With on-going development and nourishment of the four elements of romantic relationships– safety, love, shared interests and mutuality–we can keep our relationship feeling fresh, engaging and satisfying.
At times, many of us feel that something is missing in our relationship. On some level, we all share similar basic needs, and a satisfying romantic relationship is one that provides some of those most basic needs.
Through my own spiritual practice, I have learned there are four elements that constitute a healthy and satisfying relationship. I invite you to reflect on these elements and consider for yourself to what extent they exist in your relationship and, accordingly, how they impact your relationship.
Element 1: Safety
Safety is one of the most basic needs for a healthy existence – for all living things. When it comes to relationships, having a solid sense of safety with your partner means you can allow yourself to fully show up – with a wider array of emotions, opinions and vulnerability. Being safe in relationship without being judged by your partner for your authentic expression creates a secure environment that encourages you to show your strengths as much as your weaknesses.
Showing up fully does not mean that you get to “puke” all of your unprocessed emotions into your partner’s lap. A mature relationship is one where partners can hold and own their individual experiences without expecting their partner to hold their emotions for them.
Similarly, in order to create a sense of safety with your beloved, be extremely careful to not use vulnerable information they shared against them in a moment of tension or during an argument. Doing so gives your partner the message that they are not safe and therefore cannot confide in you, which will greatly compromise the level of intimacy that your relationship will allow.
Partners that never argue are partners that are not fully sharing themselves and what they really want, which greatly compromises their level of intimacy. (link here to conflict avoidant couple) Creating a sense of safety in relationships doesn’t mean that you are supposed to always get it all right and make no mistakes or to never upset your partner. In a healthy relationship, the partners are able to cultivate the natural tension that arises among them in a way that promotes a deeper sense of connection and intimacy.
Element 2: Love
Love is another fundamental need for existence – for life as much as for healthy relationships. So much has been said about what love is and how it manifests itself, to the point where the term love has been reduced to a cliché. For many, there is quite a bit of confusion around what love means.
In the most basic way, love can be compared to the force of gravity that keeps celestial bodies revolving around each other. It’s a life force that pulls us towards our beloved and that makes us want to be in their presence. With love comes a wide array of how it can be expressed and experienced. A good reference for understanding different ways that people love and feel loved is Gary D. Chapman’s The 5 Love Languages.
In his poem On Marriage, Khalil Gibran beautifully states, “Stand together yet not too near together: for the pillars of the temple stand apart, and the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.”
A healthy loving relationship is one that allows enough room for each partner to be fully themselves. While occasional merging is natural and can actually feel divinely satisfying (like in the act of lovemaking) it is important for each partner to come back to standing independently and differentially from their partner. Paradoxically, a full and satisfying occasional merging requires a high level of being your own person.
Element 3: Shared interests
At the foundation of a satisfying romantic relationship is a deep sense of friendship. My mother-in-law, facing her final phase of life, still describes her urge to speak with her deceased husband of 54 years who passed away three years ago, to tell him about an event here or there she knows that only he will truly understand. While this can be heartbreaking, it also reveals the beauty in the depth of friendship that she and her husband shared.
In a satisfying relationship, we are interested in our partner and in what’s happening in their world, and they are interested in ours. There are certain activities that we like to do together. There are certain conversations that get us deeply engaged. We have some common visions and goals for our shared future. We share values and, with time, we collect memories that give us a sense of togetherness that is special and exclusive only to us.
Of course, not all of our interests are shared. Intimacy and connection are not just about partners being interested in the exact same things. It is in maintaining a balance between what is shared and what is different that partners get to cultivate the kind of connection and individuation that create a healthy and satisfying relationship.
Element 4: Mutuality
In romantic relationships, we naturally go through phases in which one partner supports another without receiving the same level of support. This can happen when one partner faces difficult challenges or goes through a life transition. When this occurs, it is important that partners find a way to even the “playing field” as much as possible.
Each partner brings their own life story and personality to the relationship. One may show more parental traits than the other; another might show more emotional vulnerability; one partner might have more challenges with transitions; another might deal with substance abuse. It is important that partners find ways to become more aware of the roles they play in their dynamic, and bring more flexibility into these roles so they transform and become interchangeable. Otherwise, a partner might feel stuck in a role, and the relationship can start to feel repetitive, limiting, burdening and stale.
In my relationship, I am aware of my tendency to support my wife emotionally without seeking the same kind of emotional support from her. In the early phases of our relationship, as a new therapist, I found myself trying to become my partner’s therapist. That dynamic quickly felt burdening and dissatisfying to my partner and to me.
After multiple conversations about it, we decided that, after she shared some of her emotions she would turn to me and ask me what was going on for me emotionally.
Also, whenever either of us starts to feel like we’re playing into the therapist-client roles, we call our attention to it and make a mutual effort to change that dynamic. It took us years to create a level of mutual awareness and enough of a sense of safety that to allow me to shed my tendency to only take care of her, and to let her care for me as well.
With on-going development and nourishment of the four elements of romantic relationships– safety, love, shared interests and mutuality–we can keep our relationship feeling fresh, engaging and satisfying. When you sense that your relationship isn’t feeling satisfying for you, look at it through the lens of these four elements and ask yourself if each one is as fully realized and expressed as it could be.
It is challenging to gain a large enough perspective to reflect on one’s own relationship dynamics and assess which of the elements are compromised. Even more challenging is taking the necessary steps to bring your relationship back to a satisfying track. In times like these, couples counseling can be extremely helpful in supporting partners to reflect on their relational dynamics and identify the steps needed to transform their relationship into one that is much more satisfying.
If you need help working on some of the four elements of satisfying relationships, our couples counselors in Berkeley, San Francisco, Walnut Creek, and Palo Alto can offer you the tools and support you need. We also offer sliding scale options for people with need.
Eitan Saenger, MFTi
Eitan has a master’s degree in Somatic Psychotherapy from California Institute of Integral Studies. Working experientially, Eitan helps couples become more aware of their limiting patterns, guiding them in creating new, more satisfying ways of interacting. He has completed trainings in both the Comprehensive Hakomi Body Centered Psychotherapy Method and Psychophysical Therapy for Couples. Eitan resides in the East Bay with his wife and son.