Building Healthy Intimate Relationships:
Intimate relationships are often the source of many years of happiness and satisfaction, and sometimes the cause of great pain and suffering. It depends! I will list various realities of initiating and maintaining a positive intimate relationship. After reading these, ask yourself: Where is my relationship? If you are unhappy, do something about it. Stay safe in the process.
Known Characteristics of Healthy Intimate Relationships:
- Do your best to maintain balance between independence and dependence on each other. Decisions and related behaviors need to be mutually acceptable to avoid conflict. Too much independence, and too much dependence tend to make relationships a bit rocky at time. Work hard together to find the Middle Way here. Some mutuality is required.
- Compromise and, if necessary sacrifice, to maintain a mutually happy interpersonal context. Too much entitlement and controlling behavior harms good relationships; not caring much at all about what your partner does without you may lead to the same outcome. Again, work at finding a mutual point of caring and being cared about.
- Good communications skills are a necessary component of maintaining a healthy relationship. If there are communication blocks, especially when emotional issues are involved, the relationship may not work out well. Be careful of communication that is dominant and/or submissive. It needs to be effective and share qualities of equality and mutual respect.
- Dominance and power inequality almost always cause close relationship to fail. If there are parts of the relationship where one party maintains strong dominance, failure is almost a predicted reality. If either party holds dominance in certain areas, this must be offset by the other party being more dominant in other areas. Balance of shared dominance is tricky, but it can work. Notice how mutuality and compromise keep coming up.
- If your partner has a serious character or behavioral issue (violence or addiction for example), and you HOPE to help her/him change – good luck. Holding onto relationships with built-in ongoing conflicts, where one party has intention to help/change/fix the other are usually doomed. One person cannot control another person!
- Mutuality of sexual intimacy and pleasure in the bedroom are important. Sexual pleasure as a loving act must be shared by both partners in intimate relationships.
- Mentalization, or returning to an executive/cognitive focus, may be an important variable in successful relationships. This is more important when highly emotional issues arise; to prevent limbic-brain reactivity andanger, intimate partners need to retreat to their executive, cognitive, prefrontal brain power. Taking a break from complicated conversations may be helpful.
- Good mindfulness skills may be important. When partners in an intimate relationship have emotional conflicts, it is important to PRESS the pause button and reflect on what is happening right now in the present moment. Try not to evaluate so much; better to observe, be fully aware, and respond carefully and effectively. Find middle ground!
- Know thyself! The better you understand your own needs and preferences, the more apt you are to consider the consequences of reactive behavior. Same is true for your partner. Of course, both of you must know each other very well to help your relationship be successful in both life and love. Both of you have strengths and weaknesses acting on the relationship.
- If you or your partner suffer from anxiety or depression do your best to be kind and helpful to each other. In some cases, psychological issues may lead to chronic feelings of abandonment anxiety and abandonment depression: anxiety about the possible loss of the relationship, and depression when/if you actually do lose it or part of it. Get professional help as needed.
- When couples experience serious challenges to their relationship, it may be helpful to use more advanced mindfulness skills. These may include: present moment awareness, non judging, radical acceptance, tolerance, compassion/self compassion, clear seeing, RAIN practice, observing sensations and emotions w/o acting on them, and kindness. Be good to each other.
- We also must contend with the realities of brain neuroscience. Three brain substances are necessary to activate certain pathways (motivation, pleasure, intimacy); these are dopamine, endogenous opioids, and oxytocin. Within intimate relationship spheres, these three often interact together and their dominant brain areas activate accordingly. We need motivation to work at the goal (a mutually rewarding relationship); we need the impact of concrete rewards for feeling pleasure and wanting more; and, we need to have empathic intimacy in relational interactions. Any malfunction of these brain pathways may cause failure in intimate relationships.
- When all else fails, returning to the biblical story of Adam and Eve may be helpful (if you are a believer). They were living in the garden of eden, and Eve decided to be more assertive and pursue what she desired (attachment here). Once the deed was done (the apple was eaten), they would be banished – and by the way Eve would be blamed. Sound familiar? Adam decided to stay with her, and later after leaving Eden they had two children. One child killed the other, but they did not give up. They had a third child. Despite chauvinistic character assassination of Eve by male church leaders, they did according to the story live a happier life than one would expect.
- If all else fails, and you both want the relationship last, go into couples counseling with a skilled, licensed psychotherapist.
For more information refer to Brogaard, B. (2017). On Romantic Love: Simple Truths about a Complex Emotion. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. See also Becker-Phelps, L. (2014). Insecure in Love. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger, and Feiler, B. (2017). The First Love Story: Adam, Eve, and Us. New York: Penguin Books. See also Azab, M. The neuroscience of wanting and pleasure. www.psychologytoday.com/blog/neuroscience-in-everyday-life/2017…Retrieved on March 27, 2017.
Anthony R. Quintiliani, PhD., LADC
From the Eleanor R. Liebman Center for Secular Meditation in Monkton, Vermont
Author of Mindful Happiness
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