To complete my master's degree, I was required to take a class on teaching methodology, where our instructor had us create a learning module for any topic we desired--I chose: How to Have a Successful Relationship.
I began with the question: What makes a relationship successful? Immediately, I thought of a generic definition of success and failure applied to romance--Did the relationship end or is it still going? I counted up all the romantic encounters I've ever had, from a casual hook-up to a few dates to a long term relationship, and I got about 150. Currently, then, I'm 1/150, not a great batting average. Even if I look at only relationships lasting over three months, I'm still something like 1/7. Moreover, when I think about it without much analysis some of those early-ended relationships feel successful to me in retrospect, while some of the longer relationships do not. Obviously, this metric of the romance continuing indefinitely versus ending makes no sense. Then, how does one measure if a relationship is successful?
In line with the general post-modern thinking of our day, I decided no one definition of relationship success exists. Love is not math. Two plus two does always equal four (yes, I know that isn't entirely true), but no such equation holds universally true in romance. While this realization--there is no definition of a successful relationship--allows us to take a big exhale, it remains relatively useless as a device for romantic growth, which is my goal.
Therefore, I combed through my relationship autobiography--basically all experiences both of my own relationships and of other's romances that I was around or impacted me in any way (my parents, for example), which I highly recommend you do--and I looked at all the ones I consider successful and all the others I consider not so, and I made a list of the characteristics common to relationships that felt positive.
In my first real relationship, we were 15, and we stumbled through romance, figuring it out as we went along. In reminiscing, it stood out to me that we failed in our extreme co-dependency, an overarching issue that most young couples face.
1) Sincere interdependence versus complete independence or co-dependence
Thanks to evolution and the internet, we've become quite aware that co-dependence is a recipe for disaster. We cringe when we hear things like: "We just love Game of Thrones." When the proper balance of safety and space gets squashed as a result of two people merging into one, break-up or technical relationship labels with no real relating between the partners, like a marriage with little interaction or intimacy, ensues.
However, Gen-Y, myself included, has overcompensated and we now value complete independence; many of us believe that a perfect relationship is two people who live their solo lives, yes side-by-side, but without affecting the other's decisions and wellbeing--"My life is full by itself;" "I don't need you; I just love you;" "My life is the cake and you're just the icing." Yet, inevitably and it seems invariably, problems arise when we run into decisions and actions that affect the other and we still try to pretend this isn't the case--"I have no idea if I move or change my career for him or her?" or a partner yelling in exasperation "Why didn't you take my goals into account?" when no precedent has been set for that behavior. Sometimes, we end up drifting apart because we were never really in a relationship.
I think romance can exist close to co-dependence or complete independence if the two partners are aware of their style and agree that it's best, but I believe sincere interdependence is the proper balance between these two.
Sincere interdependence is two people maintaining an independent self but also co-existing in the system of the relationship. I like to picture two mostly parallel lines that shift and move forward--each impacts the other but neither completely becomes the other. My choices affect you. The way I feel affects you. We must plan together and communicate our needs and goals, but I will not simply take on everything you are and want.
Each relationship will have a different most sincere version of these parallel lines--how close they are, how far one drifts when the other moves toward or away from it--and this larger quality can serve as a barometer for relationship success.
However, sincere interdependence by itself is also little vague. How do we know if we have enacted our most sincere relationship? To answer this, I looked to my romantic story for more detail, and I came to at least five more qualities that I think were successful for me and lead to sincere interdependence with my fiance. They are:
2) Self-revealing versus self-masking
I believe it's best to be honest. I don't think this means that we need to tell our partners about everything we had for lunch yesterday and blurt out a childhood trauma that's unrelated to the current subject on a first date, but I think if we're asked a question or have the opportunity to share some truth, we should reveal ourselves appropriately to the situation instead of put up walls and masks.
In my good relationships, I shared who I was. In my bad ones, I created a character version of myself. The problem with doing this caricaturing is two fold. First, my new partner got to know a image of me that I thought she would like instead of who I actually was, and this way of acting didn't give her the ability to choose to be with me as I am, which was a waste of time for both of us when things imploded down the road. Second, I didn't get my needs met because my partner didn't even know me and therefore had no idea what my needs were.
3) Self-affirming versus self-betraying
In my good, successful relationships I expressed my feelings and made honest choices about what I wanted to do or not do, how much time to spend with friends versus partner, where to live, what to do during free time,etc. I affirmed what I believed I really wanted instead of other times when I made choices to meet insincere ends like making sure the relationship continued, avoiding my own issues and insecurities, or soothing my partner. This brings me to...
4) Goal-process balance versus goal > process or process > goal
I think it's important to find the balance between a particular desire for what you want the relationship to be or become and also taking things as they actually are. We're all familiar with the thought: "Okay, I just have to make this one work. I'm sick of being single." However, then we betray ourselves ad infinitum to make sure we don't harm the relationship. (By the way, this strategy often works contrary to your desire--the exact thing you want to avoid by being overly conciliatory happens as a result.) On the other hand, I've found it's also not a good strategy to just see where things take us with no attention to what the relationship is or what we each want it to be; that usually ends in one person getting very hurt.
5) Growing versus proving
Am I growing in this relationship, or as a result of it? Or do I think I've already figured everything out and other person hasn't and they need to come to where I am? Do I use this relationship to simply validate everything I already know to be true?
As the saying goes: There's both people's opinions and then there's the truth. I find that relationships both where I'm willing to learn and am being taught are the best.
6) Present versus past-future
Does the relationship exist in the present or do you drag along all the stuff you've swept under the rug and haven't yet addressed? e.g. "It really hurt me when Casey was making fun of me and you just sat there." "Oh yeah!? What about the time in 1998 when your mom ripped my cheese dip and you laughed!? You just never get it."
Do you over-plan the future? e.g. you're one week in and already thinking about the car you'll buy together because you're too uncomfortable with unknown.
Constant self-betrayal leads to suppressed issues that rebound later. It also leads to those romances where suddenly it's over and you're blindsided; it takes you months or years to recover. Therefore, I find it's best to address issues as they arise. On the other side, as I said, I think goals are important in relationships, but they should be sincere goals that match where the relationship is, not where you wish it were.
Bottom line, there is no such thing as a universal standard for a successful love. I believe people in good relationships engage in the process of trying to develop sincere interdependence, and this comes from finding and cultivating the right relationship characteristics for both people as individuals and partners.
I think my qualities are very useful, but they are mine, and all relationships are different. I advise you to comb through your relationship autobiography and make your own values that can serve as a North Star for whether the relationship is working.