You may already know that I have been in a long-term relationship for … well … a very long time. I have seen many other relationships that have developed during that time fall apart. As a counselor, teacher, and minister, I am always curious about what leads to break-ups, but even more, I am interested in what fosters long-lasting relationships.
I want to be clear that I am not speaking exclusively about marital relationships. Instead, I am referring to a larger context of relationships that includes a broad range, such as: committed companions, friendships, siblings, families, work-oriented relations, and many more.
Let’s take a look at three keys to successful long-term relationships, but first there is one concept that I would like to introduce. Your relationship template.
Your Relationship Template
Fundamentally, you learn what relationships are and how they work primarily from your parents. As you grow up, you watch what they do and how they interact together. From these observations, you draw conclusions about relationships in general, and these conclusions form a matrix of behaviors and beliefs that eventually becomes your relationship template. That is, the template that you carry with you into your own relationships as “how relationships ARE.”
Everyone has one. Even if you had only one parent—or no engaged parents—you have the idea of how relationships ARE that you learned as a child. (Notice that I did not say “ought to be.” Your template is reality for you, not conjecture.) One fundamental problem that I see over and over again is that relationships get challenged because the templates of the people involved clash. They simply, fundamentally, and subconsciously disagree about what relationships are and how they work.
Many times, people have trouble in relationships simply because their relationship template does not match that of their partner. Because these templates form key assumptions about how relationships ARE, they are rarely examined to see if they are actually true. And therein lies the problem. Until the partners realize that they are not the ones clashing, that it is their assumptions about relationships doing so, they generally keep arguing and blaming until the relationship is crushed.
So, step one in maintaining long-term relationships is to examine and understand the assumptions you are making about relationships based on your own template. If both partners do this, they have a chance to create a new, hybrid template that might serve them much better.
Now, let’s move on to three keys of maintaining relationships.
You Have To Be Flexible
The relationship has to be flexible enough to accommodate change. Everyone changes over time. Everyone. So the relationship has to be able to expand and contract to handle that change.
You will grow apart, sometimes greatly, and you will come back together. It’s quite like breathing. The relationship has to have room to breathe. If it doesn’t—if one partner tries to hold fast to “how it is supposed to be”—then it will be stifled. If it can’t breathe, then it will die.
People, especially those who are on a spiritual path, are always evolving. Frankly, the pace of growth can be uneven and partners can become separated. Over time, it may be that they become so greatly separated, either by the pace of change or its direction, that it can become difficult or impossible to come back together.
Interests may diverge so far that there is no center of gravity to pull the boundary of the relationship back, to inhale. If the relationship cannot inhale as well as exhale, it can be considered on life support. Then it is time to honestly reflect and reevaluate the core of the relationship and whether it can continue.
Sometimes such flexibility can be scary, but it is worth it over time. Healthy and strong relationships are flexible enough to survive and thrive well into the future.
You Have To Be Willing To Let Go
This doesn’t mean that when times get tough you have to let go, to bail when things go wrong. It means that you have to be willing to let go. Just as if you hold too strongly to “how things should be,” the need to hold on to your partner may eventually strangle the relationship.
From a shamanic perspective, since everything is alive, so is the Relationship itself! What happens when you try to hold too tightly to an animal, perhaps even your pet? Its instinct is to fight, to escape. Only when you do not hold too tightly or too demandingly, can you hope to continue the relationship.
If you find yourself getting “clingy,” it’s time to take a step back and reevaluate whether you might be creating the problems you are wanting to avoid. If you are feeling desperate to hold onto your partner, odds are very good that you are strangling the relationship.
However, if you can remind yourself that it is OK to let go if things are not working right then—if you can see that letting go if needed might eventually lead to your own and your partner’s happiness—you may find that your relationship grows stronger, more intimate, and more rewarding.
You Have To Like Each Other
Love is not the key factor in maintaining long-term relationships. I know many people who genuinely love each other, but simply cannot get along. When I ask clients who are seeking assistance with what appears to be a failing relationship whether they like their partner, sometimes it takes a while for them to say. And, actually, quite often the answer is “Not really.”
I’m not referring here to the reality that you might “love the person but just don’t like them right now.” That happens all of the time. One partner might do something that annoys the other, so that they don’t “like” each other in the moment. Eventually, things get settled out and they are good again.
The quality of like I’m referring to is more that of best friends. If you are not best friends with your partner, essentially you don’t really like each other—perhaps not enough to keep the relationship together long term. If you don’t basically and fundamentally like each other, it is difficult to really trust each other either.
Being good, close, best friends is intrinsically connected to trust, and trust is the bedrock of successful long-term relationships. Once trust is lost, the relationship is functionally dead. If trust cannot be regained—and I would argue that the best, if not only, way to regain trust is if you like each other enough to be willing and able to truly forgive because of that—the relationship is in trouble.
These three keys do not all have to be in place all of the time for the relationship to be successful. Rather, they offer excellent ways to examine and evaluate what might be going well or wrong in your relationships with others.
Again, the examples I use here may seem to refer to one-to-one committed partnerships because that is the easiest way to talk about them. However, if you think about all of the relationships you have in other arenas more broadly and apply the keys to them as well, you may find that they can help you decide which relationships are likely to succeed over time, and perhaps those you might want to let go.
You can learn more about this topic and relationships in general in my book, Spirit Paths: The Quest For Authenticity. I devote an entire chapter in it to the issue of Relationships, Tribe, and Community.
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