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If you're in a long-term relationship or want to be in one, I can give you straight-up advice on what to do right now to safeguard your relationship from avoidable trouble. First, let me explain why you should listen.
As social animals, we depend on each other for survival on many levels: physically, psychologically, emotionally. In the wild, primates procreate and pair bond, on average, for four years: sufficient time to raise one child and protect it from the hostile environment.
Nature cares not about long-term relationships.
Most of us modern humans, however, do care because we are part of a society that values, even requires, cooperation, collaboration, and social fidelity to agreed-upon principles of governance. We also live a lot longer than either non-human primates or our recent ancestors. All this suggests the value of taking active steps to ensure the longevity of our relationships.
Now, that's not always easy.
Romantic love waxes and wanes over time.
Mutual physical attraction can dim as our bodies undergo slow but inevitable changes as we age. Common interests also change as we are exposed to new experiences, attractions, and pursuits. One of nature's little jokes is to turn what attracted us to another person into what may eventually annoy us.
This is where shared principles of governance come in.
If you and your partner are bound together by principles that govern each of you as well as how you relate to everyone outside your "couple bubble," you increase your chances of weathering the winds of change.
These principles are, in essence, your Ten Commandments. Much like our shared belief in the Constitution, you must believe your shared principles will hold together over the long run, despite shifts and changes in love, lust, common interests, and all other ephemeral attractants. Depending on your imagination and forethought, your principles could include survival, thriving, trust, respect, admiration, radical loyalty, devotion, and a feeling of believing in something greater than the self.
Principles, unlike rules and laws, are beliefs.
I strongly discourage you from thinking in terms of rules. People may break rules and laws, but breaking one's principles is akin to being untrue to oneself.
"People are complex," says Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT, clinician, teacher, and developer of the Psychobiological Approach to Couple Therapy (PACT). "We don't come with manuals that explain and automate the process of getting along." Even if we did, we aren't...
I believe in remaining fully transparent with Tracey, my wife. I stick to this principle because I've reasoned how and why it serves both a personal and a mutual good. Do I like admitting something that might get me into trouble? Of course not. But transparency is a higher good than my wish to conceal or protect myself. Breaking this principle would violate a belief in who I am. Now, if Tracey didn't share this principle, we'd have a big problem. We'd be operating according to opposing beliefs, which could become a deal breaker.
Shared principles of governance are especially useful when you or your partner don't feel like doing something, don't like each other, or are in a bad mood.
Here are some examples of shared principles of governance to get you started:
We put the relationship first, above all other self-interests.
We protect each other's sense of safety and security at all times.
We apologize, make amends, and rectify misunderstandings or injuries in short order.
We are fully transparent with each other.
We minister to each other immediately when we are in distress.
We are the first to know things.
We never threaten each other or the relationship.
These are just examples. The principles you and your partner create must be particular to your mutual needs. You may want to consider big-ticket items first: your relationship, children, work, self, and so on. You both must fully buy into your shared principles and be ready to defend why they serve both a personal and a mutual good. In other words, explain why each principle benefits you and your partner, specifically.
You must drink the Kool Aid™ on each principle, or it will not protect either of you or your relationship.
If you don't believe in the principle, when it comes time to pony up, you won't do it.
The strongest, most enduring couples can articulate their shared principles of governance. Can you? Take the time you need to cocreate yours.
Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT, has a clinical practice as a couple therapist in Calabasas, California, and is an assistant professor at the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine. He and his wife, Tracey Boldemann-Tatkin, PhD, founded the PACT Institute and lead therapist training programs in cities across the United States and around the world.