The Three Fundamentals of Healthy Relationships
I'm a lover. I love easily and deeply, and when I feel a real connection with someone it hits me hard.
I'm also a lover of human psychology. It fascinates me so deeply and in so many ways that I've come to view my experience in the world partially as a first-hand experiment in sociology.
As I've lived, fought, survived, persevered, grown and evolved—because in the process I've refused to allow myself to become calloused and cynical—certain of life's experiences have peacefully simplified from emotionally charged and complicated into simpler, more practical forms I now have the luxury of being able to navigate with relative ease.
In this case I'm specifically talking about relationships. When I first entered the dating scene I was essentially a passenger in my body as it was driven by my emotions. Witnessing a unique spark in someone I also felt physically and emotionally attracted to flipped a switch that basically sent logic and rationale out the window. The prospect of a fight with a partner that I couldn't resolve in the moment or (gasp) a breakup was horrifying to me.
Early on I couldn't assess the practicality of proceeding in a romantic relationship with a person if I was in love with them. All I could see was what I perceived as love—this force that was in reality a combination of idealistic (blind) love for a false simplified version of this person, raw attraction, insecurity and codependency. After my first legitimate relationship ended in my very early 20s I spiraled into a pit of depression for over 6 months. "The agony! How can life be so cruel?!," I ached.
Predictably I survived my puppy love heartbreak and moved on. Over the next decade I had at least my fair share of flings ranging from one night stands to several months of sex and companionship that at their pinnacles were verging on mutually-acknowledged relationship territory. I alternated between that spectrum of casual encounters and 4 additional committed relationships before finishing out my twenties. From age 20-30 I was in committed relationships with people as young as 18, all over the 20s map, in their 30s and as mature as 49. In the same time frame I was often Relationship Advisor in Chief to several friends of all genders and orientations.
I felt a lot and learned even more. Every persistent relationship I've had, regardless of "seriousness," was unique and brought light, passion, pleasure, surprise, intrigue, growth and love into my life in various forms and to different degrees. But over time I started to notice a trend emerging that unified all of them, and the longer I was dating and the more relationships I experienced the more it came into focus: their endings were organic, like a star burning out. Each ran its unique course for a different length of time, and came to its end for its own unique reason when it needed to. Looking back after allowing some time to pass made that obvious in every case, and eventually I began to see it that way in the present too.
Many of these relationships were with people I loved with all my heart. 2 of them were with people I was mentally prepared to marry and have children with. One of them was with a girl who opened my eyes to an entirely new level of compatibility. I had never been so well matched, and neither had she. I'll probably never forget her. But it wasn't meant to be, and while we both fought for the relationship, when it ended I was able to move on knowing it simply couldn't have worked even though our bond was nuclear and I'm certain we could've conquered planets together.
How could I be so resolved? Well partially because I had come to realize that relationships—while beautiful, emotional, enriching and enjoyable—are at their core practical evaluations of fit between people. The other half is because all relationships boil down to three fundamental components. And they all need to be in sync for a LTR (long-term relationship) to work in the long run.
Here they are:
This is a good one to start with because so many people view it as the only thing that matters. While I won't assign a rank to the three components here I will say that weighting love with too high a value compared to compatibility and timing is a mistake.
First of all, love exists in many forms, is about as easy to frame and measure in any given moment as a sentient gas, and evolves over time. It's a critical component to a happy and healthy LTR, but it's far from everything, and it can't support a relationship's weight alone.
It's also important to separate real love from infatuation and attraction. I'd argue it's equally critical to know the difference between true love and being in love—romantic love. Romantic love fades. It's extremely rare to be continuously crushing on your partner for 30-60 years. True love is deeper than that. It's unconditional once it's established. True love can only come from knowing a person to their core—their deepest secrets, most carefully guarded vulnerabilities, dysfunctional flaws, obscured insecurities and suppressed fantasies—and deciding that who they are with those things and all their other baggage are for you forever.
True love survives changes to appearance, ebbs and flows in sex life, financial lows, unexpected life challenges, unbalanced needs, and changing circumstances. It's the desire to partner with a person to help them become the best version of themselves, knowing that they'll change over time and being prepared to stick with them through thick and thin. True love is unconditional, never based on circumstances or a handful of qualities and is both 100% compatible with and often sustained by eye rolls in response to your partner.
This is my favorite one because believe it or not, compatibility over love is where the magic of a relationship comes from. Compatibility encompasses, at a minimum:
Conflict amicability and resolution capability
Relevance of skills, knowledge and experience
Tolerance of quirks and differences
Let's get into it, shall we? To be compatible, partners have to be aligned in their personalities. That's not to say they should be similar, but complementary. If one has a bit of a temper, compatibility is heightened if their partner's mannerisms have a calming effect on them. If one is an overthinker, the relationship may benefit if their partner understands this yet are themselves more spontaneous and intuitive.
But to benefit from and not be destroyed by having beautifully unique and different personality types, the partnership has to have effective skills and methods. In my personal example of compatibility, my partner and I were both very strong-minded and opinionated. We argued a lot! But arguing isn't inherently negative. We had mutual respect, and were both articulate, calm and respectful. So our "arguments" were more like intellectual debates. We both enjoyed them and through them learned a ton about ourselves and each other. Through our impassioned dissections we honed our skills in logic, persuasion, analysis, communication, patience, wit and gained a ton of humility in instances of impasse in which we'd just break down giggling at our mutual stubbornness, passion and resolve.
Therein lies the example of the importance of handling conflict and being able to resolve it. You will fight. If fights are usually disastrous experiences in your relationship, it has a gaping core weakness.
While individuals in a relationship can differ in certain values and have totally unique goals and ambitions, for the relationship to work partners have to at the very least be able to accept those of their counterparts and support them in them. Certain goals, like "eventually I want to write my own book" don't have to match a partner's prevailing career drive of "making enough money to afford a private jet" in order to be compatible. But Partner 1 valuing raising a large conservatively Catholic family combined with Partner 2's atheism and indifference to children could pose an existential threat to compatibility and the viability of the relationship long-term.
Having compatible skills, knowledge and experience is really more of a bonus, but who said this was all about baseline requirements? If Partner 1 has severe anxiety and Partner 2 is a social worker that could be life-changing. Now imagine Partner 2 owns her own therapy practice. It's so successful she's weighed down by the business end of things, but Partner 1 has management consulting experience. Partnerships like that have the potential to ascend to even higher levels of mutual enrichment.
Let's dive down a level: imagine you're an impassioned activist and your partner is an accomplished writer who applies her skills to your work. Imagine your partner is a big picture entrepreneur and you're a detail-oriented operations expert and you share a dream for a brilliant product or service innovation. If your communication styles are effective and you have a healthy dynamic your partnership could transcend a single dimension. That's called being a "power couple" (assuming there are only two people in the relationship, that is).
See? Compatibility at the baseline and beyond is where sparks actually fly from. Compatibility can actually be the spark of love. Love may bring people together, but it never creates compatibility.
Love can come from the beauty of unimaginable fit.
And at last we have the asshole of the triangle. Nobody likes this one because they can't control it, and it's never the savior of a LTR. Admittedly timing is often responsible for the serendipitous crossing of paths that initiates many relationships, but I'd be willing to gamble that it kills far more.
Like love, timing can't hold together a relationship. Beyond initially bringing people together timing is a necessary evil. You can't have a functioning, sustainable LTR if timing is off amongst the partners, but there's no scenario in which timing can be actively used or is passively just so good that a LTR survives without compatibility or love. Since it's totally uncontrollable, more often than not it's the kill shot of a relationship, and it's powerful enough to beat both compatibility and love, even if they're working together.
Sure, timing alone is the basis for lots of (usually bad) relationship decisions that cause people to stay together for longer. Couples who live together may stay together longer to avoid one of them having to find and pay for their own place, for example. An unexpected pregnancy is a great example of how timing can suture a relationship together even if compatibility is nonexistent and love is dead. I could come up with examples like this for hours.
But we're not talking about the things that make relationships last a bit longer, we're talking about what's necessary for them to work for the long haul. So how does timing kill LTRs?
For the most part in two ways: life stage differences and absence of closure.
The first one's relatively straightforward. One person badly wants to advance the relationship in one way or another and their partner isn't ready or interested yet. Or there could be a significant age gap that restricts the otherwise natural progress of the relationship because of biological or maturity limitations. If values are aligned along with the rest of compatibility and true love is present, but one partner is simply unable to give another what they need, the relationship may end unless significant compromises are made that then stand to have the same eventual effect.
So let's talk about closure. I'm a steadfast believer in the power and importance of obtaining closure in all things. Any major life change or decision is only ever eased, simplified and empowered by having closure on whatever it is one is leaving behind. It could be a past relationship, a job, a lifestyle, a habit or even a status.
I used to be a smoker. I'd been addicted to nicotine for many years. I'd quit several times and transferred my source from cigarettes to hookah to spliffs and back again. It was only after I had quit and restarted my habit time and time again that I finally gained the closure to leave nicotine behind forever. By then I knew what it felt like to quit and start again, to smoke every day and also after not having smoked for awhile. It became so familiar that I grew tired of it no matter what form or frequency it was in. That was closure. And with closure on my cycle of addiction to nicotine I was able to mentally empower myself to quit for good.
I use that example because it expresses closure as a function of experience and certainty, which it is. Closure cannot exist for a person if they are still pondering whatever it is they need closure on. If you want to leave your job but you're nervous to do so and meanwhile in the back of your mind you have an inkling that if you simply switched roles within your company you could be happy, you'll never have closure until you do everything in your power to get that new role. Once you do if you're still miserable you'll have closure to move on to someplace new.
Where am I going with this? Well the same thing goes for life stage and status. Remember that beautiful relationship I had that showed me a whole new level of compatibility? My partner and I had amazing compatibility and we also had love—deep love. But when I first met my ex she was only four months out of a miserable 10-year relationship. Neither of us were looking for a serious partner, but regardless of intentions if you fire two atoms toward each other inside a particle accelerator eventually they're going to collide. And we did—hard.
We knew the timing was bad but we couldn't deny how we felt or what life was like for both of us when we were together. So we skipped the labels for some superficial peace of mind and regardless very much became a couple. It was beautiful, eye-opening, stimulating, challenging and enriching. But as we fell over time into a pattern that looked uncannily like a serious committed relationship the structure began to rattle.
What I didn't mention is that this girl was only 24 when we met. So that 10-year relationship she had ended before meeting me had stolen her entire adolescence and young adulthood. With 4 months between relationships she had barely experienced being single—dating, casual sex, variety, the freedom and lightness of simply being one. And we knew this early on. We both knew that it was borderline impossible for her to be ready to for something serious and long term with me considering the circumstances.
I told her that I would never try to convince her to be with me at the expense of her life experience. Not only because of how selfish and awful that would be, but because even if I succeeded I knew we both would lose. Even if I could have done just that it would have been only a matter of time before she came to realize she needed to get out into the world before settling down.
So with all that love and that nuclear compatibility, we parted ways. And as difficult and emotional as it was for each of us, the knowledge that it was unavoidable held us up and pushed us forward through what we needed to do. We had obtained closure on the fact that she was missing just that on being single. Simple, reasonable, but crushingly unfair.
No matter how much love exists, no matter how much it seems people are meant for each other, don't ever question the validity of timing. Sometimes—just sometimes—I look back on that relationship and wish that we could.
The beauty of love, the magic of compatibility, the luck of timing. Are any missing in your relationship? Can you think of any healthy LTRs that don't have all three? Leave your thoughts in the comments.