What is the key to a successful relationship?

Ask 10 people this question and you are likely to get 10 different answers. Sure, we all know the more obvious ones such as ‘compromise’ and ‘good communication’ but here are some other areas that you may – or may not – have recognised as being important:

  • Shared cultural and social values.
  • Shared personal values, expectations, interests, habits and tastes.
  • Tolerance and adaptability.
  • Ability to resolve conflict.
  • Capacity to meet each others’ needs.

One of the reasons we are likely to get different answers is down to the fact that our ideas about relationships are formed from our early lives and experiences of relationships, so they are unique to us as individuals. These experiences are internalised and form a template for our later relationships. 

If you are fortunate enough to have had a parent or caregiver who is ‘well’ in every sense of the term (mentally, emotionally, physically, spiritually) and can separate out where they end and the child begins – to take responsibility for the part they play in the dynamic – you are likely to have had an experience in childhood where your needs are met. Your feelings are acknowledged and you feel safe, validated and reassured.

You will develop an inner security, healthy self-esteem and be able to acknowledge your own feelings and experiences. You will learn to internalise how to treat yourself kindly and with compassion and empathy – as has been demonstrated and modelled to you by your parent or caregiver. And you are unlikely to be reading this article or to be thinking about therapy. You will already have the tools and confidence needed to resolve relationship difficulties. 

However, sadly, parents often fall short in providing the child with what they need, because they have never been provided with these tools themselves by their own caregivers, or it may be due more to other extenuating circumstances.

How many babies have been born into this world to a troubled mother or father? An absent mother or father? To parents with economic or environmental worries? There may be wider family difficulties or struggles with mental health and the baby enters into this environment. The parents or caregivers may be emotionally unavailable or neglectful.

Again, this could be due to poor parenting they may have received themselves, or they may have learnt to cope with the difficulties and suffering that life can bring, by using unhelpful strategies such as avoiding their problems or feelings (resulting in anxiety) or pushing their problems or feelings down (resulting in depression).

This ultimately can lead to more serious coping strategies such as substance misuse. And I’m not just talking about becoming an alcoholic or drug user; the ‘wine o’clock’ phenomenon; a quick snort of cocaine as a pick-me-up or a cannabis joint as a relaxant have now become far too accepted as ways of coping with the stresses and strains of life. Our relationship with money and food can also be adversely affected by difficult times and lead to poor or unhelpful ways of coping with problems.

People sitting and talking

Often, people are merely ‘managing’ their difficult emotional responses to their lives, experiences and relationships. They are continuously placing a plaster over a deep wound, instead of finding the courage to look themselves in the mirror and ask the vital questions, “What is this wound all about?”, “What do I want/need from my life/relationships?” and “What am I doing about making that happen?

These individuals may feel very powerless to change their lives and so behave in a manipulative, controlling or abusive way to get their needs met and to feel more powerful. But, the fact of the matter is, that we all have a choice

Many have forgotten this – or never realised it in the first place. Once you recognise that your life is created from all the choices you have made and continue to make, it allows you to truly grow up and take responsibility for those choices. 

Ultimately, successful relationships are a reflection of the quality of your relationship with yourself.

As human beings we are imperfect and we live in an imperfect world. Therefore, we can only ever do our best, with what is available to us. Thankfully, being a ‘good enough’ parent or a ‘good enough’ person for that matter, is all that is required for healthy, balanced well-being. As adults, it is our responsibility to develop the parts of ourselves which still need to grow and evolve. And this is where relationships come in.

So, what happens when this child who has not had their needs met in early life grows up and finds themself in an adult relationship? What will they take with them about what they have learnt from those early templates? The answer is – all of it. Some of it will be conscious and a lot of it will be unconscious. It’s the latter (if it remains unconscious) that causes the problems.

Relationships generally experience a crisis when the needs of both individuals are not being met. This is usually the point that couples seek therapy. Usually, anger (either externalised or internalised) can begin to kill off the love that once existed. The way back to that love and connection is through developing more empathy and compassion for your partner – and for yourself

Couple kissing

For a fulfilling relationship, it is essential to learn to walk in your partner's shoes and see yourself through their eyes – and vice versa. In order to do this, the first step is to learn a more empathic way of communicating with one another. Sometimes there is too much anger initially to be able to empathise, so this needs to be expressed to clear a pathway through to a deeper understanding.

The next step is to dive under the surface of your every day lives together and learn about what you each have brought with you from your early experiences of relationships that may be affecting your current relationship in an unhelpful way. To purge all that unhelpful stuff and separate out what belongs in the past, to clear a path for a calmer, simpler future. 

And finally, the ultimate aim is to work on building a relationship that works for you both where you are both getting your needs met. This needs to be flexible and adaptable to meet the changing needs of your different life stages.

None of this is easy. If it were, we'd all be living in blissfully happy relationships, getting all our needs met. Those who recognise the importance of a healthy relationship for our overall well-being and quality of life and enter into therapy in an attempt to improve their relationships are brave. 

The alternatives are: 

1. To end the relationship without fully understanding what went wrong and repeating unhelpful patterns in subsequent relationships

2. To exist in a dynamic that is unhealthy and makes you unhappy. This requires a huge amount of energy to remain in denial of your own needs and, in time, will become soul-destroying at the deepest level

To understand more, we need to look more closely at what happens when two people meet. At the deepest level, one human soul recognises another human soul. Their souls see into each other (intimacy = in-to-me-see).

They look beyond what is presented to them on the surface, to the wounding underneath and it resonates with their own. Like looking into a mirror; they see their own reflection. And this is what they are attracted to - the message is "this person is the same as me". But, of course, the reality is that no two people are the same and it is the differences that can, ultimately, cause conflict or a void in relationships.

The secret to a successful relationship is to have the courage to look closely at the differences; to understand them, to accept them at best or learn to tolerate them at most.

Falling in love is sometimes thought of as a form of temporary psychosis; a form of insanity where you lose yourself, your inhibitions. Your defences fall away to open up your heart to another. You want to spend every waking moment with this new person in your life, who has opened you up, captivated your soul. It is sometimes called the 'honeymoon period' and can be completely intoxicating. 

But, sadly, it is temporary because this facade cannot be maintained. I say 'facade' because what is actually happening in this 'psychosis' is that each person is unconsciously projecting an image of themselves onto the other. And this image contains all the aspects that they believe their partner wants to see in them; perhaps they are funny, adventurous, careful with money, a lover of the great outdoors, etc.

But how much of this is actually real? In time, it's impossible to maintain this facade and the old defences creep into the relationship. The wound of either too little (detached, neglectful parenting) or too much (over-bearing, suffocating parenting) causes the individual to either withdraw to protect themselves if their partner is not meeting their needs or become overly attentive (clingy) or even aggressive to get their needs met.

Put more simply, they move towards or away from their partner. Without an understanding of what is really happening, both defences result in a lack of connection and intimacy. 

Working to improve your relationship is not a sign of failure, it is an incredibly healthy thing to do. Being in a relationship where you feel supported, understood, where you can be truly yourself, where you have shared goals and values, is a most precious gift. To know that your partner has always got your back enables you to navigate the ups and downs of life more easily and it will help both of you to grow as individuals and become the best version of yourselves. 

It is something we all deserve to experience.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Written by Sarah Freed, Specialist in Relationships, Anxiety, Depression and Loss

Sarah Freed is an experienced therapist and poet. Based just outside Cambridge, she works with individuals and couples using talking therapy and creative arts therapy with the aim of empowering people to live more loving, fulfilling lives.… Read more

Written by Sarah Freed, Specialist in Relationships, Anxiety, Depression and Loss

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