What does a fulfilling life partnership look like? How does it work? What makes it successful?
Few of us can answer these questions with clarity. Most of us want a fulfilling relationship as a couple and have little idea of how to create one. Even couples in successful long-term relationships have little insight into why they are successful.
As recently as one generation ago, powerful social and economic pressures brought and kept couples together. For thousands of years marriage was a contract to create an economic unit for the purpose of raising children and ensuring the survival of the species.
Our society has evolved to the point where survival is taken for granted, and higher order needs such as love and emotional fulfillment bring couples together. Unfortunately, while we want to be happy, we do not seem to know exactly what we want, or how to get what we want, as the divorce rate attests.
Three Keys of Successful Relationships
To be a successful couple in today’s world you must (1) be clear about who you are and what you want, (2) make a good partner choice aligned with what you want, and (3) learn how to get what you want. Whether or not you are clear about your Vision, Requirements, and Needs, they all must be satisfied.
Key #1: Your Vision
You have a “Vision” of what you want for your life and your relationship. Like an iceberg, most of your Vision is below the surface waiting to be discovered. Your Vision is a powerful part of you that drives your energy, thoughts, feelings, wants, needs, and choices. You do not “choose” it, and you do not have control over it. Your Vision is an inseparable aspect of who you are, and serves as your inner guidance system driving you toward certain choices and away from other choices.
When your life and relationship is on-track with your Vision you feel content. When an event occurs that is off-track from your Vision, you experience an Issue. You have no more control over this process than you have a choice about your Vision.
For example, if you are unhappy with your career and decide you want to become a lawyer, start law school, and discover you really do not like law; you can try to make yourself like law, but you really have no choice.
While you liked the idea of being a lawyer, you were not clear about your Vision and the reality did not fit for you. It is likely that some aspect of being a lawyer fit your Vision, such as helping people or advocating for justice, and you will need to discover another pathway to fulfilling your career Vision.
When you apply the above to relationships you can see that if you want to be happy you must make choices that fit your Vision. If you make a relationship choice and then discover it does not fit your Vision, your only choice is to be unhappy or leave the relationship. For this reason, being clear about your Vision and what you want is critically important. Since you don’t know what you don’t know, it is tempting to believe that the part of the iceberg above the surface is enough to go on… until, like the Titanic, you discover the rest the hard way!
Key #2: Your Requirements
The basic criteria necessary to fulfill your Vision are your “Requirements.” The test for a Requirement is that the relationship will not work for you if it is missing. Requirements tend to be non-negotiable, and the absence of a single one often results in a failed relationship.
An example of a common Requirement is fidelity, which for many people is non-negotiable; if unmet, the relationship will not work. Requirements commonly involve religion, children, money, lifestyle, values, goals, etc. An unmet requirement is usually an unsolvable problem.
The three main choices in dealing with an unsolvable problem in a relationship are: (1) leave the relationship (common); (2) let go of the Requirement (possible but rare); and (3) negotiate livable solutions (possible but difficult, even with professional intervention).
Key #3: Your Needs
While Requirements are non-negotiable, and tend to be either met or not, Needs can be negotiated, with many possible alternatives.
A Need is easily identified when unmet, because of the resulting “Issue” that is experienced. An Issue is an unmet need. All relationships experience Issues. If Issues are addressed successfully, Needs will be met and the relationship will be successful. The primary reason for relationship conflict is a lack of effective methods for resolving Issues.
Needs are persistent over time. Wants become satiated and change. If a Want is unmet, you can be satisfied with other Wants being met. If a Need is unmet, the resulting Issue cannot be satisfied by any means other than addressing the underlying Need. Wants are the desserts of life, providing pleasure and enjoyment. Needs are the staples of life, providing nutrition for good health. Requirements are akin to the air we breathe and the water we drink, without which we can’t survive for very long.
In a relationship there are Functional Needs and Emotional Needs:
Functional Needs are the routine events that must occur for your life to work in a manner that fits your Vision. If any of these events do not occur you experience an Issue, but the relationship can still work for you. Functional needs include expectations about activities of daily living such as chores, meals, routines, parenting, handling money, etc.
Issues arising from Functional Needs are sometimes judged negatively by the partner who does not experience the Issue, resulting in some classic power struggles such as the toilet seat being left up or down, the cap of the toothpaste being on or off, and drinking from the container or cup.
If any of these events create Issues for you, it is because of who you are- your values, standards, and habits- and how you want to live your life. If any of these events are not important to you it is tempting to discount them as Issues. Unfortunately, this results in discounting the needs of the person experiencing the Issue, thereby damaging the relationship. A successful relationship requires negotiating and meeting each other’s Functional Needs.
Emotional Needs are the ways in which you feel loved. Today, instead of survival, our core reason for seeking a committed relationship is to love and be loved. We seek to get our Emotional Needs met through our partner, and want him or her to accept the love we want to give.
How you feel loved is highly unique and individual. Most of us are only aware of a fraction of our Emotional Needs. Like the iceberg, most of the ways in which we feel loved are below the surface waiting to be discovered and experienced.
One of the primary values of a committed life partnership that cannot be found in other relationships is the on-going process of getting to know ourselves and our partner at ever-deepening levels, building mutual trust and growing our capacities for connection, emotional intimacy, and giving and receiving love.
To be a successful couple you must become clear about your Vision, Requirements, and Needs, and learn how to have the relationship you want with your partner.