First published in the Feb. 9 print issue of the Pasadena Outlook.
By Annette Ermshar
Special to the Outlook
With Valentine’s Day right around the corner, many of us have romance and relationships on our minds. Perhaps we are asking ourselves, how do we build or maintain relationships that last? What makes some relationships last and others fail?
Most people would agree that healthy relationships have key traits that help the couple to sustain the impact of stressful life circumstances. The pandemic has certainly been a litmus test for relationships. In my private practice, during the last two years I have seen many client relationships that have either crumbled under the stress or have grown stronger together as they faced the uncertainty as partners.
While no relationship is perfect all the time, there are core values that support a foundation for long-term relationship success. Research shows that resilient couples who are able to manage stressful and significant events as a team and maintain a strong relationship over time share the following common qualities:
- Vulnerability: It is important for couples to create a sense of emotional safety and security so that each individual feels accepted, understood and feels safe to share their feelings, especially during times of struggle. This process of being vulnerable and emotionally accessible in the relationship reassures the individual that their partner will be there for them and that the relationship is safe.
- Appreciation and affection: Authentic and deep appreciation and affection for one another facilitates a deep sense of safety and stability, signaling that even during difficult times, the relationship is built on love and support and can withstand any challenge. Affection can include any gesture, a look of love that only you two understand, a small caress or embrace, a wispy kiss on the cheek, telling your partner that you appreciate them, playful and flirtatious banter, or reminding them that they are sexy. All of these signal that you love your partner. It also helps to know your partner’s “love language,” or how your partner receives love best. Do they appreciate loving, kind words, thoughtful acts and gestures, planning something special, or engaging in acts of service such as tasks around the house? Find out their love language and play to their preferences.
- Communication: The act of communicating with compassion, openness and fairness facilitates empathy and emotional connection. Practice sharing and listening to personal experiences without judgment. Negative habits, such as becoming defensive or refusing to talk because you are angry, can distract from effective and compassionate communication. Practice active listening with your partner in a way that they feel heard and respected without simply thinking of your own next response or counterpoint. Also, when communicating something that you need or want from your partner, be clear about your expectations so that you avoid disappointment and conflict.
- Respect and forgiveness: As in any partnership, mutual respect is key for longevity. This means that each person values who the other person is and understands the other person’s boundaries. Respect can be felt in many ways, such as feeling seen, heard and validated, or acknowledging when your partner needs space, comfort or reassurance. Perhaps the best sign of respect is being able to forgive the other. The ability to forgive is a sign of a healthy relationship and signals a deep sense of stability and respect. There will always be areas of struggle in any relationship, so creating a space for forgiveness allows each partner to feel loved and supported for who they are. Of course, if the behavior becomes dangerous or abusive, a healthy individual can also set healthy boundaries and clear expectations about what they need going forward.
- Share core values: We each have deeply ingrained values that define who we are, and having shared values in a relationship means that both partners believe in some of the same fundamental ideas about life. Shared values in an established relationship keep couples together during difficult times and can be a source of joy when the relationship is at a high point. Likewise, it can also be beneficial to have some shared interests, such as a commitment to healthy living, interest in social advocacy, shared appreciation of the arts, or hosting social events and entertaining. The more shared values and activities, the deeper the connection and the more the couple feels that they are “in it together.”
In addition to these qualities, here are some healthy ways to keep your relationship alive and well: Play more; put away your phone during quality time together; go to sleep at the same time; practice random acts of kindness toward each other (i.e., an unexpected love note tucked inside their computer); laugh about the past as well as your partner’s quirks; support your partner’s independence; recognize the more vulnerable emotion(s) that underlies anger; let go of the fantasy that every moment in marriage is a Hallmark moment; frequently remind yourself that your partner is your teammate in life … you are on the same team. As Barnett Brickner said, “Success in marriage does not come merely through finding the right mate, but through being the right mate.”
Annette Ermshar, CEO of Dr. Ermshar & Associates, is a clinical neuropsychologist and holds a Ph.D. Her Pasadena-based private practice focuses on psychological assessment and treatment, neuropsychology and forensic psychology. She has served as an expert consultant for television and media.