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January 23, 2013

by Jason Agnetti, LMFT

The word relationship goes through so many different definitions as we make our way through this dynamic roller coaster we call our lives.  Time and time again we, as humans, try to find a working model of what makes a relationship work only to embark on yet another trial and error, or often a trial by fire experience.  Over the course of our lives this can lead us to become jaded, hurt, fearful, and even avoidant of one of our most basic needs, the need to be loved and accepted.  As a Marriage and Family Therapist, I find that keeping it simple is the best approach to making sense of emotional dynamics.  I’ve yet to be able to give a couple something as concrete as a pound of Happiness, or an ounce of Interpersonal Peace, though I have yet to stop searching!  When we deal with elusive concepts like relationships, I have found that models with concrete definitions are best.  What follows is a basic model of one of the most complicated and difficult relationships that we will ever jump into: marriage

The model requires 4 basic components all in equal parts, so let’s break them down starting with commitment.  Commitment is a demonstration of consistent and reliable behavior demonstrated over time.  This builds a solid foundation of trust.  Commitment is less a verbal dynamic and heavily weighted on behavior.  This is the “Don’t just say it, do it” part of a relationship.  Commitment is the anchor of behavior that couples use to allow themselves to venture into becoming vulnerable emotionally in a relationship.  Without a consistent and reliable behaviorally based commitment system, the relationship with fall into mistrust, avoidance, and anger.

As we shift away from commitment, we move away from action and behavior and move into the emotional arena.  When we talk about Intimacy in a relationship with this model we are not talking about physical intimacy but Emotional Intimacy.  We will define this as being able to allow one to be emotionally vulnerable to their partner and to allow their partner to be emotionally vulnerable to them.   Easily stated, not so easy to do.  Based on our history of being hurt, betrayed, or taken for granted, we find it difficult to allow ourselves to maintain a vulnerable state for fear of having history repeat itself.  Intimacy demands that we are able to accept our emotional aspect of being human, to accept that what we feel is valid and important.  Also, Intimacy demands that we do not criticize or dominate the emotional needs and states of our partners but walk along side them as they express themselves.

Passion shifts us back to behavior, but not on a grand scale.  Passion is energy, energy used to push, risk, and press the relationship out of ruts and into the grand adventure of discovery.  A passionate marriage does not, for example go to the same restaurant every Friday for chicken alfredo! It is a very human quality to take things in our lives for granted.  This is why you never have enough boxes when you move, you have become so used to all your stuff, and you don’t even realize you have so much.  Passion definitely has a sexual component to it, but is not all sexual.  It is the expression of need to be in the company and presence of the one you find comfort in.

The model takes the form of an equilateral triangle as all sides must be equal.  If a marriage is dominated by any one side, it becomes unstable.  A marriage that is commitment heavy with little passion or intimacy becomes emotionally dead, for example.   So what keeps the triangle in its form of equality?  The single most important aspect of any relationship; communication.  Without effective communication a marriage cannot maintain healthy levels of commitment, passion, or intimacy.  The major stumbling block for most couples is the belief that communication is factually based.  In a marriage, facts are meaningless, emotions are everything!   So often couples focus on the facts of the situation, day, or problem they are faced with instead of the feelings attached to it.  You cannot fix or change the facts of your partner’s life, but you can validate and connect with their feelings about it.  This connection formed then gives the couple the ability to create a working solution together versus an argument over facts.  A fact based communication style often leads to a breakdown in connection due to one feeling inferior to the other.  At the end of the day, the reason we embark on this complicated journey of marriage is connection.  We want to feel a part of something greater than the loneliness of life apart.  Effective emotional communication is the greatest skill to accomplish this.

This has been just a small sampling and a simplified version of a working marital model.  It is my hope that you have found it helpful, motivating, and empowering.  I am available by email or phone to answer any questions about this model or other relational questions.  I will also be running a Couples Retreat in Big Bear Lake, CA in October of 2012 to enrich and empower marital connections.

About the Author

Jason is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist at Novell and Novell Counseling.  To schedule an appointment with Jason, please call 951-252-9911.

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