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Some people can’t make relationships last even 60 minutes, while others have successful marriages for over 60 years. What accounts for the difference? What do the ‘relationship elite‘ do that most do not?
Perhaps we can start by creating a working definition of successful relationships: the parties want to be, and derive mutual pleasure and/or benefit from being, together.
What are the ABCs of building successful relationships?
The As: Relationship building seems to go through at least three stages; the 3 As:
- Attraction. The parties are drawn to each other.
- Affection. The parties get to like each other.
- Attachment. The parties feel attached to each other.
Attraction has to be mutual, whether the relationships are social or intimate. Attraction can be to any human characteristic: beauty, intellect, physical prowess, common interest, skills, etc. If there is mutual attraction, or at very least, interest, the potential relationship can progress to the next stage. The attraction or interest need not be on the same dimension. For instance, one party may be attracted to beauty, while the other to character. Such asynchronous attraction accounts for what some consider unlikely successful relationships.
That brings us to the first of the 3 Bs: Beliefs.
Early on in any potential relationship, the potential parties mutually explore their beliefs and values. They are, perhaps, unknowingly, match hunting, or at very least, ‘tolerance’ hunting.
Perhaps the do so unconsciously knowing that those who share and or respect each other’s beliefs and values are more likely to have successful relationships. What does that mean? If two people hold that integrity, treating others with dignity, health and fitness are important in life, they are more likely to get on well.
Where there is a mismatch, people are less likely to enjoy each other. For example, a person who values hedonistic indulgence in food and drink, on the grounds that they believe the consequences of such, like tomorrow, may never come, is unlikely to enjoy the company of someone who values self-responsibility for physical and mental health, believing that gives them the best long-term life.
People tend to gravitate towards, and form relationships with those who share and validate their world view. Few of us want to spend time with those who challenge or threaten our values and beliefs. We want to feel comfortable in our relationships. We like to be with people we like; we want to be with people who make us feel good. We like people who make us feel good. We most enjoy the company of those who enable us to be ourselves.
That is, the second of the 3 As: affection, is largely determined by whether there is a compatibility of beliefs, values and life outlook. Unsurprisingly, many relationships that do not work, despite the often seen mutual recrimination, are based on a simple incompatibility of beliefs and values.
As is the case in psychotherapy and coaching, the biggest predictor of successful outcomes is rapport. When considering the role of rapport in successful relationships there is something tautological in noting that successful relationships are characterised by successful rapport (relationships). We need to unpack rapport and communication to see what is going on.
Rapport is an effect taking place after its causes; the 3 Cs: communication, cooperation, and commitment.
For rapport to form the parties must communicate and cooperate with each other, and have a shared commitment to making the relationship work. That involves the parties listening to, understanding, appreciating and validating each other. Doing so allows each to feel safe, physically and psychologically. The safer they feel, the more they cooperate, the more trust emerges. The more trust there is, the more mutual understanding and support, which leads to an even stronger rapport.
We know that when people have more positive communication, and more affirming, supportive communication, that the parties report experiencing a better relationship. The opposite holds true: the more negative the communication, the faster and more likely it is that the parties part company.
Which brings us to the other two Bs. Boundaries and Balance. As relationships form, boundaries change. Early on there are areas that cannot and should not be discussed; they are too personal for that stage in the relationship. Later on, if those same areas cannot be discussed by any one party, it will be perceived that they are putting up barriers to developing the relationship.
The relationship elite, those who have mastered the art of relationship building, are aware of where the current boundaries are in each of their relationships. With some people they know that, now, politics cannot be discussed, with others it is religion, or sex, or money. Learning and being aware of the boundaries in any given relationship at any given time is one of the advanced skills of relationship building.
Balance is hugely important, too. Two people who like to be the talkers in a relationship are going to have tougher challenges of balance than another couple, one of whom likes to talk while the other likes to listen.
As with most aspects of life, finding the sweet spot, the optimum zone, the balance, in that context, applies in every aspect of all relationships. Talking 80% of the time would be great for someone who likes to listen 80% of the time, but problematic with someone who also likes to talk 80% of the time. How do the relationship elite arrive at the right balance for each relationship? Through effective communication, specifically, listening to the needs, motives and preferences of the other.
When relationships make it to the Attachment stage, the ABCs are still required. For relationships to work long-term, both parties have to commit to making the relationship successful. That means agreeing how to address disagreement in a way that protects and even builds the strength of the relationship.
Even the best relationships have conflicts. Agreeing relationship management rules around how to deal with conflict makes it much more likely that relationships thrive. An example of a shared relationship success rule: ‘If either of us sees that the other is getting angry at something, we will disengage. When we are both feeling calm we can discuss how to find a solution, with which we are both happy.’
In my experience the relationships that are strongest and last longest are those that most practice the 3 Bs and the 3 Cs.
- Belief. If both parties believe they can find a way to make the relationship work, they maximise their chances of success.
- Boundaries. Agree rules and boundaries to make the relationship work, and stick to them, until the next point indicates the wisdom of change.
- Balance. People are constantly changing; both parties can make the changes necessary, by mutual agreement, to keep a healthy balance in each aspect of the relationship.
- Communication. People who really listen to each other; genuinely understand as much as is humanly possible, have the greatest chance of relationship success.
- Cooperation. Successful relationships are built on cooperating for the purposes of making the relationship work.
- Commitment. Of all the factors that predict long-term relationship success, commitment is the most important. Once committed, the parties make every decision to maximise relationship success.
Let’s finish with the wisdom of people who know. A couple, who were married 65 years, shared this powerful insight with me, (when I was delivering a talk on relationship success), as their recipe for relationship success. ‘Each time you are faced with a possible disagreement, ask yourself: Do I want to be right, or do I want to make the relationship right?’
What is your choice?
Professor Nigel MacLennan runs the performance coaching practice PsyPerform.