What is a successful relationship? What does a successful relationship even look like? We may have all wondered these questions at some point in our life. Often, my clients and I use words such as healthy or successful when describing goals within their treatment. Many of my clients initially start their process with describing their conflicts and frustrations. It’s not uncommon to hear, “The way we argue is unhealthy. We desperately need help communicating so we can have a successful relationship.”
So… then, what the heck is a successful relationship and what’s the effective recipe to get there?
“A healthy, successful relationship” is an evolution of commitment, self-awareness and vulnerability.
Unfortunately, a successful relationship does not have a finish line and it’s more about a deep sense of security rather than a distinguishable accomplishment. It challenges our traditional definitions of “success,” and it begins when two people know and understand themselves (or are consistently open to trying to). The evolution of creating a successful relationship happens when two people push their own boundaries to jeopardize their emotional safety with each other. It happens when both partners really understand themselves to the core of their emotions, needs, behaviors and insecurities. This is the bulk of vulnerability, which inspires natural relational growth and security.
To be clear, being in a successful relationship does not void you or your partner of struggle, nor does it mean you are an expert communicator at all times. Creating a successful relationship is more about knowing yourself well enough to acknowledge when you’re reacting in a way that is pushing your partner away. It’s forcing yourself to be vulnerable no matter how terrifying it may be. It’s committing to your own self-development just as much as it’s committing loyalty to your partner.
It’s knowing when your pride is in overdrive and your defensives are clogging your ability to be honest and authentic to yourself and/or to your partner. It is then, when communication is extremely helpful. When you can articulate your needs and fears in a de-escalated way and ask for what you need, your partner hears you. You cannot effectively communicate (or begin the evolution of creating a successful relationship) if you aren’t attune to yourself or are not aware of your behaviors, intentions and needs. This is why I am suggesting that being a “good communicator” is more than just using I statements and actively listening to each other. Being in a successful relationship requires vulnerability and self-awareness within the communication, which only makes it more effective.
I personally understand how difficult this process can be.
As I have had my share of unhealthy relationship experiences in my past. As I reflect back to my past relationship failures, I can now acknowledge several things that took me years to understand. In those moments, I remember constantly feeling heartbroken, unworthy, insecure and completely insane. I never felt good enough for any of my “boyfriends” and always felt I had to prove or deny something deep within myself. I stumbled around for years just trying to find a partner who wouldn’t leave me. That seemed simple enough… right? I did not realize this at the time, but I was looking for a partner to help me feel secure with myself. This only put a lot pressure on my boyfriends in hopes that they could fix me, help me feel confident and lower my insecurities. Instead, it produced the complete opposite outcome and most cheated on me or were rarely available at the times I needed them the most. This pattern reinforced to me for years, I wasn’t worthy and would never be in a successful relationship.
One day, I decided I needed to choose to be alone. A little bitter (at the time I believed I was on the path of relational destruction due to the “lack of good men out there”), I decided that being alone had to be better than dating men that had the tendency to bring out the worst in me. I wrote a list of all the things that I needed and wanted from a relationship. I laughed and then I cried; emotions of hope soon dwindled into sadness as I felt completely torn and discouraged. How would I ever find a relationship like this, did it even exist? Again, not realizing at the time, but I would soon realize that this relationship does exist but it requires a whole lot of work on myself.
I went to graduate school to become a therapist (who would have thought?) and dug deep within my own process, I attended my own counseling and realized that a crucial part of this puzzle was missing all along.
I had to establish a positive relationship with my own self before I was able to find, create and sustain a healthy relationship with someone else. I had to look in the mirror and take accountability for my inability to process my own emotions and my refusal to be real with myself. I had to take ownership of my pain, insecurities and defenses. I had to accept these [personal] things were a huge contributing factor to my past failed relationships and recognize it wasn’t just because “I picked the wrong men.”
I was never in a “healthy,” successful relationship until I met my husband. How do I know? Well… Because, when I challenged myself to understand myself better, my self confidence grew and my intention of wanting a relationship shifted significantly. I attracted my husband with genuine qualities verses acts of desperation and insincerity. I was able to soothe myself when I felt uncomfortable, verses relying solely on him to take away my fears and then getting angry with him because he couldn’t. I pushed myself to be vulnerable and took the necessary risks which helped him understand me and prevented me from exploding with resentment as I used to do in the past. This left little to no room for him to have to make his own assumptions of my reactive behavior.
All of this work I was doing on myself, (and I may add, all of the work he was also doing on himself), made a huge difference in our abilities to get close to each other. It’s a relationship I never knew was possible. We’ve had our ups and definitely had our downs, but what makes our relationship “successful,” is the evolution of committing our lives to each other, as well as ourselves. We now have learned throughout the years how to show up and operate in our most authentic self and we constantly push ourselves to be transparent with each other. We are vulnerable, sometimes emotionally messy, but we are honest and true.