A Successful Relationship Looks Like This

While recently browsing a national UK newspaper,  I came across an article concerning a comment made by Barack Obama concerning the questions you might ask yourself about a potential partner before committing yourself to a long term relationship with them. They are as as follows:

“Here’s the advice I give everyone about marriage—is she someone you find interesting? You will spend more time with this person than anyone else for the rest of your life, and there is nothing more important than always wanting to hear what she has to say about things. Does she make you laugh? And I don’t know if you want kids, but if you do, do you think she will be a good mom? Life is long. These are the things that really matter over the longterm.”

Nice questions and obviously if he did ask those before he got married,  he got the right answers as his marriage has endured for many years. I find the questions important and quaint but not over deep. Perhaps that was the intention and many people will gain inspiration from them just because they came from who they did.

This set me thinking. How do really now that you might have the ‘one’ in front of you? You certainly won’t know this in the first six months when some people naively believe that they have found their ‘special’ one and sometimes make major decisions based on this initial period like getting married and having children. It is only after an extended period that you have the basis of understanding of the other person to able to ask questions about long term commitment. When you reach that point, questioning yourself about who you want to make that commitment with is valid and right. That said, I would certainly look to ask different questions to Mr Obama. In my opinion, these are the vital questions  everyone should be asking themselves before they think about committing to someone long-term.

In Sickness And Health. Part of the standard marriage vows package in the Western world and often never questioned. However, it is an important question to ask. Do I think that my partner will be as committed in bad times as well as good? Will they be around if I get sick, suffer major setbacks or disaster and do I believe I would do the same for them?

Team Player. Is this a person I feel comfortable with sharing a vision? Am I on the same page on most things? Do we celebrate the things that keep us together and work willingly on the things that divide us? Is this a person I can freely share my feelings and thoughts with without being shut down or blocked? Is this a person who will work with me in a solution-focused problem solving process without blame or defensiveness?

Boundaries. Does my potential partner value their sense of independence, allows me to do the same but is interdependent in the relationship? Does he or she set boundaries and allow me to do the same? Do they see boundaries as a healthy concept in relationships? Are they willing to see conflict as manageable and potentially a way to build and grow?

The 4 Pillars. I have often stated here the importance of the four pillars of a relationship basis and I firmly believe them to be an essential part of any relationship. Can I trust my partner fully? Is there respect between us when we are together (and apart)? Have we been honest with each other? Does my partner generally meet my needs and allow me to do the same for them?

Togetherness. Here is where I agree with Barack. Do I have fun with my partner? Do we have shared interests? Do we have plenty to talk about? Is there a sense of routine and being taken for granted on both sides?

The Right Thing.  Does my partner have values and sees that action speaks louder than words? Is this a person who does the right thing and demands the same of me ? Do I feel I grow and become a better version of myself when I am with them?

I wrote about the characteristics of counter-dependency and how this is defined by projection of a “strong” personality that hides the fear of true intimacy and commitment. Many people who identify as counter-dependent see themselves as exhibiting healthy autonomy and this is often the impression they give to others. However, there is a big difference in the two concepts. Counter-dependency is still codependent behaviour. They just fear dependency on others which drives them to engaging in short, superficial relationships which end when they sense “neediness” and connection from the other side. As with codependency, its roots lie in childhood trauma or an escape from codependency. Many codependents who have had bad experience (especially with narcissists), see counter-dependency as a natural antidote to their codependent behaviour. The emotional distancing associated with counter-dependency seems a welcome change from enmeshment for a while.

In my work with codependents, I often come across a question that crops up from time to time. Many claim to not know what a healthy relationship looks like and would like me to tell them what it looks like. Of course, that would be a healthy relationship view through my eyes. However, there are some general rules that define the difference between counter-dependency and interdependency that might give us a clue.

We must first state that for anyone to practice interdependency they must first be independent. That means having a healthy sense of individual autonomy. That is a good sense of personal ambition, self-acceptance and indeed self-love. I once heard it described as being the “author of your own life, free of emotional entrapment from an outside source”. The issue with most relationships is that we are not independent when we start or are in a relationship. We are either dependent, codependent or counter-dependent. Sometimes worse in the case of narcissism. We mistake enmeshment with love and feel guilty when we take time for ourselves.

Once independence is established, (I accept this might take work, sometimes lots of it), it is the perfect platform for interdependence in a relationship, ideally with another independent person. Interdependent relationships contain the following elements and truly define a “healthy” relationship.

A healthy sense of self based on a value system that is maintained when in a relationship.

Recognition of the emotional bond that is shared and the value of vulnerability.

Actively seeking out opportunities to create emotional intimacy and honesty without their value system being compromised.

Sense of being “healthy self” and “who they really are”.

Healthy boundaries, clear communication and active listening.

Create a safe place to allow vulnerability and emotional connection.

The taking of personal responsibility for behaviour

Healthy self-esteem exists on an individual basis

The couple do not feel threatened when individual interests are pursued.

One of the key elements of this process is that the couple allows the above to happen while maintaining the same for each individual. As Stephen Covey classically wrote:

Interdependence is a far more mature, more advanced concept. If I am physically interdependent, I am self-reliant and capable, but I also realise that you and I working together can accomplish far more than, even at my best, I could accomplish alone. If I am emotionally interdependent, I derive a great sense of worth within myself, but I also recognise the need for love, for giving, and for receiving love from others. If I am intellectually interdependent, I realise that I need the best thinking of other people to join with my own.”

― Stephen R. CoveyThe 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change

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Dr. Nicholas Jenner

Dr. Nicholas Jenner is a counseling psychotherapist in online private practice working with individuals, couples and groups, dealing with codependency issues, severe depression, bipolar, personality disorders, anxiety, PTSD, eating disorders and other mental health issues. He has been practicing online for many years and recognized early that online therapy was a convenient method for people to meet their therapist. Working outside the box, he goes that extra mile to make sure clients have access to help between sessions, something that is greatly appreciated. He also gives part of his spare time up to mentor psychology students in a university setting.

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