What Makes Relationships Last
By: John Adams, Ph.D. and Constance Avery-Clark, Ph.D.
Once most people settle into a relationship, they would like it to last. After all, having a long-term relationship usually has advantages. In our society, for example, the pooling of resources may make it easier to afford material possessions such as a desired house, and to raise children. Being in a long term relationship may provide a meaningful psychological resource in terms of having a partner with whom to share life events and to whom to turn for emotional support and comfort. However, it has been reported that nearly 50% of all marriages end up in divorce. The formality of marriage, in and of itself, is clearly not a guarantee of a happy long-term relationship. Common interests, and some sense of love and commitment are the ingredients to getting into relationships in the first place. However, these are clearly not enough to make a relationship survive in the long term. Many experts cite a number of factors that are often predictors of the early termination of a relationship. These include stress, financial problems, personality conflicts and, often most importantly, the inability to resolve interpersonal conflicts. Another critical predictor of relationship demise is the thought patterns of the partners. One clinical psychologist, Albert Ellis, Ph.D., in an article entitled, “The Nature of Disturbed Marital Interactions”, describes how disturbed relationships arise from “neurotic” individuals and their disturbed thinking. A disturbed individual: (1) has unrealistic expectations about him/herself, his/her partner, and the relationship itself; and (2) holds on to and resists altering or eliminating his/her unrealistic demands on his/her partner (i.e., resists altering or elimination what he/she believes that his or her mate’s feelings, thoughts and behaviors “should” be).
Judith S. Wallerstein and Sandra Balkeslee have published a book entitled, “The Good Marriage: How and Why Love Lasts”. It is the product of a study conducted by Wallerstein that involved interviewing 50 couples who regarded their marriage as happy. The couples were married at least nine years and had a least one child. While Wallerstein regards her results as being preliminary and limited (e.g. her study involved only northern Californians who were predominantly white, middle-class, and well educated), she is able to identify four types of marriages and nine psychological tasks for marriage.
The four types of marriages Judith S. Wallerstein identifies include the “romantic”, the “rescue”, the “companionate”, and the “traditional”. In the “traditional” relationship, roles and responsibilities are clearly defined, with one partner’s being the primary wage earner and the other’s taking charge of the home and family. Although a feeling of love is important, romantic passion is not necessarily central to this type of relationship. However, in the “romantic” relationship a strong passionate, sexual component is the key ingredient. Each spouse possesses strong feelings of passion for the other. This feeling typically was present from the beginning of the relationship but also has been maintained in both active behavior and in memory. In the “rescue” type of relationship, either one or both partners were severely traumatized prior to the relationship and were still suffering when the relationship was initiated. Therefore, at the core of the “rescue” relationship is an attempt at a healing process, where the relationship provides an opportunity to soothe psychological wounds and to grow. Finally, in the “companionate” form, friendship and equality are at the core. Each partner attempts to balance psychological investment in career with psychological investment in the relationship and in the couple’s children.
This typology suggests that there is not just one “right” type of relationship but also that multiple styles that are associated with longevity and happiness. However, it also suggests that relationships survive more satisfactorily if the partners’ philosophy concerning the type of relationship they have or want is similar.
To make any of these relationships meaningfully last, Judith Wallerstein proposes that any “…good marriage is built on a series of sequential psychological tasks that the [the partners] address together.” She identifies nine tasks. They include: separating emotionally from the family of origin and investing in the marriage; building togetherness while maintaining individual autonomy; becoming a parent; effectively managing the inevitable crises of life; building within the relationship a sense of safety for the expression of differences and conflict; maintaining a loving sexual relationship; applying humor in appropriate ways and keeping the relationship interesting; creating an atmosphere conducive to nurturance, comforting an encouragement, and vulnerability; and preserving the early relationship idealizations while simultaneously accepting the realities that presently exist.
These nine “life challenges” are considered by Wallerstein to be inherent in the nature of a long term relationship. She notes that long term relationships that are satisfying in general are found to effectively deal with these challenges. This is not to say that happy relationships do not have their ups and downs. However, they also have the essential elements, including hard work, psychological growth, and personal flexibility, that enable the partners to meet the challenges the relationship experiences.
In another book, “A Guide to Successful Marriage” by Albert Ellis, Ph.D. and Robert A. Harper, Ph.D., the emphasis is not so much on relationship types or on meeting the various challenges of relationships but on the personal responsibility of each partner for working with consistency and persistence in a rational manner in order to make each one’s own, individual life and one’s relationship a “solid, comfortable, interesting, and pleasurable ‘bed of reality’.” Making a relationship successful, according to these authors, includes “focusing on things to do constructively (instead of on worry and fear of failure); fully accepting differences of action and reaction between mates; working on and modifying those temperamental and preferential differences which can to some degree be changed; limiting, by careful planning and mutual consent, the negative effects of unchangeable differences; and de-emphasizing over-romantic notions of supercompatibility.”
While Judith Wallerstein emphasizes certain life challenges that, when met, seem to be associated with long term relationship happiness, Ellis and Harper, contend that hard work, persistence, and a willingness for self-discovery and change are crucial to a successful relationship. Ellis and Harper emphasize more the issue of personal responsibility for making changes in one’s own life, thereby enabling one to think more rationally and realistically and, in turn, making it more likely that one will be able to rationally, realistically and, ultimately, successfully meet the challenges of a long-term relationship.
Both sets of authors have important insights into what makes marriages work. Ellis and Harper clearly relate relationship success to being personally healthy, that is, to giving up “neurotic”, unhealthy beliefs and to adopting a more rational approach to personal and interpersonal well-being. Wallerstein’s nine marriage-related psychological tasks are essential for developing a more realistic view of the challenges to be faced in marriage, and for accepting the usefulness of dealing with these challenges effectively. Both perspectives promote the view that long-term, happy relationships are anything but magical. Rather, both perspectives characterize long-term relationships as serious life experiences that require flexibility, psychological growth, and hard work.
Drs. Adams and Avery-Clark, in conducting relationship counseling for two decades, have found that focusing on the relationship tasks and characteristics described by these researchers has been very useful. Focusing on these tasks and characteristics helps couples understand the interpersonal skills that are essential for facilitating long-term, healthy and happy relationships, and they also help each partner understand the amount of effort and change as individuals and as a couple that is necessary to accomplish relationship goals. Drs. Adams and Avery-Clark usually work not only with the partners jointly but also both of them, the therapists, together so that the partners have both a male and a female representative. This usually facilitates both partners feeling comfortable that their unique perspectives are adequately represented. Treatment usually consists of developing skills to ensure emotional and physical safety when more rational, realistic and honest communication is initiated, and then the skills for cultivating this more rational, realistic and effective communication. These more effective communication skills focus on enhancing each partner’s ability to actively listen to the other, and to discuss sensitive issues in such a manner as to resolve conflicts in a mutually agreeable fashion. Drs. Adams and Avery-Clark do not usually take a position as to the appropriateness of saving a particular relationship, terminating it, or maintaining the status quo. This is for the partners to resolve and the most important issue in treatment. However, in cases in which there is unchecked family violence or in which one partner refuses any intervention to treat an addiction that threatens the well-being of the family, termination of that relationship is usually a focus for serious discussion.
Dr. Adams or Dr. Avery-Clark can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at (954) 227-2700 or (561) 347-0997.
Read Dr. Adams' biography here.
Read Dr. Avery-Clark's biography here.
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