We recently saw some interesting figures on single-ness in the United States. Two years ago, 43% of Americans over 18 were single; of that group, 61% had never married, 24% were divorced, and 15% were widowed (CNN Living, August 19, 2010). Then and now, alarming numbers of failed partnerships reflect the difficulty of meeting relationship challenges. Nevertheless, singles in America ten years ago spent over $489 million in one year to find each other, and despite ever-rising divorce rates, television ads for dating services show that they’re still at it. (Imagine what today’s expenditure might be.)
Who’d have thought statistics and commercials could speak to human longings for relationship? And results from study after study continually testify to longevity’s correlation with happiness in relationships and social networks. Bad relationships are stressful, lonely, and unhealthful. Good relationships are as good as it gets!
The contentment and happiness possible through mutually supportive partnerships is an achievement that supports health, stability, a sense of belonging, and opportunities for growth. It’s easy to forget, though, that relationship achievements, like all other meaningful achievements, take work, effort, skill, even practice. For those who’ve found their partners, and for those who will, the great challenge becomes not to screw it up.
It’s a given that all people come with their own strengths and weaknesses. Differences between individuals are inevitable but don’t have to spell relationship doom. They can even contribute positively: differences mean that together, a couple can do better than either one separately, because between them they have more resources available. Recognizing strength in differences, however, requires both a tolerance of differences and a mutuality of respect. If either person in a dyad doesn’t regard the other as an equal, trouble looms.
Along with respect, sharing and listening are “intimacy essentials.” Listening, though not always easy, is an indispensable part of sharing. Patience is another important element, especially in times of stress. All of these elements build trust, and all are crucial buttresses of a successful intimate relationship.
Close relationships demand an honesty with self and other that can be difficult or scary. Many people are conflict-avoidant and keep differences hidden rather than airing them; unfortunately, this creates and perpetuates secrecy and emotional distance. It may take courage to speak up, but doing so is a significant demonstration of trust in ourselves and in our partner. Saying “This is who I am, this is how I feel” is healthy (and gets easier with practice).
Secrecy is to be avoided. The resentment secrecy feeds is toxic and can build an impenetrable wall, turning partners into enemies. To combat this, both parties must be willing to act with honesty and courage to clear the air. Whenever relating gets difficult for any reason, a first critical question to ask yourself is, “How am I contributing to this?” The next step is to own up to it and invite your partner to meet you halfway.
Everyone brings baggage of past hurts, traumas, and disappointments, along with a host of assumptions and expectations, into adulthood and into relationships. Self-relationship and unresolved issues are major factors in any attempted partnership. We often choose a partner who puts us up against our old wounds and unfinished business. With honesty and courage, people have many chances to grow and heal within a dyad instead of reenacting past dramas and unhappiness.
Eventually, as daily routines and preoccupations take over, couples can come to disregard the specialness of their achievement together. But we’ve found a great reminder: weekly “couple meetings,” to talk about each other’s actions that we appreciated during the week. It’s also a good opportunity to clear up misunderstandings or anything that felt awry. Even 15 minutes put aside for significant sharing, without interference from other commitments, sends a mutual message of valuing special time together no matter what else is going on.
The longer we two are a couple, the more strongly we feel that intimate relationships offer bountiful rewards, and the more often we’re reminded that reaping these rewards requires practicing honesty, courage, patience, kindness, sharing, self-review, self-control…and upholding a basic tenet that underlies the ability to have any kind of positive interpersonal relationship: respect for human equality.
Oliver and Barbara