How to sustain a long-term relationship

How to sustain a long-term relationship

By The Counseling Corner from the American Counseling Association

The Counseling Corner

from the American Counseling


Each year, Valentine’s Day brings thoughts of cute greeting cards and heart-shaped boxes of candy, but it’s also a good time to think about long-term relationships. While our Valentine’s relationships are usually romantic in nature, they share many of the same basics as any close relationship we may have. Long-term relationships, whether a marriage, a friendship or even a business relationship, are based on some common foundations and make a number of common demands of us. It’s worth examining what makes a long-term relationship work.

On some level, it is amazing that any two people can build and sustain a long-term relationship at all. Each of us is the product of so many different influences and personal choices, that it’s a wonder we’re able to find other individuals with whom we share enough things to establish a close relationship. Such differences also explain why building and sustaining a long-term relationship really does take work–work by both parties. Marriages and friendships survive because the people involved are willing to work through differences and disagreements–because they value the relationship more than things over which they disagree. Recall the old adage that says, “While opposites attract, it is the similarities that keep a relationship together.”

We often are attracted to a person who has some character trait we admire, but that we feel we do not have ourselves. By entering a relationship with that person, we may be vicariously fulfilling our own personal need for that particular character trait. Even though we don’t possess it ourselves, our friend does and in some ways fills the need for us. In the best cases, we may be attracted to opposites because it expands our own world, rather than simply making up for our shortcomings. We may find that we learn from our friend and eventually integrate into our own personality that character trait that first attracted us to that person. A shy person may learn to be a little more outgoing from a more gregarious friend. An insecure person may start acting with more confidence after interacting with a highly confident friend. Eventually we may change enough to end up sharing a similarity with the other person. The long-term result is that the majority of our close relationships are not with opposites, but rather with those who think, react, believe and behave more similarly to ourselves. This makes our lives simpler by providing needed support from those around us. There is comfort in not struggling to understand someone, in not being caught off guard or being constantly challenged by someone far different than ourselves.

Yet even in the closest of relationships, whether romantic or between friends, there will be areas of disagreement. How such disagreements are handled is often an important part of turning a new or casual relationship into a long-term one. Honesty, openness and trust play important roles. To agree to be honest with one another even when disagreements come up, and then actually to do just that, will build essential trust. Both members of the relationship must commit to this to work.

One way to look at this could be called the ABC method of sustaining a relationship. The “A” is to “Affirm” the value of the relationship. In other words, agreeing that the relationship itself is more important than either of your views on a particular subject.

”B” stands for “Behaving” in ways that, when discussing points of disagreement, reaffirm the value of the relationship. This means letting the other person know that while you may disagree on this subject, it won’t affect the basics of the relationship. It means not setting ultimatums or trying to force the other person to your point of view.

The “C” means “Clarifying” issues when there are disagreements. Each person must monitor and control his or her own tendency to want to “interpret” the words and actions of the other, as opposed to being open and talking with the other person to clarify his or her intent and meaning. Long-term relationships are important in our lives. But there is no denying that it takes work to make them last and grow. The key is often finding room in the relationship for the differences that are going to exist between any two people.

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