As the song goes, “Let’s stay together” and, seemingly, when relationships contain trust, support, freedom, and acceptance—whether or not times are good, bad, happy, or sad—they can forever fulfil many needs in a man; they can even be rejuvenating. Beautiful!
Now, whether or not you accept the evocative evangelising of the Reverend Al Green, he does raise an interesting question: despite all the benefits for people to be in a relationship, why do people break up? It’s hard to understand.
Benefits of Bonding
Whether through marriage, civil union, or cohabitation (thank God the judgmental term “Living in Sin” has been replaced, albeit with an insipid, sterile term), when two people enter a long-term relationship the benefits are plentiful, e.g., longer life, better health, better sleep, less stress, more fun, and a sense of belonging. The list goes on.
However, within traditional relationships (i.e., marriage between a man and a woman), which have been researched in many cultures around the world, men typically benefit more than women from strong healthy loving bonds—although both parties usually have better psychological and physiological health than their single peers or those in non-harmonious relationships. (Such findings also occur within all types of healthy loving unions.)
Whereas women will benefit from healthy relationships, they will also receive similar and other forms of support from a network of friends and/or extended family. However, as men are notoriously atrocious for creating and maintaining social support they will instead reap the benefits of acceptance, belonging, care, trust, etc. from their spouse mainly or solely. Interestingly, this trashes the evolutionary notion that monogamy is for women only and that men are hard-wired to be doggedly acquiring multiple partners—it seems survival prospects are enhanced by long-term, committed relationships.
Of course, all of the above is generally speaking, not applicable to unhealthy relationships, and doesn’t explain how staying together well is achieved and/or maintained. So, regardless of where on the continuum a relationships starts—an awkwardly bumbling, mumbling, fumbling, and, thank heavens, partly forgotten courtship or a sophisticatedly smooth, suave serenade—what’s the best way to maintain and stay in a relationship if you’re lucky enough to (still) have one?
For some, despite their belief that kismet, cupid, or the Gods aligned the stars to provide the perfect partner, it can come as a shock to realise that their newly acquired partner aint perfect. Nevertheless, many persevere and overcome the fallout of many disastrous discoveries, e.g., the ends from which their toothpaste tubes are squeezed, political allegiance, amount of ex-es, or whether or not toilet seats, heating, or forks ought to be up or down. The list is forking endless.
Over time, within relationships, each partner gets to know the other more; each becomes more aware of the other's “imperfections” and, hopefully, more aware of their own shortcomings too! Perhaps those things that were initially cute or endearing eventually become bothersome and set one’s teeth on edge: perhaps one comes to accept and appreciate the foibles, the quirks, the habits, the oddities, the differences, and see them for the perfect imperfections that they are.
However, whilst successful couples will accept and respect differences, they will also frequently express their fondness and admiration for and accept influence from their partner and be willing to share power and control. Ultimately, all of this helps to harness their sense of appreciation, belonging, closeness, excitement, love, and respect—all of which, when lost, are reported to be the main causes of separation.
Matched and Latched
Naturally, the “Getting to Know you Stage” never really ends. Whilst successful couples know a lot about each other’s psychological worlds (histories, beliefs, wishes, ambitions, dreams, favourite things, regrets, stresses, worries, even secrets) they will also regularly update their knowledge or maps of what truly makes their partner tick. Such strengthens a relationship.
However, discoveries can challenge a relationship too. But can you imagine a relationship that is “perfect”; never an argument or a problem? Yuck! Blah! Ha! And not only that, surely it would be a bit creepily false or a bit dangerously untrue; like the Wives from Stepford Wives or John and Mary in Father Ted.
Whilst there are many types of relationships, research (by John Gottman) suggests three types of supportive, successful stable relationships: (1) A “volatile” couple, who are supportive of each other’s independence, frequently tease and mock each other, and have big, passionate, expressive rows which they see as a sign of caring and enjoyment—but not as enjoyable as the make-up; (2) a “validating” couple, who place great emphasis on unity and companionship, are sensitive to the needs of the other, rather expressive and passionate in rows that may eventually erupt after a slow start, but will mostly focus and/or end with validations of their partner/relationship; and (3) a “conflict avoiding” couple, who explore rather than explode, agree to disagree, emphasise their friendship, acceptance, and admiration of each other, and rarely leave an issue unfinished. Regardless of the pairing, similarity in approaches is the key.
Ultimately, it’s the mismatches that require more hard work or most likely end in separation as they experience a disconnection in the relationship that overall feels “off” or lacking of meaning or true connection and plagued with negativity.
Matched and Patched
Of course, all relationships (even healthy ones) contain some negativity: it’s how the negativity is handled that helps partners to solidify their relationship, more honestly connect and interact, and to remain holding hands years down the line.
When negativity arises, it’s important to be able to attempt re-connections with one’s partner and to accept and respond positively to such attempts. Often, these attempts can be fleeting so being switched-on to and building awareness of these is of paramount importance to any relationship.
Managing the inevitable conflict well is helped by knowing how some problems can be resolved and by accepting that some problems can never be resolved. Regardless of which, consider the following 5 Points of Negotiation: (1) start an argument or a “conversation” about an issue softly and gently, not harshly as that makes it hard to turn around; (2) repair as you go along, admit when you get it wrong, acknowledge and appreciate partner’s attempts of kindness, respect, repair, etc.; (3) self-soothe, do something to relax like breathe better, go for a walk or a time-out, to avoid losing control of thoughts, speech, actions, etc.; (4) accept partner’s influence, his/her point of view, and the fact you may be wrong; and (5) compromise where possible, negotiate, and identify that which is non-negotiable to help keep your core values intact and your needs respected and fulfilled.
Successful relationships communicate well; they honour and explore each other’s perspectives and learn to laugh at themselves; they create a shared sense of meaning and knit their lives together; they frequently do nice things for partner/relationship; they use “Caring Habits” (says William Glasser, as opposed to "Deadly Habits") that are supportive, encouraging, trusting, accepting, and respectful; and they all have far more positive exchanges than negative exchanges, especially when managing conflict.
Matched and Dispatched
Yet, even in unhealthy relationships communication can be very clear—mostly, though, it can be very cutting and/or controlling. Many try to control their partners in various ways: from a disapproving glance, criticism, belittling, to a forceful threat. External control can look like this: punish the "wrong-doer" then reward him/her for changing behaviour. In whatever form or approach, it attempts to force another person to do what he/she might not want to do. Whilst insisting on controlling others brings unnecessary suffering into peoples’ lives, it is widespread throughout society and destroys relationships because it destroys personal freedom. Furthermore, for change to occur, it is best, healthier, and longer lasting when it occurs from within a person rather than demanded, forced, or orchestrated by another person.
Nevertheless, many men (and women) find themselves falling into the traps of trying to control a partner with “Deadly Habits”; watch out for the next time you find yourself performing or receiving any of the following behaviours: criticising, blaming, complaining, nagging, threatening, punishing, or bribing. As, respectively, the potential message to the other person is that you are better and he/she is unworthy or inferior, guilty or at fault, irresponsible, in need of change, and ought to be afraid or in awe of you. Or maybe you are on the receiving end of the above. Either way, such behaviour can be corrosive to relationships as well as one’s self-esteem.
Overall though, it seems that whilst there are many forms of negative behaviour, there are four behaviours (“4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse” says Gottman) that are the main contributing factors for conflict and/or separation: criticism, implying something is wrong with the person; defensiveness, warding off a perceived attack; contempt, behaviour that puts one person “above” another; and stonewalling, withdrawing from a conversation.
Such behaviours can appear in all relationships, and performed by either partner but generally speaking, when compared to women, men are more likely to stonewall and less likely to criticise. So, whereas criticisms can be clumsy exaggerations that are hugely harmful and damaging to a relationship and a person self-esteem and can come in various forms, often they are repeated when underlining issues are not initially dealt with as one partner stonewalled another. Stonewalling can be hugely hurtful and frustrating too as one person leaves (physically or metaphorically) the conversation and rejects exploring the issue with the other person who then feels rejected and uncared for.
Seemingly, however, contempt, which is less likely to occur in stable, happy relationships, is the biggest indicator that a relationship is in trouble and, if present, in the form of put downs or even a certain kind of smile, really ought to be resolved or explored before it damages the relationship (further).
Regardless of the state of your union, whether good or bad or happy or sad, consider the following:
Ultimately, the relationship is an entity itself which requires constant care and attention. Becoming more aware of oneself and one’s partner in a relationship is an ongoing process and needs vigilance to update one’s knowledge of the other. The challenges of accepting influence, sharing power, and control and remaining true to own self can be tricky to negotiate but the benefits of a fulfilling, healthy, loving relationship are huge and wide ranging.