Relationships can be very rewarding and challenging at the same time. There are very few people who could say that their relationship has been nothing but bliss and smooth sailing. All couples run into trouble. More often than not the trouble is not resolved and continues to build up over time. This can lead to a breakdown in what was once an exciting, thrilling and wonderful experience. Through my own research, experience and working with couples over the last few years, I have devised The 7 Ways to a Successful Relationship. By following these 7 ways any couple can significantly improve and take their relationship to a level that they never believed possible.
1. The First Way involves being open and honest with yourself and each other and is one of the most critical ways that couples can ensure that their relationship remains strong and that they stay connected. Without this ability on the part of both people in the relationship, it becomes highly probable that issues start to get buried. Over many years, this can lead to a major barrier between the two people. Being truly “intimate” with your romantic partner is not only about sexual intimacy; it also requires the ability to say what you really think and feel. This idea would seem very daunting to most people as they are afraid that if their partner knew what they were really thinking and/or feeling they would be in BIG trouble. They may worry that their partner will get angry or judge them harshly and so they keep their innermost thoughts and desires to themselves. The inevitable consequence of this is that one day they just can’t pretend any longer. And they walk out the door when they might have been able to salvage the relationship by opening up to their partner about their concerns, fears, resentments, wishes, and desires much sooner. If, after speaking their truth, their partner is not receptive or is out right aggressive, the person may end up walking away but at least the chance to make that relationship work was attempted before all hope was lost. So, in order to keep your relationship alive and healthy and ensure that any resentments are dealt with, it is critically important to check in with each other on a fairly regular basis and open up about how you are really feeling about things. You may find, as did the couple further in this article that you reach a new level of intimacy and connection with your partner that you have never experienced before.
2. Whilst it may seem obvious, each partner has a responsibility to monitor how he or she is reacting to their other half. Primarily, I am speaking about the Second Way which is the need to ensure that respect for each other is always considered of the highest priority. John Gottman – the guru of successful relationships and marriages – highlights that a lack of respect or one partner being dismissive towards the other can often spell doom for a relationship.
Having said that, I am often astounded at how many people will remain in a relationship long after their partner has shown significant and ongoing signs of a lack of respect for them. I am not saying that the usual trials and tribulations that occur in a relationship where couples can sometimes be mean to each other is cause for major alarm or walking out. We all get a bit cranky with our partners and we may say things we don’t mean and later regret. No, I am speaking about a much more fundamental issue of one partner showing a partial or complete lack of respect for the other through his or her words or actions or both. It is often friends or family who will notice this and sometimes be brave enough to mention something to their friend or family member. “Why do you let her talk to you like that?” is something that may be mentioned. Each person in a relationship needs to monitor how he or she feels towards their partner and to talk about any changes that occur over time. No relationship is perfect and no couple could possibly stay together for any significant period of time without having to deal with some major life challenges and stressors. It is how the couple pulls together (or not) during these times that will determine the longevity and success of their relationship.
3. The Third Way of successful relationships lies in the actions we take. Not the words we say. I cannot say I love my children, yet pay no interest to their lives or their world or not even bother to teach them about life. Every parent has a responsibility to teach their children what they have learned to be true about the world and how to operate in it. Similarly, in romantic relationships, we cannot say we love our partner or spouse and then – through our actions or inactions – behave in a way that shows a lack of love. For example, the husband who is constantly saying sorry to his wife for being abusive and yet the abuse continues or the wife who tells her husband how much she loves him and yet constantly finds fault with everything he does. Love is action. Doing things for each other, not in protest but because we genuinely want to make our partner’s life a little easier. Little gestures – romantic or otherwise – tell the story of love much more than all the “I Love You’s” in the world.
4. Real and meaningful communication is the Fourth Way. There are so many books written on communication. Not just for couples but in all walks of life. However, being able to communicate on the level that is required for romantic relationships to survive and thrive is a unique skill set in itself. A skill set that very few couples ever learn or cultivate or even seek out from a counsellor. Typically, it’s the men who don’t believe it is necessary to the survival of their relationship. I had a woman come to see me recently whose husband had strayed and had a one night stand with a woman he knew through work. My client, being very understanding and mature of mind, tried to understand why this devastating situation had occurred. Whilst she did not take the blame and did not in any way condone his actions, she did understand that she had somehow played a part. That part was uncovered through counselling and involved her being sexually abused as a child and therefore having some major impacts on the quantity and quality of their sex life. After two counselling sessions she agreed that she and her husband needed to lay absolutely everything on the table. It was now or never. And so, one Saturday afternoon they sat on their bed and spoke (in a way, she said they had probably never spoken in over 20 years of marriage) and the barriers came crumbling down. The conversation was deep and powerfully significant with them both sharing intimate thoughts, long-held resentments and deep personal issues. After 3 hours of this, they suddenly embraced and had the most intimate and gratifying sex they had ever had. And – she told me in a follow up session – they haven’t stopped since. This is the power of a real conversation.
5. Standing together but far enough apart is the Fifth Way. Each person in a relationship MUST maintain their own identity and interests. Many couples become too co-dependent and rely on each other for everything whilst simultaneously blocking each other from maintaining their passions and interest in outside events, people and hobbies. When this persists over a long period of time, one or both people may start to resent their partner for holding them back from doing the things they used to love doing when they were single. Now, I am not talking about the man going to the pub every night and getting drunk whilst his wife stays at home watching the TV. I am talking about each person giving the other permission to pursue their interests, their talents and their passions in life. With this freedom to explore who we are and what we love within the circle of an intimate relationship, love and continue to blossom and grow. But when the circle becomes a prison, eventually someone is going to try to escape. As one of my favourite author’s and speakers – Esther Hicks – would day: Freedom is the ultimate desire and calling of the human spirit.
6. The Sixth Way is Supporting Aspirations. This one is an unusual one in some ways and not something that most people would think would have a major impact on a relationship. However, understanding what your partner does for a living and supporting him or her in their career and other aspirations is something that brilliant couples intuitively understand and just do. This one rings a very personal bell for me as I know that this was a major issue for me in my marriage and relationship to my ex-wife of 10 years. Over the years we were together, I supported her in many ways to achieve her aspirations and career goals. I constantly looked for ways to improve both of our lives individually and together, professionally and financially, but I never got the support in return. Not just the support, the belief in me and what I was capable of. She would explain it away as my own issue and that I needed to “learn to encourage and support myself”. It just didn’t add up for me. And the resentment that it built inside me became larger and larger as the years went by. This related to my drive to take the risk of starting a human resources consultancy practice as well as starting a private practice in counselling. From a personal hobby point of view – I love music and singing. I always have since I was a child. It is a huge part of my self-expression, joy and inspiration in life. My ex-wife, however, never supported me in this. And again, I was not expecting her to do anything other than take an interest and maybe encourage me a little here and there to actually do something with my singing. However, over 10 years of being together and 7 years of marriage, I cannot even count on one hand how many times she wanted to hear me sing or made a suggestion about my singing. And so, I let it fade. And yes I take full responsibility for letting it fade and allowing a part of myself that was so important to me to lie dormant for 10 years. However, what I know, not just from personal experience but from counselling countless of couples and from researching and understanding what makes people successful, is that nearly every successful man or woman has behind them someone who loves and believes in them. Someone who encourages and supports and actually cares about who their partner is and where it is they want to go in life. So, the Sixth Way is actually easy. Take an interest. Talk about your dreams and goals together. Find ways to support each other to become the best version of yourselves that you can be and your relationship will be one of fairy tales that people don’t seem to think exists these days.
7. The 7th way is keeping Sex and Passion alive. No discussion on romantic relationships and what makes them mutually satisfying and lasting would be complete without a discussion on sex and intimacy. After all, if we don’t have that in our romantic relationships then what are we really? Just friends? Room-mates? Co-parents? People who live together and barely tolerate each other? I am often astounded when I hear clients say they haven’t had sex for a few months or even a few years! I understand completely that couples who have recently had a baby would struggle with this. Whilst it’s not a guarantee that having a baby will ruin your sex life, unless you put in the effort and remain conscious of keeping it alive, it is highly probable that there will be a major kink in your sex life in the first few months after having a baby. However, this is not a fait accompli. You can make the effort and put some thought into ensuring your sex life returns to normal as soon as possible. What is normal I hear you say? Ah, good question. Well, we don’t know really.
Regardless of this however, maintaining a healthy adult relationship entails maintaining a healthy sexual relationship as well. If one or both partners is not getting their needs met through the relationship they are going to seek it outside the relationship. Let me repeat that. They WILL seek it outside the relationship. When couples come to me for counselling and there is currently a lack of intimacy and sex in the relationship I always ask them to go back to when they first met and tell me WHY they got together in the first place. Then I ask them to tell me when it all changed. Invariably and dishearteningly, they say it all changed when the kids came along. Other reasons include fighting, financial pressures, lack of support, lack of romance, losing touch with each other through holding onto past resentments and a range of other issues. The point is not that it happens. It happens to all of us at some stage in a relationship. The point is: when we notice that the sex and intimacy are leaving the relationship, why do we just wave goodbye and close the door? It doesn’t have to be this way!
Another element that contributes to sex and intimacy falling further away and which is often not resolved effectively by couples is health and body image. Health and body image has its own category in my couples questionnaire and relationship report for that very reason. If we do not take care of our appearance, our bodies and our overall well-being and health, our sex life is going to suffer. Most partners will not tell you – for fear of massive retribution and pain of death – that they are starting to lose attraction for you. I am often amazed at women (and men in some cases) who will go through a huge amount of time and effort to lose weight and look good to either attract a mate or look good for their wedding and then when they have the person in their lives and are in the relationship or marriage they supposedly fought so hard for – just let themselves go! This could very well be one of the top three reasons people stray from their partners. Why is it okay to let ourselves go physically and to risk the loss of attraction of our partner but it’s not okay to talk about it and tell our partners: “I am starting to lose my attraction towards you”. So, the way of keeping sex and passion alive involves a number of things. Primarily, it involves being conscious and aware that one needs to spend a little time looking after ourselves and our appearance as much for our partner as we tend to do for approval of others. Sex and attraction require both a physical and a mental maintenance programme. We need to stimulate our partner’s attraction and desire for us both physically and mentally. Little gestures like a little squeeze here and there, a kiss on the neck, a touching word or text message, all go a long way to keeping things in the bedroom (and out the bedroom) spicy.
In conclusion, I would say that these things are not rocket science folks. I would also say as I so often have that relationships “shouldn’t be so hard” – and I still stand by that today. Overall, your relationship should feel easy, joyful and full of love and appreciation for each other. There will be obstacles and there will be cloudy days but those couples who follow the 7 ways to a successful relationship are going to find that there is always sun behind the clouds and the clouds don’t last for very long.