Everyone will tell you what constitutes a healthy or happy relationship. They’ll tell you what you’re doing wrong, or what you’re doing too much of. They'll tell you what you’re not doing enough, or saying enough, or giving enough of. That might not be credible enough for you, so you go to the academic research and literature. You read about Sternberg’s Triangular Theory of Love, Social Exchange Theory, Attachment Theory, and Gottman’s Theory of Marital Dissolution and Stability, determined to find the formula for a happy relationship. Yet, monogamy and relationship longevity have become the exception, not the rule, and many people end up throwing their hands up powerlessly, hoping instead to just win the relationship lottery that awards a sustaining partnership.
Now, let me put it out there that I’m by no means a relationship expert. I don’t actually believe such expertise is possible, given the fact that no relationship is like the other. However, I consider myself to have a breadth of knowledge and experience around romantic relationships—academically, clinically, and personally. Much of my education was spent immersing myself in intimate relationship literature; I closely experienced my parents’ messy divorces twice; I’ve spoken to hundreds of clients for whom relationships is a primary concern; I’ve personally experienced three meaningful long-term relationships (and their endings); and dating is one of my favorite hobbies. And what have I learned throughout all of this? Well, regardless of whether you’re securely or insecurely attached, introverted or extraverted, and are compatible politically, religiously, and astrologically, there is a theme that appears throughout all the theories and all the case examples I’ve encountered.
Behold: “The Relationship Contract.”
Now, before you call up your favorite lawyer-friend, know that the “contract” I speak of is more metaphorical than tangible. Call it an understanding, an agreement, a definition based on the two (or, in some cases, more) people involved. How do I define a happy relationship? Where both parties state they are happy in their relationship! There are many relationships where partners live in separate countries, or residences, or sleep with other people, or have several unreasonably good-looking “friends” posting on their walls on Facebook. And, so long as both people involved are supportive of this, the relationship stays happy. In other words, both (or all) partners’ expectations are met. This means emotional, social, sexual, mental, and instrumental—all expectations are defined and followed. You breach the contract? You pay for it. You breach it too many times? You revise the contract (are expectations too high?) or break up. So long as there is clarity and compliance on both sides, the relationship thrives. Now, there are two major ingredients that are essential to the success of this contract:
1. Trust. Before you dismiss this as just another relationship post telling you the importance of trust, humor me for a moment. Let’s delve into this idea a little deeper: What does this idea of “trust” even mean to you? Trust in what? Trust that what? Trust in Whom? One of the key reasons I see people split up is because they lack trust, not in their partner, but trust in the fact that if the relationship ends they will not be OK. This is when people start to exhibit the dreaded “jealous,” “needy,” or “controlling” behavior that backfires and often ends up pushing their partner away by accusing, demanding, and smothering. The future of the relationship (or lack there-of) is out of one’s control, and this causes anxiety. If you can have trust that if your relationship ends you will survive, you’ll be less likely to display those toxic behaviors mentioned.
Here are a couple reminders to help you develop (and keep) trust:
- Trust that you’re a good catch, and they think so too, or they wouldn’t have chosen you.
- Trust that they’re a good catch, and, while there may be other options out there that tempt you at times, you’ve committed to this person because they’re unique.
- Trust that, if your relationship ends for some reason or another, you will be OK.
- Trust that, if the reason it ends is because of something you’re currently feeling anxious or powerless about, it will likely have been for reasons that are out of your control. Remember, helpful anxiety usually motivates us to act or do or change. Unhelpful anxiety generally stems from things we are uncertain about or powerless regarding, so check in and see if it’s unhelpful or helpful anxiety you’re feeling, and act accordingly. If you can do something with it, do. If you can’t, practice sitting in that anxiety and refer to the previous “trust.”
- Trust in the relationship that, so long as the second ingredient (revealed shortly) is exercised, you will not be blindsided by your partner’s dissatisfaction and desire to end things.
The second major ingredient required to make the relationship contract work is, unsurprisingly, communication:
2. Communication. Again, this is probably not shocking to you. But communication has changed massively over the past five years, and while previous advice emphasizes communicating, period, I want to emphasize communicating clearly. Multimedia has both been expansive and detrimental to communication. You might not have even gotten in touch with your current partner, or your long distance relationship might not have had a chance, had it not been for Facebook or imessage. Your first “I love you” might have been over text, or MSN Messenger (actually, if you’re still with someone with whom you were using MSN Messenger, you probably don’t need my relationship advice…). But how many times have you received a text and you aren’t sure whether or not it’s sarcastic? Or better yet, how many times have you not received a text, and gotten pissed off? Made interpretations that they’re ignoring you. Or you’re not important to them. Or they’re with someone else?
Travel with me for a moment back to a time before cellphones, before Facebook, before we had all these reasons to accuse and stress and interpret. If an interaction triggered feelings of offense or hurt or anger, we could do this crazy thing called “clarify” immediately. Now, we have multiple avenues down which our catastrophizing thoughts can get the best of us. Non-defensive communication is a course in itself, but aim to express your feelings and wants using “I” statements rather than “You” statements: For example: “I feel underappreciated/disrespected/annoyed/frustrated/etc. when [specific, observable behavior], rather than “You never appreciate me.” So, in sum, communicate non-defensively, clarify, and seriously consider the role texting plays in your relationship.
Regardless of this advice, though, it’s important to remind ourselves that we cannot predict the future, and there’s nothing we can do to guarantee relationship endurance. We find ways to manage our anxiety around this, and create a sense of control or security (by reading articles like this…kidding). This article recommends how to create a “happy” relationship, not a “never-ending” relationship. Focus on what’s in your control right now. Like all things in life, relationship-related or not, we can easily get lost in “what ifs.” Don’t let the fear of what might happen (or what might not happen) ruin your present experience. If we let “what ifs” inform our lives, we’d be paralyzed. You risk pain by being vulnerable in a relationship, just risk pain (physical and emotional) living. But love is generally worth it, just as living is generally worth it. So, forget about what might happen tomorrow and enjoy the beautiful experience of connectedness today.
Megan Bruneau is a BCACC Registered Clinical Counsellor in Vancouver, B.C. She holds a Master of Arts degree in Counselling Psychology from Simon Fraser University, Supplemented by a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology and Family Studies from the University of British Columbia. As a former personal trainer and yoga and nutrition advisor, Megan combines her personal and professional knowledge and experience in the health and wellness industries to bring you strategies for creating a more constructive and fulfilling way of life.
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