Having a satisfying relationship can can provide us with love, friendship, comfort, and support. It helps us help define who we are and what our life is about. But what exactly makes for a satisfying relationship?
When I started out as a couple therapist one of the books I first consulted was Michael Crowe’s Overcoming Relationship Problems, which uses a combination of cognitive behavioural and systemic ideas about relationships. The book described four components of intimacy in a satisfying relationship: sharing plans and ideas (called operational intimacy), sharing feelings (emotional intimacy), physical (non-sexual) intimacy, and sexual intimacy. This simple set of categories has been a useful way to think about and remember important aspects of relationships that we need to attend to.
Other models are more extensive. One that has been highly influential is John and Julie Gottman’s model of the Sound Relationship House, which was developed through research on real-life couples. The sound relationship house emphasises trust and commitment as the twin pillars of a successful relationship, plus seven levels or “floors” of the house: building love maps, sharing fondness and appreciation, turning towards each other, maintaining a positive perspective, managing conflict, honouring each other’s life dreams, and creating shared meaning. John and Julie Gottman emphasise the importance of nurturing friendship, being open to each other’s influence, and making and receiving repair attempts during and after conflict. Again, very helpful, but perhaps quite a lot to take on board and remember on a day-to-day basis.
I have tried to take the best from these two models but also to weave in my own observations from my work as a couple therapy practitioner, supervisor, and trainer. My simple model describes four quadrants: support, friendship, comfort, and play. At the heart of the model is a central core of meaning, values, skills, and resources, that informs and resources each of the four quadrants, and in turn is fed by them. I hope that the model will be easy to remember and captures a lot of what goes on in a wide range of diverse relationships. You can see the model below in Figure 1 and then I’ll go on to describe each component in more detail.
In the top left-hand quadrant is the part called “support”. One good reason to be in a relationship is that having two people manage the stress of life and pool their resources can be more effective and economical than trying to do it on our own. Being able to support each other in making a home, raising a family, or simply paying the bills, can make life easier and more rewarding. For this to work, a couple needs to support each other, so good teamwork is vital.
A common complaint that couples bring to therapy is that they no longer feel like a team. That is, they no longer feel as though the other has got their back, or that they don’t have each other’s best interests at heart. The couple unit lacks cohesion, and it is common to hear (sometimes justified) complaints that one is doing more of the drudgery and chores than the other. In short, the relationship stops feeling fair.
It’s not that each partner has to do exactly the same tasks as the other, but that the current division of labour results in one partner feeling put upon or under-valued. This can come about quite by accident; it’s not uncommon over time for each partner to become something of a specialist in certain areas of the couple’s shared life. For example, one takes over the finances, while the other organises their social life. This becomes a problem when over-specialised roles leave one person feeling out of the loop in making important decisions, or circumstances change and one partner is no longer able to fulfil their role, or they no longer wish to.
A lack of clarity about expectations about who will do what – our roles in the relationship – can lead to miscommunication, confusion, and resentment, a feeling that this isn’t what I signed up for. That’s why couples in long-term relationships seem to do well when there is a good degree of clarity, communication, and flexibility in their roles. It also helps to have a good awareness of who is shouldering the bulk of the “mental load” in managing the domestic situation. By mental load, I mean, the person who predominantly thinks about, and organises the core tasks required to keep a household running smoothly.
Finally, for most of us it is important to have a life away from the relationship pursuing our own goals and interests, whether that’s to do with career, hobbies, or social and family activities. Supporting each other’s independence means acknowledging that each partner has the right to their own life free from excessive surveillance or interrogation. Of course, the flipside is that each partner needs to behave in a trustworthy and responsible manner that doesn’t neglect their partner, take advantage of their goodwill, or deceive them. There’s a difference between respecting each other’s privacy and living a secretive second life.
In general, more transparency is better than too little. Being honest about our acts and intentions, keeping each other informed, and making sure that what we do doesn’t violate our agreed boundaries helps build trust and reward each other’s commitment to the relationship. Knowing how best to support each other’s independence means that when you spend time together as a couple, you really are together, in body, mind and spirit.
In the top right-hand quarter is friendship. One of the great advantages of being in a relationship is the companionship that comes from having interests in common and shared activities. In successful relationships, partners often describe each other as being their “best friend”; a trustworthy, reliable companion that they can confide in and that they feel emotionally close to. These partners take a genuine interest in each other and are invested in each other’s happiness as much as their own.
In the bottom-left quadrant is comfort. This is the domain where couples maintain a strong connection to each other and look out for each other emotionally. The power of non-sexual touch is well-known and can provide daily reassurance and connection. Extending compassion and concern when our partner is struggling, rather than offering criticism or practical solutions, can mean a lot. Being generous with one’s time and attention by turning towards each other rather than away, or making small sacrifices for your partner’s happiness, show the depths of our care and consideration for that person’s wellbeing.
Acts of care, for example during ill health, can make what would otherwise be a frightening time much more bearable. Daily, small, loving gestures help to show that we hold our partner in mind and that we deeply value them. Loving gestures might include offering words of appreciation or fondness, or making small but considerate gifts, such as adding that favourite item to the shopping trolley at the supermarket without being asked or fixing that wonky cupboard door that’s been a source of frustration.
In the bottom-right quarter is play. Play can take many forms but in essence helps lift the relationship out of the mundane. Life can get pretty wearisome at times, and we all need a little escapism. It can help to remember what each of you finds fun and to make sure that it doesn’t get overshadowed by the responsibilities of day-to-day life. Whether it’s a trip to a theme park, or an evening of karaoke, or a night out at a comedy club, having fun builds happy memories that we can treasure. Planning adventures together, such as a holiday, or trying something new just for the novelty of it, such as visiting a restaurant that serves a cuisine you’re not familiar with, can add interest and inject a little fizz into a relationship so that it doesn’t start to feel a bit flat.
And finally, sexual pleasure can also be a form of adult play. Mutually rewarding sexual intimacy can powerfully energise a couple’s feelings of love and desire for each other. When both partners make the other’s pleasure as important as their own, it creates a chance to connect at an intensely intimate and erotic level. And if play sounds too frivolous or trivial a word for something that’s so deeply personal and serious, well perhaps play can be a serious business too.
The heart of the relationship
All these components, these four quadrants, derive from and feed into the love that’s being cultivated at the heart of the relationship. To experience true satisfaction means to know our meaning and purpose, our values and attitudes. It means to use our skills and capabilities, and our strengths and resources purposefully and with intentionality. When it comes to meaning and purpose, I’m thinking about what it is about the relationship that makes it really matter to us, what it is, if you like, that this relationship stands for. If you’re not sure what that means for you, then perhaps take a moment to imagine a party in the future when friends and family gather to celebrate your relationship. Ask yourself what you’d like them to be able to say about the kind of relationship you’ve had. That should help give you an idea of what’s truly important to each of you.
Our satisfaction is also influenced by our attitudes towards each other and the wider world, and the values that we hold that give life shape and purpose. For example, an accepting, tolerant, and forgiving attitude to each other’s idiosyncrasies and flaws can promote a positive perspective towards each other. That’s not the same as putting up with the intolerable; we need to know what is not ok – respecting each other’s values and boundaries is an important part of being accountable to ourselves and to each other.
In order to support and comfort each other, to foster friendship and to have fun, we need to have the right blend of skills, capabilities, strengths and resources to engage fully in life and in the relationship. Skills such as clear and direct communication that helps us manage stress together effectively and resolve conflict before it gets out of hand; capabilities, such as the ability to tune into each other’s emotions and state of mind, and to manage and express our own emotions, so we neither under or over-react to events; strengths such as an appreciation of our complementary differences, a willingness to compromise and to accept influence from each other, or resilience in the face of adversity; and resources such as good friendships, a supportive family, or a community that nurtures us and lends meaning to our lives.
What do you think?
Putting these five elements together seems to me a useful way to describe what makes for a satisfying relationship. But what about you – what does a satisfying relationship look like for you? You might like to take a moment to think about the following questions – try to keep a balance between what is working well and those areas where you think things could be improved:
- How clear are you about what your relationship stands for?
- What do you value about yourself and each other?
- What strengths and resources do each of you bring to the relationship?
- How well are you supporting each other?
- What is the quality of your friendship like?
- How do you know when and how best to offer comfort to each other?
- What is the role of play in your relationship?
- If there were one area of the relationship that was working especially well, what would it be? What makes it so successful?
- If there were one area of the relationship that you’d like to improve, what would it be? What would be the first step to making that change?
- How will you involve each other in making those improvements?
4th February, 2022