And why every relationship needs a balance of security and unpredictability.
Most intimate couples work hard to keep their relationship functioning and secure. They try to avoid conflicts that threaten their partnership and do everything they can to make their partner a high priority. And they honor an ongoing commitment to keep their relationship harmonious and compatible.
The downside to this focus on safety and security is that it can backfire. Couples who rely too much on heightening their successes and ignoring their inherent dissatisfactions may end up facing a different problem. A relationship without risks or significant challenges can dampen out the intrigue and excitement that accompany unpredictability. Relationship thoughts and behaviors that are too predictable can threaten a couple’s capacity for the passion and novelty that comes with uncertainty.
Randi Gunther Ph.D. as a clinical psychologist and marriage counselor, I’ve spent over 100,000 face-to-face hours with singles and couples helping them to sort out their desires and conflicts about intimate relationships. Together, we’ve explored all the reasons why their relationships so often start out euphoric only to crumble and how they can turn those disappointments into future successes. I truly believe that the greatest obstacles standing between you and the love you want is often right before your eyes but you are unable to envision the journey.
Editor: Saad Shaheed
Relying on predictable patterns and rituals may make intimate partners more comfortable in moments of calm but they will not prepare them well for the unexpected challenges that are part of every intimate relationship. When crises come, as they do, security-oriented couples move as quickly as they can to restore equanimity. In doing so, they miss the opportunity to uncover and upend their buried dissatisfactions. If, instead, they use disruptions to transcend the limits of their prior relationship, they can reclaim the passion and intrigue they had when their love was new. The goal of any relationship should be to continually balance certainty with the excitement of new ways of looking at their connection.
A major reason couples don't take risks is that they are fearful of encountering any negative, repeated, locked-in attitudes, feelings, and behaviors that they may have swept under the rug. Challenging inbred or innate attitudes might threaten the stability of a relationship—an action that poses a great risk to many couples.
The comfort that comes from pretending that everything is OK can eclipse the underlying adversity that emerges when it is exposed. For instance, a family member heavily disliked by one partner may not be a problem until that family member moves to the same neighborhood. Without having practiced the skills to actively address such a risk to their compatibility, a couple may not be able to handle this kind of unexpected challenge.
The first step in rebalancing security with risk is for both partners to realize what locked-in opinions or behaviors they have ignored in favor of comfort. The second step is to explore where those thoughts and behaviors originated and how deeply entrenched they are. Both partners need to ask of themselves, and each other, what ideas, opinions, and behaviors they've never challenged. What, for instance, are the social, political, religious, sexual, familial, financial, and emotional issues that each partner holds dear? Which have been suppressed for fear they would not be accepted or embraced by the other partner?
An unwillingness to challenge the limits of a relationship is one of the most common drivers of boredom between intimate partners. When they maximize their compatibility by minimizing their differences, their relationship becomes stale. They stop having exciting and passionate dialogue, stop desiring to learn more about the other, and cease searching for different ways to look at life and at each other.
If that is happening in your relationship, it may be time for a new type of dialogue to bring back the innovation and novelty you experienced when your love was new. Encourage each other to challenge some of the opinions and behaviors you've been afraid to address. These explorations may uncover or even create discontent, but they will open up new dialogue that can offer you renewed interest, intrigue, and excitement.
Not Just for Long-Term Partners
You should strive to create and preserve a balance of security and risk in any relationship you begin. This is especially true on today's dating scene, where many individuals know very little about each other before they meet. Unfortunately, if you are like most relationship seekers, you might be reluctant to take risks at the beginning of a relationship by trying to secure probabilities and comfort too soon.
Even though it may be counterintuitive, your relationships will be more successful if you're authentic and open about your attitudes and opinions from the beginning. Once you become too invested or involved with someone, you may become too risk-averse to reveal these. Many people become more careful about behaving in any way that might alienate the other person once they become more attached to outcome. Stay courageous and open; if the relationship works, it will for all the right reasons. If it doesn’t, it’s better to know that sooner rather than later.
Many couples, new and long-term, ask me how they can get to know each other more deeply and achieve more depth in their relationships. They are often eager to ignite a new relationship or reinvigorate one that feels stale.
There are many ways to challenge the limitations of a relationship. Here is one interesting way to explore this idea—a sentence-completion questionnaire that can be fun for new and old partners to complete and share. When both partners answer authentically, they can challenge each other’s thoughts and feelings to better understand and enhance their relationship. They can add new sentences as their relationship progresses, or return to the same ones again as their relationship matures.
Ask your partner to join you in filling in the following blanks and then honestly tell each other why you answered the way you did. Be sure to share how those feelings and thoughts originated in your lives before you met each other, and give examples of how they have affected your past relationships. Share how each of your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are open to discussion or negotiation, even those that you find hard to change.
When you finish, you will know what you can expect of your partner as your relationship matures. Remember: You're seeking to maintain a balance of security and risk for the rest of your relationship, so be as honest as you can.
- Men think of women as ______________________________________.
- Women think of men as ______________________________________.
- Relationships work out because the partners ___________________.
- Relationships fail because _____________________________.
- Love is __________________________________________________.
- In order to have a great relationship, women must ________________.
- In order to have a great relationship, men must ________________.
- The hardest thing about an intimate relationship is _______________.
- People fall in love because _________________________________.
- The most important qualities of great male partners are _____________.
- The most important qualities of great female partners are____________.
- The most hurtful thing a man can do in a relationship is _____________.
- The most hurtful thing a woman can do in a relationship is __________.
- What men most like is _______________________________________.
- What women most like is ____________________________________.
- The most important lessons I’ve ever learned about relationships are____.
- The adjectives I’d use to describe the perfect relationship are _______.
- In a relationship, I cannot do without _____________________.
- The best attributes I bring to a relationship are ___________________.
- I would absolutely end a relationship if _________________.
Great relationship partners know how to choose security when they need safety and predictability, and how to explore new dimensions when they need innovation and excitement. They know that the future of their relationship depends on that balance to stay intact.