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What Makes A Relationship Successful?

Photo by Pablo Heimplatz on Unsplash

I recently had a chance to spend some time with my dad. We talked a lot about everything, but one of the most meaningful conversations we had was about love. My dad has a theory that a relationship can only be successful when these four elements are present:

  • emotional connection

  • sexual chemistry

  • intellectual connection

  • spiritual alignment

"When you come across someone who is compatible with you on all four of these", he said, "you've found the one". I can see how this makes sense to him, but I believe that the chances of finding one person who marks off every checkbox are very slim. And I am personally capable of having successful relationships with people who match a subset of these categories.

Yes, when I married my husband, we had a great level of compatibility across all four. However, as time went by we grew, and changed, and our needs evolved. We became less spiritually aligned, for example, yet our emotional connection has deepened. Despite these changes, I still love him dearly, definitely more than I did over a decade ago.

Another reason my dad's theory is slightly idealistic, is this – within each of the four ingredients there is a spectrum of needs. Sometimes one person cannot possibly satisfy the whole spectrum of needs even within any one of these areas. For example, sexual chemistry can be very strong in the beginning of a relationship when the hormones are going nuts, then the attraction might dwindle down, but pick up again as the partners get to know each other on a deeper level. Beginning-of-the-relationship sex and sex with a long term partner are both amazing, but likely can’t happen with the same person at the same time, i.e. they can't be new/exciting and familiar/comfortable at once.

When it comes to any kind of sexual exploration, non-monogamy starts making even more sense. Everybody has unique tastes and triggers, and after sleeping with one person for a long time, you learn their tastes and triggers well and they - yours. What I discovered since we opened our marriage, is that some things I really enjoy doing with my husband I might not enjoy doing with someone else, and vice versa. Not all things can be experienced with one specific person.

It’s a similar story with spiritual connection. I love the feeling I get from helping someone grow and love learning how to deepen my understanding of the universe from people who are more experienced than me. I love all of these people – those I lead and those who lead me. This isn’t really possible with just one person. Everyone's spiritual development is so unique that it would be very limiting to only connect with one person on this front or to hope that one person can meet all of my spiritual needs.

To me, love isn’t about finding one perfect partner who will be everything for me on all fronts. It’s about finding the essence of what makes every person unique and appreciating that about each one. It can be as simple as a person knowing exactly how to make me a perfect cup of tea or as complex as observing them around my kids. I fall in love with people and with my own stories of those people. I fall in love with the feelings I have when I’m around someone.

If I believed there was someone out there who perfectly aligned with me on every aspect of life, I'd probably still be searching.

Talking to my dad about what he thinks makes a relationship successful made me think of my own criteria for success. It applies to any relationship, monogamous or not. My most important predictors of success are:

  • Feeling safe to openly communicate about anything

  • Willingness to listen and to put in effort to see the other person’s point of view

  • Enjoying spending time together (in-person or virtually). This one is often overlooked. If the relationship isn’t bringing you joy anymore, perhaps it’s time to take a deeper look at what’s going on

  • Curiosity about the other person and desire to get to know them

  • Mutual desire to help each other’s lives get easier and better

These success criteria apply to romantic relationships and platonic ones. They are not rules – rather patterns that I recognize now, especially when observing other people. The longest relationships I’ve seen with seemingly happy partners are the ones that have these elements. It’s a lot easier to make any relationship succeed when approaching it with empathy and curiosity. What do you think defines success in a relationship?

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Polyamory (Greek πολύ poly, "many, several", Latin amor, "love") is the practice of, or desire for, intimate relationships with more than one partner, with the consent of all partners involved.

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