Just as inability for sick Americans to find safe and affordable health care has created a crisis in our society, ignorance among single adults about how to find safe and affordable relationships has created a crisis for them. They are suffering through relationships that make themselves and others sick.
A major part of the ignorance is that people don’t see their relationships as living creations. They don’t see their love needs to be fed in order to grow and thrive, and that if it’s not growing, it’s dying. Relationships often do die from infection or malnutrition, and the lovers don’t have a clue how it happened.
Another thing lovers don’t know is what and how much to feed their relationship. Just as plants need sunlight, water and soil rich in minerals, the three things relationships need are personal disclosure, sacrificial commitment, and romantic affection. Withhold or overdo one of these and you’re killing the relationship.
The main ingredients of personal disclosure that a couple needs are facts, feelings and beliefs about family, finances, career, religion, sexuality, child-rearing, legal/political issues, hopes and dreams, and physical and mental health. Lies and refusal to disclose these things are major signs of trouble here.
Likewise, the major sacrificial commitments a couple needs to keep making to insure their relationship is growing and healthy are these: keeping promises (dates and phone calls), celebrating birthdays and holidays, backing off from opposite-sexed friends, agreeing to date exclusively, telling the truth, working to restore broken trust, expressing emotions without overdoing them, resolving conflict safely and fairly, building relationships with each other’s friends and families, adjusting careers and budgets for the relationship, and making a formal engagement to marry (setting a date, exchanging a ring, etc.).
I won’t list here the particular acts of romantic affection and physical touch that an unmarried relationship needs and which ones should be saved until after wedding. That is a very personal decision that each couple needs to talk out in advance. But certainly each partner needs to give gradually increasing amounts of both forms of romantic affection: physical touch (most men’s favorite: caresses and kisses) and verbal touch (most women’s favorite: sweet nothings in conversation, cards, calls and notes).
Couples usually fail to see that their relationship is very much like a pet or a child they may someday have. If a couple takes care of their pet child (or relationship), it will take care of them and be a continual source of love, joy and peace. But the average couple doesn’t know nearly as much about how to take care of their relationship as they do about how to care for their a child or a pet, even though it is much more central to their own current and future well-being.
For example, the most common mistake I see couples making is losing their balance with each other. One feeds the relationship much more than the other does of one or more of the three nutrients of disclosure, commitment and affection. Their love thus degenerates into a dependency. Genuine, lasting intimacy depends upon the balanced parity of a fully invested mutual partnership.
The next most common relationship mistake I see is for one or both partners to neglect keeping these three nutrients in balance with each other. Just as plants need an ecological balance between sunlight, water, and nutrients in the soil, relationships need a balanced diet of disclosure, commitment and affection. Typically, instead of giving their relationship what an owner’s manual would say to provide, couples give their relationships what they feel like giving them. Often that’s too much affection, too little commitment, and too much or too little disclosure.
The third most common mistake a couple makes is not allowing their relationships the time to grow naturally through its various seasons and maturational stages. They would never toilet train a pet or a child too young, or wait too long. They’d never let them play unattended in the yard before they were old enough to do it safely. But they typically have no idea when it’s too soon or too late for their relationship to handle various acts of disclosure, commitment and romantic touch we described above.
So in another post above, we’ll look at four seasons for love relationships: winter, spring, summer and autumn harvest. At each stage, we’ll see what a balanced diet of disclosure, commitment and affection would look like. If you want to know more sooner, I’ve written a book about all this, called Growing Your Love Life, subtitled “Vital Balance in Single Adult Relationships,” available on Amazon.com.
Dr. Paul Schmidt is a psychologist life coach you can reach at [email protected], (502) 633-2860.