Some Thoughts on What Makes A Relationship Successful By Richard B. Joelson, DSW on 12/30/20 - 1:53 PM

It’s distressing when a patient tells me that they have never observed nor experienced what they would define as a successful romantic relationship. Statements like “Maybe good relationships just don't exist” or “No one in my family ever had a good relationship” usually follow. Many of my patients enter psychotherapy because of relationship-based difficulties, and some of them eventually feel that they are doomed to continuously have trouble or fail in their efforts to enjoy a successful romantic partnership.

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I am often told by clearly disheartened patients that the trajectory of their romantic lives has been downhill. Frustrations and disappointments are said to develop as early as a few years, sometimes even a few months—after the honeymoon ends and “normal life” resumes. One patient told me that he and his wife suffered from the marital equivalent of a “postpartum depression that never ended.” Frequently, to comfort themselves, they suggest that this downward trajectory is “standard,” “everyone's experience.” These assertions, I fear, while primarily designed to self-soothe, also seem to firm up the belief that any long-term romantic relationship is likely to be a doomed enterprise. When I comment that while relationships may change over time, that change does not necessarily imply that a relationship turns from positive to negative, or when I mention that some relationships have been known to deepen and improve with age, some patients look at me in disbelief.

Through my work, I have had the satisfaction of seeing positive outcomes when two people work hard at relationship self-improvement. This enables me to work with a perspective and a conviction about what may be possible that patients in distress—especially in the beginning of the therapeutic process—often lack.

The following are some of the ingredients that I believe help to make and sustain a positive and successful romantic partnership, and that I have sampled in my clinical work.

Handling anger and avoiding arguments: One of the major problems with anger and the arguments that result is that neither partner does much, if anything, to avoid them. Perhaps motivated by the need to prevail or be “right” about the conflict-arousing issue, one or the other person in the couple “takes the bait” and gets hooked into an argument that could have been avoided if one of them had seen to it that the conversation—however emotionally-charged—had remained conversational or been postponed until calm was restored. This is not always easy, but certainly possible.

Listening to each other: Couples in conflict often are so busy preparing their indictment of the other person or their defense of themselves that they simply do not listen and hear what is being said. Thus, their responses are often not responses at all, but their next statement—perhaps entirely unrelated to what was just said to them. This is one of the main reasons, I believe, why too many couples recycle the same issues and arguments over and over and rarely if ever feel as though any conversation (or “attack and defend” exchange) accomplishes anything. Couples often need help to learn to listen to each other so that the dynamic between them changes to one that is productive. That is the goal of good therapy to which I aspire in my couples work.

Saying “I'm sorry”: I continue to be amazed at how difficult this is for so many of the people with whom I have worked both in and out of romantic partnerships. I often hear statements like “I know it's the right thing to do, and I feel sorry...I just can't say it!” Such responses suggest the likelihood that the person might feel “weak” or “defeated” if they publicly acknowledge their sorrow or regret.

Expressing Gratitude: When partners in a couple feel and express their gratitude or appreciation for each other, each of them feels cherished and valued, and it enhances the relationship. Expressions of appreciation do not have to be confined to major gestures or actions. “Thank you, honey, for feeding the dog” or “I really appreciate your picking up my prescription” can be just as meaningful as a thank you for a monumental gift or kindness.

Changing: By this I am referring to what might be considered the “little things” that become big when they persist over time. These are the kinds of changes that, with some effort, might be easy to accomplish with far greater dividends than the investment required to achieve them. If a wife tells her husband, for example, that she really appreciates getting a greeting card on her birthday and her anniversary, I am bewildered by the husband’s seeming refusal to gratify her, regardless of whether it means anything to him. If a husband informs his wife that he would not like to be interrupted by phone calls during his gym workout unless there is an emergency, I am similarly bewildered by her not cooperating and calling about nonessential matters during that time. When people feel ignored or, worse, devalued by their partners, resentments develop that can become toxic to the relationship.

Treating each other as special: A wife with whom I worked complained that upon leaving a party, her husband helped every other woman guest with her coat—except her. When she questioned him about this, his reply was “Well, that's because you're my wife!” Her response: “That's the point!” That she felt taken for granted was not surprising. Moments like this may be insignificant if they are infrequent, but if they typify an attitude or are common in the relationship, they have the potential to cause diminished regard and affection for the offending partner.

Hurting with words: The damage potential of comments made in the heat of battle is extremely high. There is a tendency on the part of the offending partner to dismiss or trivialize those remarks afterwards. Saying “I didn't really mean it, I was just angry,” often makes things worse, especially if there is no sincere apology attached. Words can cause wounds and may not easily heal when calm is restored. They are often referenced when a subsequent argument occurs, i.e. “I'll never forget the time you told me to ‘drop dead.’”


In my work with couples, these are but a few of what I consider to be “ingredients” of a successful romantic relationship—aspirational for some couples, attainable for others, and sadly out of reach for still others. I have worked most successfully when some or all of these ingredients have been utilized by both partners and when they remember that the person with whom they are having conflict may be the very person whom they love the most, and who loves them similarly.

File under: Couples Therapy