We all want to have an amazing relationship. The problem is that most of us go about it the wrong way. See, one of the mistakes we make when it comes to relationships is that we tend to assume there’s one way to have them. We accept the default mode without thinking about it. Worse: we rarely talk about what we expect from a relationship until after it’s started to fall apart.
The mistake is that – once we’ve chosen our partner – we tend to assume the work is done. The credits are going to roll and everything else is going to be sitcom-esque bliss, complete with laugh tracks and neighbors with curious ideas about boundaries. Then, three fights later about cake batter and alternate uses for pastry bags, and your slice of Heaven has turned into a new layer of Hell.
When we let relationships just “happen”, we increase the likelihood of conflict and ugly break-ups. But by taking the time in the beginning of a relationship, we can build the love affair of our dreams.
Sort Out The Sex, First
One of the first things to do when you’re building your perfect relationship: make sure you’re on the same page about sex, first. Sexual compatibility is vital to a couple’s happiness in a relationship. It’s easy in the beginning, when the oxytocin is flowing like a river and the novelty of each other’s bodies means that you’re busy exploring the structural integrity of every flat surface in the house.
But all good things must end and the early excitement surrounding having hot and cold running sex will too, and then the work begins.
So before you argue whether one of you really has to wear the Pope hat again, you want to focus on what you expect out of sex early on. And by that I mean… well, everything. Sexual compatibility is a multi-axis graph, where frequency, type, what accessories and with whom are all things that should be negotiated early on.
This can be surprisingly difficult. There’s a lot of pressure, especially at the beginning of a relationship, to not want to say anything about sex. After all: it’s going well now, why rock the boat. Worse… what if your deep dark fetish or kink (which is probably not that deep or dark) chases them of?
Well… good? If there’s an aspect of sex that is an absolute must have for you – something that you will eventually require – then it’s better to get that out in the open now. Should there be something your partner can’t or won’t handle, then it’s better to show them the door now.
If you’re going to have a life-long relationship with someone – or at least for the long-term – then you need to be comfortable enough to talk about those sides of you, openly and honestly and without fear of judgement or recrimination.
Similarly, you want to talk about your expectations surrounding monogamy. A lot of people treat monogamy as the default; it’s been drilled into us as the cultural standard after all. However, that automatic assumption of monogamy can cause conflicts later on, especially if what one – or both – of you wants or needs is variety. In fact, the problem for many serial cheaters is that they make commitments they can’t live up to because they feel that they have to do so.
By redefining monogamy as an opt-in instead of an opt-out feature, it makes it easier for partners to have open discussions about what they can and can’t agree to.
Of course, if there are conflicts between partners about sex, this doesn’t mean that the relationship is off. One of the options available to you – especially as you write your own relationship rules – is to agree how a partner might get their needs met without ending the relationship. If an arrangement can be made for a kinkster to meet with a play partner, for example, then the vanilla partner won’t necessarily feel the pressure to indulge in a form of sex they just can’t get into. If a partner can’t do monogamy… is it permissible to, say, visit a “masseuse” discretely once a month?
The key to remember is that this is a negotiation. Neither side is going to get 100% of what the want, but ideally everyone gets an arrangement that they can be happy with. Not “can live with” but happy. This, incidentally means that you don’t want to agree to something that you hope will never happen. All this does is set a ticking time-bomb in your relationship with a faulty clock. You never know when it’s going to go off, but it’s gonna. And Jack Bauer ain’t gonna stop it.
Sort Out The Money Next
The next things you want to sort out with your ride-or-die is money. Even if you two aren’t planning on shacking up any time soon, money conflicts are the incoming asteroid to the unprepared planet that is your relationship.
Regardless of whether you share living space – or a bank account, for that matter – or not, money is going to be an issue. Who has how much is going to define whether going out for a nice date means cocktails at the Roosevelt Room or the drink special at Applebees. It’s going to affect the plans that the two of you make together, whether it’s a vacation, a wedding or the future of your careers.
Again, it’s easy to not see this as being a problem early on; you’ll commit to splitting everything, you’ll try to keep things reasonable, etc. But as your relationship progresses, it’s going to go from being an occasional minor annoyance – one of you may have to float the other their half of dinner and drinks – to a potential calamity.
If there’s a distinct difference between your relative income, for example, then there’s going to be issues down the line. On the other hand, if you’re contributing equally, then one of you is going to feel the pinch. If you’re contributing what you can afford, then one of you runs the risk of starting to feel resentful. Even among the tightest of couples, this can be a problem over time.
But the issues aren’t only going to be about who’s spending how much. There’s also differences in how you use your money. If one of you pinches pennies, they may get stressed. They might feel as though they have to be responsible for both of your spending habits, lest things go awry… even though they haven’t been given that role.
Meanwhile, the one who has more money also has more influence in very real ways. If one of you is given an opportunity at work that requires moving to a new job in a new – and more expensive – city… well, what does the partner with less do? Do they get a say in things? What if one of you decides to go back to school, or start their own business. Are you going to be OK with supporting them until they’re able to support themselves?
It’s impossible to plan for all contingencies. But the sooner you can start talking about money and getting your guidelines in place? The less stressed you’ll be down the line.
Speaking of guidelines:
Know Your Role In The Relationship
Every relationship is predicated on work. Sometimes that work is literal. Other times, it’s emotional. The problem is that sometimes we end up with work that we never expected… or intended to have.
Now, no relationship, no matter how equitable or egalitarian is going to have a perfect 50/50 split when it comes to doing the work. There will always be one partner or another who’s going to end up with a heavier load. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as long as everybody’s ok with it. It’s when all that work gets dumped on one partner that there’re problems.
The work in a relationship tends to go to the people who either are best at it or care most for it. But it works best if everyone agrees up front about who’s going to do what and where lines get drawn. For example: are you cool with being the primary point person for social engagements? Some couples do better when one person is functionally the social secretary. Alternately, are you ok with being the primary planner of date nights? Will one of you be the primary budget planner? Are you both able to split any household chores? Or will it make more sense for one partner to take on the lion’s share there while the other focuses on other areas?
Again: it doesn’t have to be a perfect split. Nor does it even need to be perfectly egalitarian; if things get divided up along gender lines and you’re both cool with it, then rock the righteous fuck on.
But regardless of how you divide up the labor and roles in your relationship, don’t denigrate what you or your partner do. One of the primary sources of resentment in a relationship isn’t who’s doing more work, it’s the other partner not acknowledging or valuing that work. This is especially true if one of you is doing more of the emotional lifting in the relationship. Emotional labor tends to be undervalued under the best of circumstances. If you’re giving your partner extra work and not acknowledging the work they’re doing, then you can expect an invoice coming due very soon.
Remember, part of building your perfect relationship isn’t just about choosing roles. It’s also about drama-proofing things in advance. Recognizing what your partner does for you and being grateful for it will ensure that your bond will be strong and happy in the long-run.
Speaking about rules and roles though…
Just Because Everyone Else Does it Doesn’t Mean You Have To
When you and your partner are trying to put together your ideal relationship, don’t choose things just because you’re used to them or because you’ve seen them reflected back at you in pop culture. Part of why we all end up in relationships we’re not happy with is because we tend to fall back to “well, it’s always like that” or “This is just what couples do.”
One common example: sharing the same bed. It’s generally accepted that if you’re part of a couple, you’re going to sleep in the same room. In fact, sleeping separately is seen as a sign of trouble in paradise. But… why, exactly? While yes, there’s a lot to be said for snuggling or the comfort of hearing your lover breathe next to you in the night, there’s also a lot to be said for not fighting over the covers. Or not waking up drenched in sweat because your snugglebunny could double as an industrial heater.
So… why not have separate bedrooms, if you can swing it? Connect them with a jack-and-jill bathroom and you can still have the intimacy of fighting over counter space without arguing about what temperature you need to sleep comfortably. Having space in a relationship is a good thing; why shouldn’t that space also include your bedroom?
Well… more often than not, because that’s Just How Things Are Done. And that’s a bad reason to keep doing things.
If you want your perfect relationship, you want one that fits you like your favorite pair of jeans. Getting it there may well mean tossing tradition out the window of a speeding car. If you’ve put up with or endured parts of relationships that chafed and rubbed sores in an otherwise great partnership, then it can be worth examining whether you need that part of the relationship. It very well may be a vestigial remnant, a cultural outgrowth that you have no use for. In which case… why bother keeping it?
Engagement rings are another great example. They don’t need to be diamond1 or given from a man to a woman. You could just as easily have mutual rings. Or torcs. Or nothing at all, if that’s how you want to roll.
As you plan things with your sweetie, you should both ask yourselves: why do we need to do things this specific way? This is your relationship. Set it up however you please.
And one more thing:
Remember To Revisit The Rules
The thing to remember about your perfect relationship is that shit’s gonna change. You’re not going to be the same person from year to year. The things that worked at one point in your life won’t work at different times. Your needs are going to shift and adjust over time.
The same goes for your relationship. The things that made sense to do or were appropriate at one stage in your lives together may very well not work one, five, ten years down the line. You may start off sharing a room and decide to have his-and-hers bedrooms later on. You may start off non-monogamous and realize that your needs have changed so you close the relationship. As you mature, your roles in the relationship may shift around.
Similarly, you might have made choices that seemed wise but turned out to be mistakes. Should you be locked into a relationship role based on the fact that it seemed like a good idea at the time?
If you don’t account for these possibilities, what was perfect early on will become the things that chafe and irritate you. That’s why it’s important to take time to revisit how you’ve set up your relationship. Sitting down with your partner every couple years and having a state-of-the-relationship talk can let you decide whether things need to change.
A perfect relationship isn’t one where you set things up and never have to think about it again. It’s an organic being that’s going to mature and grow… sometimes in completely unexpected directions. Making sure your relationship is perfect isn’t about setting it in stone; it’s about building in the flexibility for it to change with you.
What makes a relationship perfect is going to change over time. To keep it perfect… all you need to do is be ready to let it.
- it was just a marketing effort by DeBeers anyway [↩]