Humans are social animals – we love to work together, play together, live together, and love together. No one teaches us how to build a rich relationship with a partner – we all struggle to work out the secret to keeping and growing a nourishing, loving, long-lasting romantic relationship. But what if our partnership causes us unbearable relationship stress and tempts us to end the relationship? Do we know when this is happening? Do we know why? Do we know how the outcome will reveal itself? Most of building, maintaining, and ending relationships is trial and error learning. I am going to give an outline of my next seven articles on relationships, relationship stress, and building or terminating a relationship.
Odd word relationship isn’t it? A few definitions might help us untangle this most important part of human social life. A relationship, in this article we will talk about a romantic relationship (usually involving a sexual relationship), is a form of connectedness between two people. Note when I say two people I am steering clear of ménage a trois, open marriages, swinger groups etc and more complex three or more person relationships. The ‘typical’ relationship suggests attraction, selection, mutuality, closeness, intimacy, sharing, enhanced communication, some implicit understandings and rules, fidelity, loyalty, a commitment, a prospective expectation, that is, a formal or informal agreement or understanding that the relationship will continue for some time, and a set of behavioral expectations and rules to guide the relationship. Sounds complex doesn’t it and if you are in a bad relationship you will already see some problems with theses defining characteristics.
If the relationship has any chance of moving from a brief encounter, there has to be an attraction that lasts longer than one night. The problem, of course, is that for at least one member of this relationship, one partner, the attraction can wane and disappear and the glue holding the relationship together becomes ineffective. Mutuality is another problem because in some relationships all one sees is one ‘giver’ and one ‘taker’. I will talk about this in my next article. Intimacy is one of my favorite concepts when I counsel couples whose relationships are falling apart. There is a difference between what men think about intimacy and what women expect from an intimate relationship. This is one of my themes in an article on ‘the end of the relationship’.
I know this is a generalization but for many men to be intimate is somehow connected with sexual penetration. Technically, intimacy does refer to a sexual relationship but from a psychological point of view many women view the term intimacy as including not only a physical relationship but closeness, an emotional linking, shared understanding and commitment, and a special, private, caring connection. If a relationship is to have purpose, depth, mutual emotional satisfaction, and the likelihood of continuity, intimacy is a very potent and essential feature of a strong relationship.
In my clinical sessions and writings I encourage people to work hard to understand themselves – to build self-awareness. In one of my most popular articles, I explain the concept of emotional intelligence and in my books, I define this vitally important concept and I teach people how to measure their emotional intelligence. In my third article in this relationship series, I will explain one of the strategies I use in therapy when I encourage a patient to assess objectively and thoroughly whether the relationship is flickering, is revivable, or if it is flat out dead.
Emotional self-awareness is a critical component of successful social interactions. I really enjoy the research from the Harvard Business School which has demonstrated the strong positive correlation between successful leadership and emotional self-awareness. Leaders who understand themselves have greater capacity to influence and lead their teams producing what is called a successful double bottom line – good financial profits and strong increase in human capital. So, emotionally aware leaders make more money and produce better results in managing their people. Many relationships fail because one or both of the parties are not self-aware. This self insight allows people to understand who they are, what their strengths and weaknesses are, and their effect on other people. To have a successful relationship, you need to know what you are bringing to the relationship table and you need to have the personal strength and insight to understand how this impacts your partner and meets his or her needs.
I guess you have been involved in at least one failed relationship and when you look back you might be very embarrassed about what you said and what you did when the flame of love and attraction fizzled out to be replaced, sometimes, by the white heat of anger and bad temper. I talk about this in two more of my relationship series articles. And, just in case there is some life left in the fire, I will talk about improving communication and repairing relationships in the last article of this series.
All of these articles address the stress involved in building and fixing a relationship. They are also designed to inform you so that you can deal with relationship stress in a mature and effective way. Far too many people behave badly in relationships and this bad behavior often leads to lost friendship and a rejection of one’s personal history. Our lives are relatively short, in a cosmic sense, so we should learn how to get the best out of our romantic friendships so that we do not have to suffer endless (and perhaps repeated) relationship stress.