Lesson 4 of 7  - optimize your relationships

Keys to a Satisfying
Primary Relationship

Why Some Couples Thrive

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW

Member NSRC Experts Council


The Web address of this article is http://sfhelp.org/relate/mates/basics.htm

Updated 02-05-2015

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      This 14" YouTube video provides perspective on making three wise courtship choices. The video mentions eight self-improvement lessons in this site - I've reduced that to seven:

      This is one of a series of articles in self-improvement Lesson 4 - optimize your relationships. In these articles, marriage means a committed primary relationship between two adults. Primary means the relationship is consistently preferred among all others. Divorce means the psychological ending of primary commitment by one or both mates. It may or may not mean the legal dissolution of marital responsibilities.

      This article provides...

  • perspective on "marriage"

  • four reasons most U.S. (and other?) couples divorce psychologically or legally, and...

  • 13 practical options for protecting your primary relationship;

      This article assumes you're familiar with...

  • the intro to  this nonprofit Web site and the premises underlying it

  • self-improvement Lessons 1 thru 4 (parts 1 and 2)

  • these Q&A articles on relationships, marriage, and divorce

  • perspective on the U.S. divorce epidemic, and

  • these brief research reports on marriage and divorce.


       Try saying out loud what a relationship is. Then say how relationships form, and how they end. Then compare your ideas to these:

      A relationship exists when someone feels that one or both people are "significantly affected" by the existence, values, and/or behaviors of the other person. Relationships form to fill a mix of each partner's personal needs - i.e. to reduce significant emotional, physical, and/or spiritual discomforts. Do you agree? Relationships vary from superficial and temporary to primary and long-term.

      "Commitment" is a conscious decision to invest time and energy in something of value. Consistently giving high priority to someone or something during major stress indicates significant commitment - or dependence.

      In a committed primary relationship, one or both partners choose to assign consistently high priority to filling their relationship needs in stressful situations. That means they want to rank other things and needs second when necessary, to protect their relationship.

      Marriage is many things...

  • a special evolving emotional - spiritual - physical relationship,

  • a personal-identity factor ("I am married, not single"),

  • a state of mind ("I feel married"),

  • an emotional, religious, and legal contract,

  • the merger of two family trees

  • a sacrament in most (all?) mainline religions;

  • an environmental protection for children and teens;

  • a unique source of adult need-satisfaction (contentment);

  • a symbolic personal, family, and social ritual and event,

  • a traditional criteria for social normalcy;

  • personal and social codes of moral conduct and values;

  • a (declining) social permit for adult intercourse and child conception.

  • a socially-unifying "institution"; and...

  • a personal and family status factor.

Can  you think of other definitions of marriage and married?

The point: when marriage is being discussed, it may be useful to define which of these meanings is the current topic to avoid misunderstandings.

      Modern marriage is a voluntary religious and/or spiritual, social, legal, (usually) sexual, long-term, relationship between two adults. Each partner commits to the other hoping to fill psychological, physical, mental, and spiritual needs. A "good or healthy marriage" is one that fills enough of each partner's needs "well enough," in their respective opinions. What needs?  

   Common Primary-relationship Needs

      A need is an urge to reduce an emotional, physical, and/or spiritual discomfort. Though every couple and culture is unique, typical mates seek to satisfy some universal needs. If you are or were in a committed primary relationship, see if you've experienced each of these needs.

     "In our relationship, I need to feel genuinely and steadily loved - i.e. I need to feel…

  • special to, and prized by you among all your other relationships and priorities; and...

  • needed emotionally and physically by you, but not over-needed (codependence); and...

  • respected and appreciated by you as an equal; and...

  • liked and enjoyed by you, often enough; and I need...

  • to feel heard empathically (vs. agreed with) by you, often enough; and...

  • trusted with your deepest current dreams, fears, shames, doubts, and joys;

      And I need...

  • to trust that you'll always tell me your truth, and will honor your promises to me; and to feel...

  • companioned by you, as we co-create an interesting, growthful life together; and...

  • accepted by you, with all my priorities, wounds, needs, and limitations; and...

  • encouraged by you to free my true Self and discover my life purpose

  • separate enough from you, so I can have my own friends, activities, goals, and identity."

     When one or both partners don't get enough of these needs filled often enough, their relationship decays. Lessons 1 thru 4 here offer practical ways mates can fill their primary-relationship (and other) needs despite significant problems.

      This YouTube clip summarizes key partnership needs, and this worksheet provides a way to assess how well the needs are met in a primary relationship. Use it after you finish reading this.

        Sociologists estimate that recently, almost half of U.S. legal marriages fail. Millions more committed couples endure psychological divorce.

      Why is this? My research, including listening to hundreds of typical unhappy mates in my therapy practice since 1981, suggests these...

 Primary Roots of Divorce

      Psychological and legal divorce begins in courtship, when two needy, unaware, wounded people decide to commit to each other. Our dysfunctional society allows one or both people to unintentionally choose the wrong person, for unwise reasons, at the wrong time.

      After the commitment decision, the relationship decays because of...

  • significant psychological wounds in one or both partners; and...

  • unawareness of themselves (their wounds), their relationship dynamics, and these fundamentals;  and...

  • ineffective thinking, communication, and problem-solving; and for some mates...

  • incomplete grief over major life losses (broken bonds).

These four roots combine with public unawareness and indifference to promote increasing stress after committing. "Stress" means "unfilled needs."

      So what can courting and committed couples do to fill their relationship needs well enough often enough?

 Relationship Protections

      Guard against the four primary stressors above by working at these protections together starting in courtship:

      1)  Study and apply Lesson 1. Help each other understand the ancestral [wounds + unawareness] cycle that stresses most  families. Then assess yourselves and each other honestly for significant psychological wounds, and commit to helping each other reduce any you find. If your partner is significantly wounded, select from options like these.

      At the same time...

      2)  Study and apply Lesson 2. Help each other grow proficient with effective-communication basics, tools, and skills. Steadily use these together to resolve the inevitable stream of internal and relationship conflicts you'll encounter for many years. Evolve strategies to master values conflicts and relationship triangles as teammates, not adversaries. Then model and teach these basics, tools, and skills to kids and other important people in your lives.

      3)  Use the skills of awareness and digging down periodically to monitor (a) what you each need from your relationship, and (b) whether your respective needs are satisfied enough - specially in the several years following your commitment vows. As you do this, help each other learn to...

  • keep your true Selves in charge (Lesson 1);

  • agree on your mutual personal rights;

  • intentionally maintain mutual respect and trust;  and to...

  • value your and your mate's respective integrities, needs, and opinions equally;

  • help each other spot and revise any toxic attitudes;

  • assert your needs respectfully and listen to each other with your hearts, and...

  • set and enforce respectful boundaries with each other and others.

       More relationship protections...

      4)  Evolve your way of analyzing and resolving any relationship problem. Help each other remember the difference between (a) surface needs and primary needs, and (b) win-win problem-solving vs. these popular lose-lose alternatives. 

      5)  Study and apply Lesson 3.  Help each other learn and apply healthy grieving basics, and intentionally evolve a pro-grief relationship and family together. Assess for and finish any incomplete mourning together, and teach your young people how to do this.

      6)  Become experts on mastering these nine barriers together. They are the roots of any troubled relationship.

      7)  Help each other stay clear on - and honor - your personal and shared priorities. Commit to keeping your relationship second to your respective integrities and wholistic health except in emergencies. If you have kids, keep their welfare third except in emergencies, to protect them from possible future divorce trauma.

      8)  Make three wise courtship decisions. When you partners have progressed well on the seven options above, you'll be better prepared to choose the right partner, for the right reason, at the right time. As you decide, discuss these Q&A items together, and heed these common danger signs! If you don't, one or both of you is probably controlled by a false self. (#1 above).

      9)  Use your commitment vows. Combine key elements from your marital vows and your respective relationship needs into a marital mission statement that inspires, guides, and refocuses you on what you want to celebrate together as a contented old couple. Put the statement where you can see it every day, affirm or update it on anniversaries, and use it in stressful times. If you don't, what does that suggest about your priorities?

      10)  Use and discuss this inventory periodically to appreciate your relationship strengths and limits, and affirm your relationship progress together.

      11)  Help each other avoid low-nurturance (psychologically-toxic) settings. Being among wounded, ignorant people in dysfunctional settings will stress your relationship. Evolve an effective strategy to relate to Grown Wounded Children (GWCs) - including relatives.

      12)  if you nurture any young people together, work at Lessons 5 thru 6 or 7 - specially if you're divorcing or in a stepfamily. Your goal is to co-create and maintain a high-nurturance family and protect your descendents from the lethal [wounds + unawareness] cycle.

      13)  When you're stymied, use qualified professional help. Even well-balanced relationships hit stressful conditions once in a while that are too much to work out alone. Here, "qualified" means (a) licensed and experienced at marital therapy, and (b) open to using the prior 12 options. See this article for perspective.

      You just reviewed 13 options for protecting your primary relationship, starting in courtship. Do they make sense to you? Are you motivated to work at them now? Is your partner?


      This Lesson-4 article proposes...

  • specific needs typical people try to fill by committing to a primary relationship

  • four root causes of most legal and psychological divorces, and...

  • 13 practical options for people who want to protect their primary relationship from decay. The options are based on the Lessons in this online course.

       Pause, breathe, and reflect - why did you read this article? Did you get what you needed? If not, what do you need? Who's answering these questions - your true Self, or someone else?

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        If you're interested in forging a successful remarriage with or without prior kids, read this.

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