As a couples therapist, I spend a fair amount of time thinking about what makes a relationship strong.  In some ways, there’s no easy answer to this question.  But through my professional experience (and my own as a married person), I think it can best be distilled down to what I’m calling the Relationship Table.  Essentially, there are four key ingredients for what it takes to make a modern marriage work: fun, sexual intimacy, emotional connection, and the business of life together.  Without one of these legs, you may have a wobbly stool, and without two of those, you’re not going to be able to stay upright.  Now a stool has a shot, we use stools all the time, and many can do the job quite well.  But two legs? Or, heaven forbid, one?  Might as well pack it up and go home.  Below, I discuss each of these relationship pillars, including qualities dating folks should be on the lookout for, and what people in committed relationships can do if they’re struggling in these areas.

 

Leg One: Why We Used to Get Married

For the datings: Some of this stuff is tough to suss out before you live together or have spent considerable time in a relationship.  But more than anything you want to figure out if this person is a good partner to you—do you have compatible beliefs about where you want to live in the future, about how you balance home and work, about financial management goals, whether you want or don’t want children, corresponding ambition and lifestyle choices. The question is do you see yourself building a life with this person, and what does that life look like?  These concerns were the primary focus of marriage in years past, but in modern life they often get relegated to the back burner. As we’ll discuss below, fun and sex and emotional vulnerability are great—but if she wants an apartment in the city with late night dinner parties and a fat savings account, and she wants a big house in the suburbs with three athlete kids and expensive toys, then it will be tough going for the two of you.

For the marrieds/long termies: Hopefully, you have some agreement on the big issues outlined above, and are dealing with the day to day work of negotiation and compromise. I cannot overstate here the value of being kind to each other in helping this process go smoother.  I am naturally an irritable, lazy person, but I make an effort to show my husband kindness wherever I can—that includes things like telling him how much I appreciate what he does for me, attempting to be a decent roommate, picking up some snack that I know he likes, etc.  Basically, the kindness that you show strangers and your co-workers and the larger outside world—bring some of that home to your partner.  All of these mutually kind acts make it much easier to deal with disagreements when they arise because there is already a wellspring of goodwill to draw from.  When we each feel appreciated and cared for, it’s easier to compromise, and give our partner more of what they want.  I mean, why would I cooperate (or do anything) with someone who hasn’t been kind to me?

 

Leg Two: Here, Hold My Pain

For the datings: I think one of the biggest questions to ask yourself while dating is whether or not you feel emotionally safe with this person.  Do they listen and try to respond appropriately to concerns that you bring up? Can you could cry in front of them? Do they try to talk you out of what you feel or think?  Do they make jokes or change the subject when you bring up something you feel is important? Also, inevitably, in a life spent together, there will be moments where you will not be your best self—you may be ill or lose a parent, or struggle with a difficult work issue—do you feel confident that this person will show up for you? Are you confident they will support you? Can you ask for what you need and do they try to give that to you? Emotional honesty and trust is a skillset, and it can be built through effort, but it takes willingness from both sides.  If you feel like your relationship is lacking in this department, check out with your partner if it’s something they would be willing to work on.  If not, then ask yourself if you would be okay long term with a relationship that lacked this connection.

For the marrieds/long termies: Emotional support and vulnerability is the cornerstone of my work with couples.  Feeling deeply connected with your partner is a powerful force, and it gives you a sense of security and trust that, in my opinion, is what makes this whole marriage thing worthwhile. Demonstrating and accepting vulnerability involves recognizing and naming your own feelings, avoiding defensiveness, and being present for the other person, even when it’s uncomfortable. Most of us are not taught to do this, and it takes effort and practice to do it well.  But if both partners are committed to this process, it can be tremendously beneficial to your relationship.

 

Leg Three: Doing it Well

For the datings: For many couples, the early part of the relationship is a time where sexual excitement comes easy. There is a natural thrill in getting to see and learn each other’s bodies, with the assistance of a powerful chemical process driving you on. If this spark is missing, then you definitely want to stop and take note.  Because sex can be emotionally and psychologically laden, it can be helpful to check out with yourself and with your partner if other issues may be interfering with your sexually relationship.  Have an honest conversation about what you’re looking for sexually and what you envision for your sexual life.  That said, if you feel there is simply no physical attraction or chemistry, then it’s not likely to show up later on.

For the marrieds/long-termies: My biggest sex advice for folks who have been in a relationship for a long time is this: use your words, and actually talk to your partner about sex.  So often, I work with couples who simply don’t have conversations about sex because they worry it will ‘ruin the mood’ or be awkward.  But just as you have to discuss and negotiate every other aspect of your relationship, you have to talk about sex.  Outside the bedroom, have a frank conversation about what you want and when and how much you want it.  And be prepared, as in all areas of marriage, to compromise; particularly if you have different sex drives. Partners who have higher sex drives are probably going to have a bit less sex than they’d like, and partners who have lower sex drives, a bit more.

 

Leg Four: Don’t Sleep on Fun

For the datings: If you’re dating someone, and you don’t enjoy hanging out with them, if it isn’t relaxed, fun, and comfortable—stop dating them.  It is not likely to get better with time.  If you continue along, you’re probably going to end up in an office like mine, and a person like me is not going to be able to help you, because you can’t manufacture enjoying the company of another human being.

For the marrieds/long-termies: Fun is one of the first things to go in long term committed relationships, particularly when children or conflicting schedules are involved.  I’ve said it before, but your relationship can only go so long without regular infusions of fun.  It doesn’t have to be big spectacular outings or events, but you do have to actually spend time laughing and talking and being together.

 

A note on love: I know some of you are wondering why love is not included on this list.  I am going to briefly climb up on my soapbox for a moment and say that, love, in and of itself, is not the decisive element as to whether or not your partnership will work. You can have a pretty good relationship with someone and not particularly love them, or be truly madly deeply with someone…and have a totally dysfunctional relationship. What we do in response to our love for another person is what matters.  Love itself is the motivation; it’s the thing that makes all the work I’ve outlined above worth doing. Love is the reason you buy the table.