When asked to identify the basic feature of a lasting relationship, most people will say “love.” Defined in the broadest way, perhaps that’s true. But, most people don’t define love broadly. Rather, they define it primarily as the manifestation of desire. Do you want to be with me? Do you look forward to seeing me and talking with me? Do you want to grow old with me? These are the kinds of questions that underlie the question of love for most couples.
Love is, of course, really important. So is desire. Without them a relationship can quickly feel flat and uninteresting. They deserve to be actively cultivated. But, they are to a long-term relationship what an excellent appetizer and a fantastic desert are to a good meal. Love and desire are necessary but they are not sufficient.
There are four essential ingredients every lasting relationship relies on.
The ability to absorb undesirable experiences is a hallmark of patience. There isn’t a couple out there that will say they expect their marriage to be easy. They all acknowledge the difficulty of maintaining a commitment over time. Yet, they don’t typically have a grip on what the difficulty they expect will require of them. In a word, all of the difficulties couples encounter will require a huge dose of patience before they require anything else. Patience is the first and most powerful characteristic of a successful couple’s ability to weather difficult times.
By definition, a relationship requires at least two individuals. Each individual brings a unique set of wants and needs to the union. In a not-so-happy relationship these wants and needs are sometimes dealt with in a competitively. It can look like a tug-of-war with the winner extracting satisfaction from the looser but with little relationship joy when all is said and done. Another version of the not-so-happy relationship occurs when one always expresses wants and needs while the other always responds.
A satisfying long-term relationship occurs when both parties have found a way to balance their wants and needs. It looks much more like a dance than a tug-of-war. Each knows when to express a want or need and when to listen responsively to a want or need being expressed.
From cooking to carpentry to marriage, all successful creative endeavors require proficiency...skills. Knowing what to do, when to do it and how to do it are really important. Each of us brings a set of skills to our relationship. Sometimes that set of skills is extensive and well developed. Often it is insufficient and shakey. Learning relationship skills is not all that difficult given an appreciation for their importance. If you want to become a great chef you don’t dismiss the value of good knife skills, an understanding of how favors are combined and an appreciation for beautiful presentation. By the same token, if you want to be a good partner you can’t dismiss the value of good listening, clear self-disclosure and competent problem-solving skills.
They say, “You don’t grow a rose in a swamp.” Growing a beautiful rose requires the right soil, light and context. Growing a lasting relationship also requires a context that nourishes and sustains. Sometimes that comes in the form of a network of friends and family. Sometimes the support comes in the form of a mutually agreed upon world-view. A lasting and satisfying relationship always finds itself “held” by something external to itself.
Love and desire are incredibly important but they are not sufficient. Without patience, balance, knowledge and support, love and desire can easily fade leaving disappointment and confusion.
Jake Thiessen, PhD
I've been working with couples for a very long time. And, I love it! This blog is my attempt to communicate some of the things I've learned over the past 35 years.