Five Ways to Define Success in a Relationship
Success is really in the mind of the beholder and varies with individual interpretation. What one person might see as a great triumph, another might see as a small achievement. As a relationship counselor, I define success as whatever a couple does to create a happily ever after.
It is the one thing that they both see eye to eye on and the very glue that holds their relationship apart from all the life obstacles that can threaten its existence. It will look different for each couple. How does it look for you? To be able to define it is the beginning of making it come true.
Here are some ways to ponder on success in a relationship.
- Does your relationship dovetail with your purpose in life? Is it having a positive influence on the lives of your children?
- Is your relationship contributing in some way to a better quality of life for those around you?
- Is your relationship creating an environment of mutual respect, acceptance, and honesty for each other?
- Are you both on a journey to meeting your goals without compromising the other’s values and wishes?
- Is your relationship allowing for the expression or fulfillment of dreams?
Another way to assess your relationship is to look at the quality of empathy—the ability to vicariously experience another person’s emotions. How confident are you that you would be able to predict your spouse’s feelings about key life challenges? What does it feel like to be in the presence of your partner’s grief, anger, joy, pain, or desire?
Are you able to tolerate (or enjoy) these emotions? Can you stay with your lover or mate while they deal with a health problem, job issues, concerns about children, insecurities connected to aging, or financial planning that turns out to be difficult? How well do you feel that your opposite number in the relationship understands your feelings? When you are trying to process a difficulty, does he or she allow you to “talk it out” all the way, or do they censor your feelings, perhaps by rushing in with advice or by trying to take over the problem?
There has been a lot more awareness of late about abuse in close relationships, but very little discussion of how often such “power over” situations can be emotional rather than physical. One partner can bully another and keep it hidden by misusing phrases like “I love you” or “I’m doing this for us.” If someone says they care about you, check in with your gut. What does your heart (or stomach) tell you about how the putative love speech makes you feel?
Do you feel warm, cared for, safe, or understood? Or do you feel frustrated, intimidated, shut down, cornered, or trapped? If loving words don’t correlate with loving emotions, you don’t have a successful relationship—you have a situation in which one partner is using romantic language to try to control and misuse their power over the other.
Many of us are still judging ourselves and our marriages or dating relationships based on paradigms we inherited from our parents’ generation. It’s often helpful to sit down and write about what you learned about close relationships from your mother and your father. According to these 1950s paradigms, a good marriage is one where the man is a competitive breadwinner, the woman keeps a beautiful home and raises perfect children, the couple spend as much time together as possible, no awkward questions are raised about women’s equality, and nobody ever goes against the grain and upsets the Joneses.
In truth, based on my relationship counseling practice, I can tell you that the amount of time that you spend together isn’t necessarily the best gauge of a good relationship. While we aren’t sure of all the details of what will replace the gender roles of the last century, by now we know that it doesn’t work to try to keep women at home and leave money-making up to their husbands. Not all couples today need or want to raise children, and those who do have offspring may not put most of the onus of child-rearing on mom. So many men are staying home and raising their children these days that the term “house husband” is entering popular culture as well as dictionaries.
A couple that is emotionally in-sync may still need time away from one another to recharge and connect with spiritual issues, other friends, or important activities the partner doesn’t find interesting. There’s nothing wrong with separate vacations or time apart in the evening or on weekends. In fact, giving your partner time to pursue his or her own “stuff” can send them a very loving message that you understand and value the unique traits that make your partner fascinating enough to hold your interest for life. In today’s economy, it’s hard to predict whether the husband or the wife will have a higher income.
Partners sometimes take turns helping one another to get through school. Sometimes it makes sense for partners to take turns working or staying home to make sure children get enough parental care. Friends, in-laws, or neighbors may judge your arrangement or try to shame you into changing it, but it’s not your job to make other people happy or comfortable. Your job is to define what happiness means to the two of you, and what your values are as a couple or a family. Being able to have a conversation about these things and make a plan to put your values into action is one marker of a very, very successful relationship.
Another stereotype of the “perfect marriage” is that the two partners always agree with each other, and never ever fight. This idea is so popular that I’ve had people come to my office for help when the only thing “wrong” was the fact that they were having healthy, vigorous discussions about the things that bothered them. If one partner is so aggressive that they insist on their opinion prevailing, and the other partner is so introverted or intimidated that they don’t assert a different point of view, what you have is not tranquility—it’s coercion.
The couple who can wave their arms and perhaps raise their voices while telling each other how deeply they care about a given issue are being honest with each other and reducing the quotient of resentment. So often, I see couples who tell me, “We never fight. We get along perfectly,” but when I ask them why they are in my office, I also discover that they no longer desire one another. They are two strangers under one roof, living parallel lives that do not intersect.
Human beings are paradoxical creatures. How can we love the same person who makes us angry enough to have an argument? It would seem that all strong emotions are connected in that invisible place deep inside of us where our inner lives are manufactured. If we shut down our willingness to experience conflict, we may also shut down our ability to look at the other person and experience the shivers of commingled lust and love. Conflict is painful, no doubt about it, but it may also provide a useful reading about whether a relationship is “alive” or not.
I have no doubt that there are many other definitions of successful love and marriage. It is probably a good time to look at your relationship and see how you measure up to the success quotient you find most meaningful. It might be a pleasant surprise. Our inner critic often doesn’t want to admit that we have made a lot of good choices or dared to be brave under difficult circumstances. We are often doing better than we think we are!