A big reason relationships fail today is the assumption that healthy relationships are entirely subjective. While every couple has unique dynamics, the fundamentals of a strong partnership are largely universal. As Tolstoy wrote, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Every relationship is great when things are going well. Even two toxic, narcissistic drug addicts can look like the perfect image of love and happiness if you catch them at the right time. If you don’t know the backstory of someone’s relationship, the smiling photos on social media and public loving demeanor could be the eye of the storm in their dysfunctional relationship.
You can’t judge a relationship based on the good times. Accordingly, one of the biggest mistakes you can make is looking for a relationship based on how good it makes you feel.
Don’t take this to mean that you shouldn’t be with someone who treats you well and whose company you enjoy. But if you get into a relationship based only on the good times, then you are potentially setting yourself up for a heavy dose of dysfunction.
Your romantic relationship is second in significance only to the relationship you will have with your children. If you decide not to have children, then this is the person you will spend most of your time with. For that reason alone, it’s important that you don’t mess this up. Notice that I didn’t say it’s important that you “get it right.”
No one gets it right. Even the happiest relationship has trying moments that make you wonder if you’ve made a mistake. That’s to be expected when you take two people—with different backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives—and attempt to create a lasting union. The point isn’t for relationships to be perfect or even consistently pleasant, but the good should outweigh the bad by a significant margin.
This post blends my personal experience, general observations, and scientific research about what makes a relationship a fruitful, positive experience. I don’t know if these points will be new or groundbreaking, but they are useful and have served me and others well.
Whether you’re single or 20 years into a relationship, there is value here.
Be honest with yourself
“The first principle is not to fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.”
There are no personal problems that can’t be solved by being honest with yourself. The challenge with self-honesty is that once you acknowledge the truth of a situation, you have only three potential responses:
- You do something to fix the problem and change the problematic future that would result otherwise.
- You do nothing, fully aware you’re on a self-imposed path to destruction.
- You do nothing because you believe things are okay or will change.
Everything starts there. If you aren’t honest with yourself about what you want, you’re unlikely to get it. You’ll be blown about by the circumstances of life because you don’t have a plan.
If you want to be with someone, admit that to yourself and do something about it.
If you want to leave a relationship, admit that to yourself and do something about it.
There is no universally correct path. There is only the path that works best for you and the only way to know that path is to admit to yourself that you need to start walking it.
Look for someone that you can disagree with
If you can find someone with whom you can have a polite, constructive disagreement, you’re 85% there. You don’t need to worry about shared interests and values if you can do this. If you can’t, all the chemistry, compatibility, and shared values in the world can’t save the relationship.
If you’ve been dating someone for three months and haven’t had an argument, you’ve passed an important test.
If you’ve been dating someone for a year and haven’t had an argument, you’ve failed an equally important one.
When you first start dating someone, two individuals are trying to figure out how to exist in unison with one another. Initially, the more prominent elements of your personality are on display. If the most notable aspects of two people’s personalities don’t interact well, then it won’t be a successful union. After all, if you can’t be yourself around someone, you won’t like them enough to spend serious time around them.
As you spend more time with someone, their personality will become more exposed. They will become more comfortable around you and show you parts of themself that will likely clash. If you date someone for a year and haven’t found a point of distress or disagreement, then at least one person treats the relationship as casual.
Or the people are lucky. Extremely high levels of compatibility happen, especially from those raised in relatively insular communities and societies who find one another, but you probably aren’t the exception. I’m sorry, but that’s how exceptions work.
As a corollary to this idea, by 3-6 months—assuming there isn’t an acute betrayal of trust, an irreconcilable skeleton in their closet is revealed, or they sustain an injury that changes their personality—you know if the person is worth pursuing something longer. If you’re with someone for a year and you still don’t know if they’re the one for you, you’re either in denial or a liar.
No matter how subtle, disrespect breeds resentment
Insults are a deal breaker. Insults are different from criticism. Criticism is feedback about something you’ve said or done that was displeasing. An insult is an expression of contempt that crosses the line from critique to verbal abuse.
- Criticism is about something wrong you’ve done. Insults are to make you feel bad.
- Criticism focuses on what you’ve done. Insults attack who you are.
- Criticism tries to prevent future problems. Insults only create future problems.
Hopefully, the difference is clear. Many people use the two synonymously, but they are nothing alike. Giving and receiving criticism is essential for a relationship to last. There is such a thing as being “overly critical,” but that’s a distinction of degree, not type. Insults, however, can’t be tolerated.
I don’t believe in insulting people I’m not in a relationship with, as the sole intent of an insult is to cause harm, and living that way never turns out good for you. I couldn’t imagine doing it in a relationship. Verbal abuse is a slippery slope to physical abuse.
But I want to be clear: insults are verbal abuse, not criticism.
The difference between constructive criticism and unsolicited hate is intent. Are they trying to:— Ed Latimore (@EdLatimore) March 25, 2019
Help you be better or make you feel worse?
Improve your output or dissolve your morale?
If they give actionable advice, it's the former. If they just sling insults, fuck em.
For people without children, the stance on children needs to be discussed
There are only three ways to look at this issue:
- Wants children
- Does not want children
Note that “undecided” is not an option.
This isn’t because I don’t think some people aren’t sure about having kids. It’s because these are the only three stances in the context of what makes a relationship work.
While it’d be nice to deal with probabilities, nature has put a time limit on a woman’s ability to reproduce, and sperm quality degrades over time. Given that, from conception to adulthood, a child is at least a 20-year time investment, you don’t have time for “I’m not sure” or “Maybe one day.”
If you are the person who wants kids, and you’re with someone who doesn’t—or vice-versa— do not waste time. End the relationship and be clear about why. Please don’t waste time hoping they’ll change. Life is short, and your window to reproduce is even shorter.
People who want kids should only date people who want kids. People who don’t want kids should only pair up with people who don’t want kids. This seems straightforward and obvious, but I’ve met people who are convinced that a person will change their mind, and after nearly a decade together, they’re left confused and angry.
If you’re indifferent about having children, you can be with anyone happily. The only caveat is that if your mind ever changes, you are responsible for letting your significant other know and acting based on their feelings.
Politics are overrated
“As Nadia drove her date back home, he revealed he had not voted during the 2016 presidential election because he had not liked either candidate, former President Trump or the Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
‘And I was like, ‘I’m never speaking to him again,’ she said. ‘I almost kicked him out of my car.’”
This quote is from an article published on The Hill. According to a 2020 poll by YouGov.com, 86% of women find it difficult to date someone of a different political affiliation. This happens because we use politics as a proxy indicator for someone’s values and beliefs. On the surface, this seems like a good idea, but it’s typical first-order thinking and lazy.
While other countries have more political parties to support, The United States has two parties. Most people don’t support every policy and stance endorsed by the party, but they have to pick someone.
Typically, a person supports the person who most strongly aligns with the issue they feel the most strongly about and considers the other stuff the collateral damage since there’s no way to throw out the bathwater without the baby. Or, in the case of Nadia’s date (and many other people), they support no one.
Liberals are annoying.— Ed Latimore (@EdLatimore) November 20, 2020
Conservatives are annoying.
Anyone who defines themselves by a blanket ideology is an idiot who can't think for themselves.
Regardless of how important your politics are to you, here’s what I’ve found:
- When you first start dating, politics shouldn’t come up anyway. You’re in the process of getting to know the person and forming a connection. Most importantly, you’re having fun. Maybe your idea of having fun is to debate politics, but most people don’t consider this a good time. Even if they agree with you.
I can hear the rebuttal in my head. But why would I want to form a connection with a liberal/conservative/Trump supporter anyway? It’s better to bring it up early and get it out of the way. I’ll remind you of what I said at the start of this section—political identification does not equal support of all party stances. Get to know the person’s stances on individual issues.
- After you’ve been together for some time, assuming you’ve done the first step correctly, you’ll discover that politics by themselves never come up. The notable exception is if you’re with someone whose job explicitly involves politics.
When you discover a clash in perspective, it’s always worth asking yourself, “Is an agreement with me on this issue so important that I’ll jeopardize the other parts of my relationship over them?” Or, said differently, “Is this hill worth dying on?”
I have no idea what’s most important to you. Unless your way of earning a living depends on your politics, it’s likely not worth ruining a relationship.
A few years ago, a friend of mine made an astute observation: “No one has a personality anymore. Just political opinions.” If the only thing you have to define you is who you vote for, then you have more work to do before being with someone anyway.
Liking each other keeps you together, and love keeps you from falling apart
You only need two things to make a relationship last:
- You need to like someone enough to enjoy spending time around them when you aren’t having sex.
- You need to love someone enough to be okay with the parts of them you dislike.
Liking someone is more important than loving them. Neurochemically speaking, falling in love is no different than doing cocaine. The chemicals released during sex are enough to make someone fall in love with you. Even more surprisingly, you don’t even have to like someone to be in love with them.
You can hate them because of the fear they inspire in you, but neurochemically still be in love with them. Stockholm Syndrome is specifically the feelings of affection that a person develops for their captor or abuser.
However, being like is different. No one can force someone to like them. When you like someone, you enjoy spending time with them, regardless of what you do. When you’re with someone you like, an eternity feels like it passes instantly, and every instant is eternally fixed in your memory.
Most people feel like a relationship is a journey from liking someone to loving them. The reality is that you need to both like and love your partner. Think of the interplay of the two feelings as house construction and insurance. Liking each other is how you build a strong foundation, but love is there just in case something comes along to break it down.
When you like each other, you naturally are motivated to spend time together and continue learning about one another. You can more easily have fun and look forward to each day together. It’s hard to get tired of someone you like, and that’s the whole idea of a lasting, happy relationship: you have to like each other.
However, every day won’t be a picnic. There will be times when you make each other angry. Mistakes will be made, and misunderstandings will occur. Life changes may put a surprising amount of strain on the relationship. Along with your ability to have a conversation and solve problems, love-inspired devotion and commitment are what keep you together for the long haul when you feel like, in the short term, you’d rather be apart.
If there’s one thing that can improve any relationship and keep it strong, that’s focusing on being more likable. That topic is an entire post itself (read it here), but more couples should focus on being likable to each other.
You’ll fall in love by having sex and spending time together. Work on liking one another more, and the magic will never leave.
Patrice O’Neal has a great commentary on this, albeit only from the guy’s perspective.
Romantic love is not unconditional
Romantic love is not unconditional. If it were, you’d feel the same way for your spouse as the homeless man at the gas station. The fact that you chose to be with them (and them, with you) means that conditions were met.
You don’t have to know exactly what those conditions were. All you need to understand is that becoming a worse version of who you were when you started dating in any area through inaction or indolence is the death of any relationship.
Take note that I said through “inaction or indolence” and “worse than who you were when you started dating.” Life is full of ups and downs. Sometimes, you get laid off, or work becomes so busy that you can’t make it to the gym. You might mess up and have too much to drink or lose your temper. Shit happens, and part of a relationship is being there for a person when it does.
That says nothing about the things that happen beyond your control. My wife knows that I like her hair long, and she once asked me if I’d leave if she went through chemotherapy and lost her hair. I couldn’t imagine doing such a thing, as it was no fault of her own. Knowing what I like, it’d be a different story if she decided to lop it all off.
It’s a major problem when a person enters a relationship one day, and then, for no reason, they start regressing. You can’t get with someone who plays video games all day and doesn’t work out and then get pissed when, three years into the relationship, he would rather play Playstation 5 than take a hike with you.
Yes, sometimes people change. However, getting into a relationship based on “hope” and “potential” will make everyone frustrated if neither is fulfilled.
Managing expectations and trade-offs
Understand that everything is a trade-off. You can have anything. You just can’t have everything. It’s important to be honest with yourself about traits that are important to you. And let’s simplify traits down to something easy to work with but still accurate enough to make useful predictions.
Physical attraction, emotional stability, functional intelligence. While we’d like to get someone who rates highly for our personal preferences in all categories, it’s better to assume that you can’t get everything. In the worst-case scenario, you’re not disappointed. In the best case, you’re pleasantly surprised.
Instead, you’ll have to pick two things that are important to you. Rank them like this:
- One that is necessary. Imagine your ideal partner can only have one trait of those three.
- One that is sufficient. This is a requirement, but you’re willing to take less of it if you get more of the first category.
- One that you’re willing to go without. It most likely won’t be this way, but lower expectations are the secret to happiness.
It’s not my place to tell you which one you should prioritize. Every person is different and wants different things in a relationship. However, keep in mind that each configuration has pros and cons.
Someone who is beautiful and emotionally grounded might be hard for someone seeking mental stimulation. Or, you might think you want someone stoic, but their inability to relate to your emotional experience of the world makes you feel like you’re with a robot.
Everything we want, even the good, comes with a trade-off. When determining which traits work best for you, consider the potential downside of each trait. Then, ask yourself which ones you can tolerate and which are a no-go.
Avoiding big problems is far more important than focusing on big successes. Everyone says you should try to get everything, but that’s impossible. No one is going to be optimal in all areas. You will have to give up something, but that’s because part of a relationship is growth and development together. On that note, here is one last heuristic to use when deciding what traits you’ll prioritize in your search.
Commitment to the relationship over one another
“Get to know somebody and you learn a lot about em
Won’t be long before you start to doubt em
Tell yourself you’ll be better off without em
Then you go back in the party and make a scene about em”
-J. Cole, “G.O.M.D.”
Relationships are emergent systems. That is, two individual lives come together and form a new lifestyle. When you first start dating someone, it’s two separate lives learning how to exist in unison with one another. The more time you spend together, the less you become two distinct people.
I don’t mean this to say that you lose your identity or autonomy. Instead, I mean that more of your existence is defined by the role this person plays in your life. Your identity results from the time and energy invested, the trials and tribulations conquered, and the progress and victories celebrated.
This is why making the relationship the highest priority is important—not one another. If you behave in a way that ensures the relationship remains strong, you will occasionally do things that you’d prefer not to or make sacrifices that you don’t want to, but the idea is that you get a partner in life in return. I believe that the best way to guarantee a long, happy, love-filled union is for both people to commit to making the relationship as strong as possible. And to avoid subjectivity, let’s define a strong relationship.
A strong relationship can resist forces that attempt to dissolve or disintegrate it. Many things can weaken or end a relationship. The list would require another post, but you don’t need to know all the ways your relationship can be ruined. You only need to understand the ways to keep it strong.
Again, we find ourselves quoting Tolstoy again. ‘All happy families are alike. All unhappy families are unhappy in their own way.” Substitute “families” with “relationships.”
All happy relationships can handle disagreement; they respect one another, earn each other’s love, identify what matters most, and put the health of the relationship at the top of their priorities.
The rest is up to you.
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I’m a former heavyweight pro-boxer (13-1-1) and alcoholic (Sobriety date 12/23/13), current writer, and aspiring chess master. I was raised in the projects by a single mom and failed high school, but I eventually earned a bachelor’s degree in Physics.
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