There are many theories, models and assumptions around that pontificate on what keeps two people together over the long-term. You can find books and posts that cover all aspects of this subject and more. Many of them offer up good advice on keeping it fresh or avoiding the pitfalls of a stale relationship. Advice badly needed by anyone who has decided to take that leap of faith.
I have helped couples in crisis for many years and often they turn up for therapy with their relationship in just the kind of state described above, worn out and waiting for the end. They often cite all kinds of reasons for the decline and describe a typical pattern of relationship decay that has gone unheeded and sometimes unnoticed for a long period. They just do not put the work in any longer. They do not see the need. Everything is taken for granted and the foundations of the relationship rot away. Foundation is the key word here. My belief is that if a couple can recognise and maintain the four pillars that constitute this foundation, they have a great chance of moving themselves onto a relationship level seen and felt by very few. For some, there may be more than four but in my opinion and experience, the four I am about to describe are the most essential.
- Trust. How can we ever consider staying with someone long term if we firstly, do not trust them and secondly, have unresolved trust issues ourselves? Allow this pillar to break down and jealousy, suspicion and accusation take over. I have seen on many occasions, couples stay together when trust is a big issue and it is extremely difficult. Walls go up and defensiveness abounds. We are not talking here about keeping a relationship going with someone who has cheated, that is a choice one makes. We are talking here about applying past experience and conditioning to the present. If trust issues are there with one or both of the partners, it is vital that these are worked on if the relationship is to survive. Being truly trustful is about giving a part of yourself to your partner to look after and take care of. This is the vulnerable side of us we mostly keep hidden. We are saying in effect, I am allowing you into my inner world, my special place. It is the greatest gift you can ever offer anyone but lack of trust keeps it behind that wall.
- Honesty. Sounds simple does it not? We all strive to be as honest as we can and there is a fine line between giving enough or too much information. Too much time is spent by couples dissecting each other’s past and experiences. I remind couples that unless they are in a relationship with a serial killer, their past with that person started the day they decided to come together. Anything before that is irrelevant. We take here for granted that basic honesty exists in the relationship and no fabrication has taken place. True honesty is not always about disclosing facts but being open emotionally with your partner, sharing what you are feeling even if it might be initially hurtful.
- Respect. A no brainer, right? Why would anyone start or maintain a relationship with someone who does not respect them? The answer is a lot of people and these people find lots of different angles to justify staying with a disrespectful partner, “that is just the way they are” or “they were brought up that way” are typical justifications. We are not talking here about the obvious signs of disrespect like name calling and domination. It is often the small things that matter. Remembering special milestones, promises and keeping your word are just as important. For example. I am always reminded of a couple I once had in therapy when I think of this aspect of respect. A wife mentioned in one session that her husband has “out of sight, out of mind syndrome”. Further questioning revealed that what he said when he left the house in terms in terms of punctuality and things he was doing completely changed as soon as he was with his friends or family. Often this happened without him notifying his wife of the change leaving her feeling disrespected and frustrated. She carried this resentment into other aspects of her life too. He was not even aware he was doing this… enough said.
- Mutual Benefit: Sounds like a business arrangement, sounds a bit cold and reeks of taking advantage. It may seem that way at first glance but as a pillar of relationship foundation is just as important as the other three. So what does it really mean? It is all about meeting and having needs met in a healthy, balanced way. This means that both partners are able to give without the expectation of return because they see the person they are with and the relationship between them as valuable. It means that both partners can receive without feeling they have to reciprocate to even the balance. It does not mean one partner sacrificing themselves to keep their spouse or partner happy and present. It does not mean one partner constantly taking and never giving. However, I see this much of the time in my work. It is my belief that if mutual benefit does not exist in a relationship, it is time to move on, that is how important it is . Just remember that if just one of the pillars mentioned above is missing, the foundation will weaken over time. Set your expectations of honesty, respect, trust and mutual benefit high. You deserve it.