Cornerstones of a Lasting Relationship: The First two
There are two types of relationships that are be geared for the long haul. They are dynamically different but both appear to be resilient. One of them is very traditional in which one person is designated the head of the household. The leader takes responsibility for key decisions, and is respected for that position. I heard a pastor talking last week about the traditional Christian family in which the male is considered the leader. By leader I mean has the authority to make major decisions. The pastor made a very important point. He said that authority is not the same thing as tyranny. If one is the head of the household they must take in to consideration the needs, opinions and best interest of the relationship. They lead with love, compassion, and understanding and build the cornerstones of this Neighborhood Shrink Note into the system. As soon as it turns into an autocracy the relationship may begin to crumble.
The other resilient relationship is one in which both participants contribute to the functioning, order, and dynamics of the relationship but maintain an ongoing attempt to understand the thoughts of the other. There is a balance of power and decision-making where both parties appear to master their expertise and accept the decisions of one another. They are both able to sustain a keen interest in what is best for the relationship instead of their individual needs. They foster a strong belief in the maintenance of the cornerstones of a lasting relationship.
The four cornerstones of a lasting relationships are love, respect, trust, and commitment. These are all necessary for the maintenance a long-term relationship. If any one of these is missing for too long, the relationship falters and many times ends.
Each of us has our own definition of these terms. I offer some ideas here and ask you to add your own thoughts. Again-you are responsible for your relationship and both you and your partner are the experts on it. You can accept input from my notes but inevitably you must take responsibility for how it functions. You must take responsibility for how you perceive, manage, and influence your relationship.
In 1994, Dr. John Gottman and his colleagues at the University of Washington would listen to a couple’s conversation and through mathematical analysis could predict with more than 90% accuracy if a marriage would succeed after listening to them for less than an hour! While I won’t go into details here the key (so obvious that it is obscure) was that married couples who treat each other like friends, handle their conflicts in a gentle and positive way, and measure their defensiveness, criticism of each other, and the ability to take responsibility for their own actions had a great chance of making it. So, after the four cornerstones are in place, the body of a relationship is made of two good friends treating each other well. It seems so simple.
The First Two Cornerstones: Love and Respect
At the risk of sounding trite, love is not only something you feel, love is something you do. (Remember as the Neighborhood Shrink I pay attention to behaviors). Through love you feel bonded, secure, and attached to your partner. I have often heard clients describe the lack of this connection as “falling out of love" at which point they move toward ending their association. While it is a complex concept it is obviously necessary for a successful relationship.
When I say love is something you do, it is the exhibition of love in your relationship that means the most. For some couples it means physical contact. This includes holding hands, and caressing each other, and the most obvious-sex. For others it means actually doing meaningful things for one another.
Steven Covey's book, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People1, discusses the idea of Emotional Intelligence (EI). Part of emotional intelligence is an idea about emotional bank accounts. Each one of us has one and need to have a positive balance. To keep a positive balance we need our partners to make deposits. The problem is we all have our individual currency that we need for a deposit in the account. The concept-while simple-is important.
Several months ago a couple came into my office complaining of marital problems. They exhibited much of the conflict that has been discussed in other Neighborhood Shrink notes-she sees things one way, and he sees things another. Neither is attempting to understand each other's perceptions and are not focused on the best interests of the relationship.
I asked the wife what her husband could do to change. She told me one of the main things that she wanted was for him to hold her hand in public. She asked him several times to do this, and yet it was not forthcoming. When I asked him about it, he told me that it was not something that his family did, it did not come naturally to him, and that he showed his love in other ways. Every Sunday morning he would cook breakfast for her and serve it in bed. He made sure that the toast was perfectly done, that the juice was cold, and the coffee was just the way that she liked it. In this way he was showing her how much he loved her. She turned to him and said "I don't even like eating breakfast."
He was using his currency to deposit in her emotional bank account. The problem is that the deposit had very little meaning to her. While she appreciated his efforts it was not a demonstration of his love to her and her reality.
I asked him to turn to her and take her hand. He complied. She then looked at me and said "He did that because you told them to." So at some level the husband was in a no-win situation. When he did what she asked, she wrote it off. Clearly there are other power struggle issues going on in this relationship, but addressing one at a time is the best way to handle it. I asked the wife to leave the room briefly and then asked the husband to write on his calendar (he kept it on his phone which was always by his side) , check for times they had scheduled together, and write himself a note to hold her hand. He rolled his eyes a little bit but then agreed to do it. Essentially I asked him to blink first in the staring contest. While this may seem overly simplistic we sometimes fail to pay attention to what our partners are asking for and try to meet each others love needs by using our own currency. In this situation, the husband had to decide if he wanted to win or if he wanted his relationship to improve.
Last year while driving home I was radio channel surfing I came cross a brilliant presentation by Dr. Emerson Eggerichs2 dealing with relationships and respect in marriage. To some degree he was following the idea in some pop psychology books about the differences between men and women. But so much of what he said made sense. The basic premise of his talk was that in relationships women primarily look for love, and men primarily look for respect. If you ask a man if his coworkers or friends love him he will probably nervously reply that he doesn't know. But if you ask him if they respect him, he will usually proudly reply affirmatively. Respect from the people around him is very important and he has high expectations of gaining and maintaining it. If you ask a woman how important love is to her relationship, she will tell you it is very important. She will say that the exhibition and feeling of love is one of the bonding principles in her relationship and if it is absent she experiences mediocrity and will sometimes seek that love elsewhere.. (Clearly I am being stereotypical. Both love and respect are important for both genders).
This concept folds right into the idea about emotional bank accounts. If you are a woman involved with a man, are you exhibiting a sense of respect towards your mate? Respect comes in many forms. At times it may mean that you do not question his ideas, and at others it may mean that you show him support even though he says that he really doesn't need it. Respect also comes in accepting his maleness, and being willing to stroke his ego. One of the problems that I see with some psychotherapists today is that we attempt to feminize men. We tell them that they should communicate more, be more in touch with their feelings, and open up more. This can be helpful but may go against the grain of what maleness is to a man in the American culture. Not only is asking him to talk about his feelings alien to him, it may be emotionally threatening. Your ability to respect your man may include accepting the idea that he is not as communicative as you are and may not be as in touch with his feelings as you are. It doesn't mean that he shouldn't open up and talk more; it simply means that you accept him where he is instead of pushing him to be what he should be. (I will have some feminists criticize my thoughts about maleness and not feminizing men, but in therapy it doesn’t work)
On the love side -according to Eggerichs-women relate by report. In his example, at the end of the day when a woman asks her husband how his day was she needs more than "Fine." She needs to reconnect by hearing about some of the details. In her emotional currency her mate needs to stop what he is doing, give her undivided attention, and describe some of his day. He then needs to listen further and connect with her by discussing her day, taking a genuine interest in what it was made of. I have had countless husbands and boyfriends roll their eyes when I make this suggestion. They do not understand why it is so important. In their reality their job is the same thing every day all day. It's their job, they do it, enough said. They have not given any consideration to relating by report because it's not their currency. They would rather talk about when dinner is going to be ready or when the game is on. Guys, if your woman used to inquire about your day and has stopped, you may be in trouble. If she has lost interest in establishing connections/intimacy with you, there may be bigger problems than you realize. Sometimes emotional distance is irrevocable. The simple solution is to take time to connect. Show a genuine concern for your relationship.
Do you enthusiastically pursue the interests of your mate? Do you enthusiastically attempt to make emotional deposits in their accounts? Do you genuinely care about what they need and make consistent efforts to meet those needs?
To further be stereotypical, possibly chauvinistic and certainly superficial I would also ask you the following question. Men, if you believe that sex is on the decline in your relationship and wish that your partner eagerly participated in your sex life, what exactly do you do to enthusiastically approach the intimate connection with her? Do you recognize and understand that many times women are sexually attracted to men when there is an emotional bond solidified by attention? You may write this off to psychobabble if you choose, but I have seen it in real life. If they feel an emotional disconnect they may not be sexually interested.
Women, if you find yourself consistently trying to verbally connect with your mate- only to be met with resistance and ignorance-do you enthusiastically pursue the sexual interests of your mate and take into consideration that need? You wish that he spoke more, spent more "us" time together, and miss the old days where you felt that connection. And since he is not forthcoming with giving you attention you do not feel sexually connected to him and resist. Do you see the stalemate in both of these approaches? No one's moving, no one's giving in, and at some level both parties have become disinterested and possibly miserable. Also remember, that I have stereotyped these roles but they are easily transferred between genders. As men get older they prefer emotional connections and women certainly do have sex drives!
Sex and money are two of the biggest primary problems presented by couples. But if you look under the surface of that, recent research shows-for both men and women-when asked about the emotional distance in their relationship, they report that the biggest disappointment for them was that over the years they lost their best friend. That life, children, family, illness, work, and all of the other things that we deal with on a day-to-day basis got in the way of the relationship. They stopped making emotional deposits. They stopped communicating, connecting, and have lost intimacy-including sex. Is this you? The reasons why you lost interest are not important. Are you willing to re-engage? Are you willing to ask your mate what it would take to reconnect and then enthusiastically pursue it?
So, love is not only feeling, it is doing; doing those things that are meaningful to one another-including being mutually respectful. It is identifying and making consistent emotional deposits in our mate’s currency. (Have you ever noticed that we can make consistent deposits in each others accounts and it only takes one bad overdraft to wipe out the entire balance?) Love is also accepting the limitations and realities of each others worlds, and enthusiastically striving to meet each others needs.
Trust comes in next weeks note
1 Covey, S (1989). Seven Habits of Highly Effective People . Unlimited Publishing.
2 Eggerichs, Emerson (2003, 2004). Respect: a Marriage Essential. Focus on the Family, Colorado Springs, Colorado CD 301/30743
3 Gottman, John M. Ph.D, Gottman, Julie Schwartz Ph.D, DeClaire, Joan (2006). Ten Lessons to Transform Your Marriage. Crown Publishing Group