship is a democracy of two. We have 50% influence rather than a minuscule fraction of a percent of influence, as we do in a country. But we don’t have 100% influence, nor should we, as that would make us a relationship dictator over our partner, who we are with because we love them and want to create a life with them, not to rule over them.
To the extent that we’re truly committed to our partner or family, we should consider what’s best for us individually in so far as it helps us decide what is best for the family system as a whole. Rather than asking, “how do I get what I want?”, we will have more relationship success by asking, “how do I serve the greater good?” Sometimes we serve the greater good by getting our way, and many times we serve it by not getting our way, and sometimes the greater good is served by both partners sort of getting things their way, and sort of not.
One incentive to sacrifice what we want can be to ask ourselves, “if this relationship was very healthy, how would my partner and I benefit as individuals?” We can think of our relationship as an investment that will grow and return dividends to us both over time, if we’re willing to sacrifice for it in the short term.
Just like our individual decisions are based on a balance of what our present selves want and what our future selves want, our conjoint relationship decisions should be based on the present, near-future, and long-term future consequences for us, our partner, and the relationship itself.
Objective outside observers
It can also help to ask how our relationship or family would look to us if it belonged to someone else, like a neighbor. This is like asking ourselves what advice we’d give a friend if they had the problem that we’re having. We can ask, what would a healthy family that I don’t know personally do in this situation? Who would sacrifice the most if this were some other household in which I was a fly on the wall?
These kinds of thought experiments can help us take a more objective, 3rd-person point of view and prevent our own biases, ego, and emotions from getting in the way of trying to serve the greater good.
One trap can be scorekeeping about specific contributions, for example cleaning or breadwinning or empathic listening. We tend to see and value what we’re good at and what we prioritize.
But two people are never the same and always bring different strengths into the relationship. How different the strengths are varies along a continuum.
Money was invented because bartering goods and services is not a good way to ensure fairness. But relationships don’t have a uniform and fungible currency that they can use to compare the value of 20 minutes of heartfelt listening to the value of 20 minutes of dishwasher unloading, to the value of raking the backyard to the value of a great massage to the value of reading bedtime stories to the kids, and so on.
So it’s typically a bad idea to think, “I always wipe the counter, why don’t they ever wipe the counter?” or “I always” (pay the bills, take out the trash, clean the bathroom sink, plan vacation, pay for gas, etc).
What is important is that both partners are doing their best to contribute what they are best at, and that the overall effort and commitment is equitable. This is impossible to measure. Effort is not the same as results. If we measure our partner’s results, we’ll be more susceptible to judging them than if we pay attention to our partner’s effort and dedication.
People shouldn’t bring the same dish to a potluck as everyone else because we all are good at making different dishes, and it’s good to have variety in a meal. People should have different careers and jobs in society because we’re not all good at or enjoy the same work. So why should two partners in a marriage or committed relationship contribute to it in the same way?
If things feel unfair, they might actually be unfair. If so that’s most likely about underlying commitment, not about laziness. But sometimes, things feel unfair because we’re not fully seeing how hard our partner is working and how valuable their contributions are.
Acceptance of, and gratitude for sacrifice
Making peace with sacrifice
So then, say we’ve consciously chosen to not get what we want or need in the short term, to care for our partner or our relationship. We tell our partner, go ahead and go to the gym, I’ll do the parenting on my own tonight. Go on your retreat even though I’ll be stuck with the daily grind. Fly to Africa to climb Mt Kilimanjaro because it’s your life’s dream, even though I’ll worry myself sick about you. Or whatever it may be.
We might also give them connection they need when we don’t need it so much. We might say, “I’ll go visit your mother with you even though she drives me kind of nuts”. “I’ll make love tonight even though I’d rather just go to sleep, because I know you want it.” “I’ll watch that movie you’ve been raving about with you even though I’d rather watch the football game.” “I’ll hold you on the couch while you vent about your work troubles.”
The act of sacrificing for a partner or a relationship entails some grief. We’ve consulted with all of our internal, psychological “committee members” in our brain and heart and gut, and they’ve collectively decided that we need to let go of some hopes and aspirations for the hour or the day or the week, in order to love this person we’re with and keep our bond strong.
What do we do with the grief feelings? How much do we express those to our partner? How much do we acknowledge them to ourselves?
My opinion is that it’s important for our feelings about our sacrifice to have some, but not unlimited, space and attention.
If we make sure to fully feel and acknowledge the emotions ourselves, they become more conscious rather than dormant and unconscious, which can create inner dissonance. The less processed our emotions are, the more we’ll have a part of ourselves resisting our choice and potentially creating resentment, doubt, or other flavors of second-guessing. Then our partner will likely pick up on that and feel uncertain about whether or not we genuinely want to make the sacrifice, because we haven’t fully reconciled and decided within ourselves. One part of us might be saying, “yes of course, go have fun!” and another part might say, “this is really unfair, how could they ask me to do this…”
The result of having conflicting and unsettled parts like this tends to be feelings of confusion, resentment, guilt, and sometimes anger.
If someone sacrifices for us, we all want to feel that they’ve done so with conviction, resolve, and peace about it, even if they will be facing some feelings of sadness or loss. We don’t want to have a penance to pay later, or be seen as selfish. We want any gift to be given freely without a debt owed. We can only give generously when we’ve thoroughly explored our hesitations and made peace with them.
Witnessing each other’s sacrifice with gratitude
I think that it’s also important for us to see our partner’s sacrifices for us, and the impact those sacrifices have on them.
One thing I really appreciate about my partner is her gratitude for my sacrifices. She might say, “I know this isn’t great for you, I really appreciate you staying home and taking care of everything while I’m gone.” Or she might simply ask me how I feel, and let me express my sadness. She does a really good job of hearing me and accepting my feelings, not attempting to fix them or problem-solve them away, just honoring them. This makes me feel certain that she’s very aware of my sacrifice and that she doesn’t take it for granted. I know that it will even out and she’ll show up and sacrifice for me later, and this makes the two of us together more than than the sum of our individual selves, because we can each do things as individuals that we could not do without the other.
Imagine if someone were to slip a twenty-dollar bill into your wallet, and you didn’t notice it because there were already several twenties in there. You wouldn’t register it, and wouldn’t know that someone gave you a gift, and wouldn’t feel any gratitude.
I think that lack of gratitude can happen when we’re not aware of our partner’s challenges when they sacrifice. Those small sacrifices can add up over time. I don’t think it’s about score keeping, it’s just about being able to feel gratitude. Just like we don’t feel compassion if we don’t witness someone’s pain, we don’t feel gratitude if we don’t witness their sacrifice.
Often there’s a tacit agreement to suppress tough feelings because the sacrificer doesn’t want to ruin their partner’s experience, and the one who is being taken care of doesn’t want to feel guilty and distracted from enjoying whatever gift they are receiving.
Guilt is unnecessary, because in a healthy relationship, it’s a given that both partners will care for and support the other synergistically over time. Guilt isn’t productive, but gratitude and appreciation are. Gratitude motivates us to sacrifice later on when it is our turn. I think it’s beautiful when the love between two people allows them to take turns sacrificing and both know that there will be bittersweet sadness sometimes on one side and bittersweet gratitude on the other side, and that the roles will reverse later, and in this way a relationship can make two people feel far more secure and powerful than they would feel on their own.
Of course, we can go overboard and complain so much that it ruins the support we’re giving the other person. It’s a balance to strike between that extreme and the other side of emotional bottling that leaves partners unattuned to each other.
We have control over what we do for someone more than what we feel about that choice. If the requirement is to not only “take one for the team” but also feel great about it, then we will be less likely to try that, because it’s often impossible. But if all we need to do is sacrifice, and our feelings can be whatever they are, then that’s a far more achievable goal that we’re likely to try and meet.
In the next part of this series, I’m going to talk at length about relationship compatibility – what I think contributes to it and what doesn’t, and how to be conscious and thoughtful about seeking a higher compatibility relationship, and some avenues for dealing with less-than-ideal compatibility in a relationship that’s been heavily invested in already.