Over the course of many years living and working in the field of human relationships I have searched for the secret of what it takes to make a successful intimate couple. I synthesised what I learned into what I call the Four Pillars of successful relationships. These Four Pillars are the foundations on which a relationship stands and each needs to be taken care of or the relationship risks falling over.
All changes, both good and bad, can put stress on your relationship. A strong foundation will likely bring you closer together during these periods, while a weak foundation may strain it beyond breaking point.
Starting a family is one of the biggest changes a couple can experience and adds an entirely new dimension to your life, both wonderful and challenging. Before you have kids you perhaps don’t need to pay too much attention to the relationship basics if they are working reasonably well. With the arrival of kids, even the best relationship will experience strain and it is a time when it can be wise to look to your foundations.
I hope you find this framework useful.
Pillar 1 – Desire
The first pillar is about choosing to be together because you Desire each other. It is the force that attracts you to (rather than repels you from) your partner. This is where relationship chemistry resides and where magic happens.
Your relationship will be strong when you stay fully aware that you choose to be with your partner because you want to (rather than have to) and this is much more likely when you find them attractive and interesting. Actively nurturing your own attractiveness will also help keep this pillar strong.
Desire and attraction is not only about enjoying your partner physically, though in an intimate relationship this is certainly very helpful. Desire also includes emotional, intellectual and spiritual attractiveness. You don’t need to find them the sexiest, most fascinating or inspiring person on the whole planet, but you do need enough attraction to be more than being merely neutral or even repulsed by each other.
To stay relevant and vital, desire must be worked on, nourished and cared for. When desire for your partner fades then you may seek it elsewhere – for example, in other people, in work, in your own interests. Part of the work of relationship is recognising any gradual reduction in desire and taking steps to keep it high. Personally I find my wife more attractive now in every way than when we first met more than 12 years ago. And this didn’t just ‘happen’. It took attention and nurturing.
The good news is that if desire has faded then it can be rekindled. After all, this is the same person you fell in love with, just older and and more mature. What often happens is you simply start to take each other for granted. It is worth remembering that no matter how familiar you are to each other, you cannot ever truly know what it is like to be them. Their experience of life is unique and ever changing.
In this mystery of ‘the other’ lies the seeds of desire.
Desire: Key Reflection Questions
- Do you want to be in a relationship?
- Do you want to be in relationship with your partner (out of all other possible mates)?
- What about your partner do you find attractive (list as many as you can)?
- Do you like and respect your loved one?
- What do you not know about your partner?
- What can you do to make yourself more attractive – physically, emotionally, intellectually and spiritually?
Tips for Keeping Desire Alive
- Take care of your body (including hair, skin, weight, nails, muscle tone and teeth)
- Expand your mind by reading, travelling, meeting new people
- Tell your partner what turns you on and what turns you off
- Get curious about your partner. Ask them what they think about, what they feel and what is important to them
- Devote time to explore each other physically through touch, massage, dance, eye contact
- Spend time to explore each other verbally through asking questions and listening.
Pillar 2: Direction
The second pillar is about having a sense of Direction together. It is about knowing the reason you stay as a couple and what you are creating together. It holds your dreams, your vision for the future and your wishes for your life together. Direction as a couple is one source of meaning and purpose in your lives and gives your own definition of what ‘success’ means for you.
Like with any journey you can, of course, set off in your relationship without a destination or a route in mind, simply going where the mood takes you. There is much to be said for spontaneous excursions and some may indeed make a life purpose out of purposelessness.
For most of us, however, having a direction and seeing progress towards some future vision gives meaning, motivation and cause for celebration. This is certainly true of your individual lives and I venture it is also true for your relationships. Without direction you risk either stagnating or losing sight of that part of your foundation that roots and guides you when times are tough.
If you are already clear and aligned about your direction then regular review can be helpful. Direction changes as you grow and evolve so the direction that served you at the start of your relationship may no longer be relevant to where you are in life now. So I highly recommend regular review and updates as your life moves on and new horizons appear as old goals recede.
Direction: Key Reflection Questions
- What is your dream for your relationship? And your partner’s?
- In what ways does your relationship nurture you?
- When, at some point in the future, you are able to say ‘My relationship is full of meaning for me’ – what specific things would you point to?
- Who does your relationship benefit? And in what ways?
- How does your relationship serve the bigger purpose of your life?
Tips for Establishing Direction
- Allocate some time to share ideas about your dreams together
- Consider preparing a couples document (I recommend LifeBook)
- Regularly review where you are going and celebrate the progress you made
- Set mini goals that move you forward in small ways.
Pillar 3: Time
The third is spending Time together. Time together is the raw material out of which you build your couple life. It is about putting a priority on being with your partner combined with the quality of what you do when you are together. The right balance between quantity and quality is up to each relationship to discover.
Finding time can be challenging, of course, because many of us have really busy lives and multiple demands on each 24 hours of a day. Starting a family adds another huge dimension to your lives and the associated amount of time you need to devote to it. Many couples only fit in time for each other in periods of crisis, but by then it might be too late.
If you are finding your life so packed with stuff that you just don’t have time together then there is really only one solution.
Stop doing some of the other stuff.
If you are giving all your 24 hours to other people (including kids and to yourself) and your partner is getting nothing from you then it will erode the relationship. And it will do it pretty quickly. If you are in this situation then you need to take action now and drop some of the other things. Developing some habits can help avoid getting into crisis. Date nights. Daily check-ins with eachother. Quiet moments after the kids are asleep.
The other aspect of time is the quality. Sitting for hours in front of the TV withour talking does not count as quality time together. The number of ways you can create high quality interaction is only limited by your creativity.
Key Questions for Time
- In a typical week how long do you spend together in quality time?
- How much quality time do want to spend together?
- What would spending more time together give you?
- What activities are you willing to reduce in order to spend more time with your partner?
Tips for Time
- Review your current activities and see where your time goes. Decide the activities you want to cut out so you have more time together.
- Plan time together at a moment in the day when you can be sure you will not be interrupted
- Plan regular date nights with someone lined up to take care of the children
- Brainstorm together all the high quality things you can do together
- Choose one or two from the list you created and set aside a time to do them.
Pillar 4: Communication
The fourth pillar is the art and skill of Communication. It is the oil that ensures the smooth functioning of your relationship. It is about making sure you are communicating all important things and doing it in a way that brings you closer together, not further apart.
At its most basic level, to communicate is to speak up and to listen. In a successful relationship there is time and space for each partner to do both. When it works well it allows you, among other things, to get day to day stuff dealt with smoothly and efficiently, to speak up when things are not working, to be heard when you are troubled, to solve inevitable conflicts more effectively and to celebrate your life together.
When communication is absent or not not working it can breed resentment and distrust, stimulate pain, create misunderstanding and waste huge amounts of time and energy. Ultimately it can lead to the breakdown of the relationship.
The good news is that communication can always be improved and the skills involved can be enhanced throughout your lives. What can be really helpful for the couple is both of you learning approaches and techniques to express yourselves clearly from the heart and to listen empathically. The approach we found most useful is Nonviolent Communication.
Key Questions for Communication
- What topics are hard for you to speak up about?
- What are you most afraid to tell your partner?
- What would be the benefit to your relationship if you did speak up about the difficult things?
- What is the balance in your communication between practical (information, decisions) and personal (vulnerability, sharing of yourselves)? How would you like it to be?
- How satisfied are you with the way you solve conflict? What could be improved?
Tips for Communication
- Take a course together in Nonviolent Communication
- Develop a daily habit of talking and listening for 10 minutes each
- Create a time where you will not be disturbed and list all the topics that are hard to talk about. Choose one topic and dive into it
- Develop a daily practice or habit of telling each other what you are grateful for about them.
I’d love to hear in the comments what you find useful about this framework. Future articles will explore these Four Pillars more deeply and how you can use them to strengthen and grow your intimate relationship.
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