The Richard Nicholls Podcast

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Episode 154: What Makes A Good Relationship?

Although I’m not a relationship coach or a couple therapist a lot of clients will come to one to one therapy and discuss their relationships, with many of them saying things such as “I don’t know what a real relationship is supposed to feel like!”
I think that in a society that looks at so many things in life as disposable it can be very hard to think of something in your life as permanent, and may even be a bit scary for a lot of people. Which is why so many clients say to me that they feel trapped when they’re in a relationship yet they feel lonely and insignificant when they’re not.

Now, there is a problem with putting too much importance on a relationship when you’re single, because there are and always will be happy single people. You don't NEED a permanent romantic partner to be happy in life, all the research has shown that there isn’t enough of an association between happiness levels and relationship status for it to be a significant correlation.
A relationship may well be very nice, but if you think that settling down and getting married is the ONLY way to be happy then you could get quite disappointed.
If a relationship is your only expected source of happiness then it could get quite unhealthy. I think that a strong relationship is built not on 2 people who CAN’T live without each other, but 2 people who don’t want to HAVE to live without each other. As with so many things it all comes down to a proper balance of the 2.
The issue with being human though, is that we are primed to think about the things we fear the most, it’s kept us safe for many millions of years, and isn’t easy to ignore. So if one of your biggest fears is that your partner doesn’t love you then that’s what you’ll look for. As the famous phrase goes “Be careful what you look for, because you just might find it.”
This isn’t necessarily because evidence that your partner doesn’t love you is actually there, but because whilst looking for it you find evidence of something else. Evidence that your partner is sleepy, evidence that they’ve had a bad day, evidence that they have a weird attitude towards affection because they were never hugged as a child.

If you’re looking for reasons to think of your partner as a nagging, criticising pain in the arse, then when they say “You’re not going out like that, you look a state” then you won’t see that as evidence that they care about you looking good you see it as them being a nagging, criticising pain in the arse!

It’s often said that the secret to a good relationship is communication. I don’t think that it is.
The communication is irrelevant if the other person doesn’t respect what you say. Similarly if someones trying to tell you that they feel there’s a problem in the relationship somewhere and all you do is plan a counter argument to deflect guilt then you’re not listening to what they say. Not necessarily out of disrespect but nonetheless you aren’t taking onboard their issue.

There are common attributes to a great relationship. There have been surveys undertaken over the years where they ask couples how much in love they feel that they are, and ask them a few other questions. The researchers then look for common correlations with certain aspects and their overall feelings of love. In one research paper put together by some professors at Stony Brook University in New York, they found that in couples married for over 10 years less than half would describe themselves as being “Very intensely in love.”
In a country wide survey they came up with 40% and when restricting it to just New York it was only 29%. Now there’re lots of reasons why that could be and it’s probably not worth going into the very specifics, because there are consistently lower levels of general happiness reported by people who live in Northeastern states of the US anyway.

But do those who think of themselves as being “Very intensely in love” do anything differently to the other 60 to 70% of long term married couples. Well, as I’m sure you’d probably expect, people who said that they felt that they were intensely in love said that they had more positive thoughts about their partners and said that they thought about their partners more when they were apart.
They also reported engaging in more novel and exciting activities with their partners. Now, we don’t know which way the direction of causality is going here. Is it that thinking about your partner when you’re apart keeps the love alive, or is it that love still being alive after 10 years of being together encourages you to think abut them when you’re apart. It’s likely this goes both ways I think.

Similarly, frequent affection, such as holding hands, hugging and kissing was also more common among those who described their love as intense. It’s worth mentioning here that affection doesn’t mean sex. There is more to our satisfaction in relationships than how often a couple has sex. In this study and plenty of others, fairly low level displays of affection in the relationship were more important in creating the experience of intense love than how often couples had sex was. In fact, 9% of the sample actually reported not having sex in the past month, yet plenty of these people still reported being very intensely in love with their partners.
But of those that reported no affection in the last month, which was 4%, none of them reported intense love.

Again, we don’t know whether feeling loved up promotes more affection or if more affection leads to more intense feelings of love, probably both. The odd thing to come out of the study is about marital satisfaction. As well as asking for ratings on how in love they felt and how physical attracted they were to their partner the researchers also asked about satisfaction with the marriage itself and what they found is that people who reported low satisfaction still reported intense love for their partners. Interestingly, the correlation with physical desire and intense love was actually strongest in people who reported LOWER relationship satisfaction. Suggesting that couples with issues that can lower marital satisfaction can still have a very strong physical connection and an intense love for each other.
Is this because the only relationships to survive its problems are the ones with great love and physical attraction? Or is it that relationships with high positive emotions will also create high negative ones too maybe? Or is it a bit of both?

No matter what, I think what this research and others like it shows is that there are no rules when it comes to relationships. It’s totally subjective.
Don’t get me wrong there are common themes to happy relationships but a lot of them all have the same foundations. Relationship coaches will sometimes say that you know your relationship is strong because you know who your partners best friend is, and can identify traits in that friend that your partner likes. That makes sense.

In a strong relationship we find that couples know what their partners favourite book or tv show is. They know about each others goals, their dreams, their aspirations.

All these things revolve around the same thing. Taking an interest in them, listening to them, talking with them and learning about them. And all of THOSE things have the same foundations. Respect.

So, if you don’t think you have that with your partner and you’re also a little unsure as to whether or not you’re even in love then maybe there are few things that you can do.

One thing you can do is spend some time thinking about some of their traits that you admire, something that you would like to have as a trait as well. Share that with them, let them know that you admire that about them.
If you have children together what positive qualities has your partner passed on to them?

But as well as being able to focus on the positive side of your partner, see how you can process any negative traits about them in a healthier way, such as judging their behaviour rather than seeing their flaws or weaknesses in a generic fashion.
See if you’re able to recognise that them leaving the cap off the toothpaste, their shoes on the stairs or wet towels on the floor may well be an annoying and possibly inconsiderate behaviour but it does not mean that they are an inconsiderate person because of it.

Similarly if you can have a disagreement over something but are still able to see that your partner has valid points, even if their opinion is different to yours then you’re in a good place with them. Again, this all comes down to respect. And although this attitude is probably useful in any sort of relationship it’s more than useful in a romantic one, in fact it’s vital.