What makes a good relationship?

The ingredients that really matter.

Every month at the newsstand I see a magazine cover inviting readers to take a handy quiz that will reveal the truth about an intimate relationship. “Is he the right one for you?” “How healthy is your marriage?” “What’s your romance quotient?” Answering the questions can be fun — except when it leads to an argument, of course! Of course, most of us walk around with our own personal criteria for what makes a good relationship. These usually include things like shared goals, common values, romance and sexual satisfaction, communication, and so on.

Back when I was a teenager an important requirement was that Mr. Right look more like Paul than Ringo. And at any age, we tend to be a little unrealistic about our criteria. One of the most common expectations, for example is, “My partner should know just what I need without my having to ask.” That one’s a real set-up for disappointment!

So, should we give up on setting criteria for a good relationship? I don’t think so. Actually, knowing what we really want, what we yearn for, is the first step toward creating a relationship we find satisfying. One set of criteria I have found to be intriguing and helpful comes from The Healing Connection: How Women Form Relationships in Therapy and in Life, by Jean Baker Miller and Irene Pierce Stiver. These researchers and clinicians at Wellesley College’s Stone Center* state simply that a healthy relationship is one that leads to mutual growth. They list “five good things” that are present in a mutually empowering relationship: zest, action, knowledge, worth, and a desire for more connection. See what you think. You might not bother with any more magazine quizzes…

In a relationship that leads to mutual growth and empowerment, the participants experience:

  • Zest — This is “the feeling that comes when we feel a real sense of connection, of being together with and joined by another person. It feels like an increase — as opposed to a decrease — in vitality, aliveness, energy. The feeling is there when people make emotional connections and it is notably absent when they do not. We can all probably remember its opposite, the ‘down’ kind of feeling that we experience when we are not making an authentic connection with another person.”
  • Action — In a mutually empowering relationship, “each [person] acts and has an important impact on the other — each creates change…it is only by interacting that we each affect each other.”
  • Knowledge — As we share our stories and struggles we move toward “an enlarged and more accurate picture” of ourselves and of each other. We come to know ourselves and others and something about the world, too.
  • A Sense of Worth — As we listen to one another and respond with respect and care, we nurture one another’s sense of worth. “We cannot develop a sense of worth unless the people important to us convey that they recognize and acknowledge our experience,” say Miller and Stiver. Self-esteem isn’t something poured into us (or not) in childhood; it develops through our relationships all through life.
  • A Greater Sense of Connection and Desire for More Connections — “This feeling is different from being the recipient of another’s concern, or being loved, and very different from feeling ‘approved of.’ It is much more valuable. It is the active, outgoing feeling of caring about another person because that person means so much to us or is so valued in our eyes. It leads to both the desire for fuller connection with that person and a concern for that person’s well-being. We cannot will this feeling into existence. It comes along as a concomitant of connection.” A growth-enhancing relationship, Baker and Stiver note, does not only lead us to want more connection with the other person, but to a desire for connection in general — to less isolation.

Since 1990 I have been helping busy people in the New York area recover from pain and stress, gain confidence, and enjoy more trusting, fulfilling relationships.

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