The Key Ingredient At The Center Of Every Epic Life-Long Relationship

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young brunette couple smiling at one another on a train

All relationships have boundaries. And these boundaries provide important guidelines.

They act as  "... an invisible line that defines acceptable behavior..." (a favorite description from the Wellness Center, University of Illinois, Chicago). They shape the scope and content of engagement and create the foundation from which interactions form, grow, solidify, and evolve anew.

Boundaries are key to successful relationship building.

Whether cognizant of them or not, everyone has boundaries related to all the different aspects of themselves and their lives, e.g., physical, sexual, social, financial, emotional, intimacy, trust, communication, and material comforts.

Knowing what your boundaries are and how to authentically and respectfully negotiate them — as well as those of your partner — is fundamental to building a lasting relationship of any kind.

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Boundaries — the key ingredient in building relationships

Because people and couples are diverse in nature, successful relationships can arise from many different ingredients. A variety of lists of these key bonding ingredients are published in numerous psychology and relationships journals and countless dating-related blogs.

Summing them up, collective wisdom says good relationships are built on six identifiable attributes:

  • Mutual attraction
  • Trust
  • Clarity
  • Tolerance
  • Compromise
  • Respect

Boundaries foster the development of these six essential ingredients. 

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3 roles boundaries play in relationships

1. The development of mutual respect

Boundaries help partners develop a mutual understanding of each other's likes, wants, and needs as well as dislikes.

2. The setting of relationship parameters

Boundaries clarify what partners are willing to share — and what they would prefer to keep to themselves.

3. The revelation of willingness to change

Third, and perhaps paramount, the relative flexibility (or rigidity) of these boundaries reveals the partners' tolerance levels associated with any challenge, moderation, or infringement of their boundaries and their willingness to compromise.

People often emphasize their shared hobbies and past-times during the dating stage; however, it's this negotiation process that defines the nature and viability of the partnership. Recognition and respect for these three key attributes are critical to a long-lasting happy relationship.

Attention to the third aspect of boundaries, i.e., flexibility vs rigidity, is critical to both parties. However; it's particularly important for women who must assert themselves by overcoming considerable cultural obstacles.

This is because, though at times subtle, customary gender norms, beliefs, and communication styles impinge on women's ability to effectively express what is personally essential and authentic to them.

The high degree of emotionality associated with love relationships only exacerbates this.

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Moving from dating to a long-term commitment

While lots of people date just to meet people or hook up, here we focus on creating and growing a successful lasting relationship.

First, an important note. Being clear and authentic about your motivation is important to the type of engagement you want to forge.

Start with transparency around your motives.

The American dating experience earns low marks

Relationship building typically starts with dating. Unfortunately, dating can be disappointing and tiring. It can sap your time and energy and wear you down emotionally.

According to the Thriving Center of Psychology, "Nearly half of Americans say dating is harder now than 10 years ago." Furthermore, a Pew Research Center survey found a whopping 67 percent of daters interviewed said their dating experience was going not too well or not at all well.

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Online dating apps don't deliver on the promise of love

Dating studies indicate the dating game has been changing, with online app users increasingly becoming the norm: 29 percent in 2017 to 51 percent in 2022 (Statista, 2022).

Still, just 14 percent of online daters married someone they met online (Cloudwards, 2022). Moreover, a dismal 20 percent of these couples divorce. Twelve percent do so in the first three years of marriage compared to just two percent for those who met in person (Hocker Law Firm, 2021).

Figures such as these suggest that online dating needs upgrading.

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Why online dating is inconsistent

The above results are not surprising when you consider that online matches are based on a lot of generic personal traits and interests. Profiles often look like a laundry list of preferences, self-proclaimed accolades, and uninformative cliches.

And, a surprising 53 percent of daters lie about one or more of these traits in their online profiles (Huffington Post). What's more, some online apps report much higher instances of lying.

Some apps, such as eHarmony, employ mysterious proprietary algorithms purported to determine compatibility based on data derived from hundreds of personal questions and each dater's activity on the site.

But how does the programmer's opinion of compatibility actually relate to the dater's? Building a successful romantic relationship is rarely a game of averages.

Each resultant couple will certainly be unique, and it's unlikely a standard algorithm can capture that uniqueness. Furthermore, most of the data are static and fail to capture the dance of dynamic courtship and commitment.

That's why as a dater, a bit of forethought and laying of ground rules of your own can help you separate the wheat from the chaff.

RELATED: 10 Brutally Honest Reasons Your Online Dating Profile Isn't Attracting Anyone



Building a successful relationship

To increase the odds of finding that person who will cultivate a successful partnership with you, in particular, consider these two initial steps first: 1) "know thyself" and 2) do your homework.

It's up to you to own the process and not hand the reins over to some external decision-maker such as social media or popular culture.

Words that signal a boundary

So, start by discovering which boundaries are important to you. Don't just create a laundry list of what you would like to have in a relationship. Rather, sort out what's fundamental versus nice and why. Next, decide whether your boundaries are flexible, and if so, with whom and under what circumstances.

Typically words such as like, want, need, and dislike point to a boundary. In fact, they each imply a degree of flexibility.

Needs are rigid. Wants, like desires, are somewhat elastic. Finally, likes are the most negotiable.

You might interpret these words differently. If so, develop your own lexicon and monitor how you speak about your expectations for a partner and partnership.

Still, explore the pliability of these expectations: with whom and when you're flexible.

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Beliefs demarcate boundaries, too

Some boundaries can be rigid. For instance, if your family of origin is paramount to you and they would likely abandon you for dating someone of a different faith, religion is likely a deal breaker for you. That means it's a rigid boundary.

On the other hand, if you're agnostic but tolerant of someone who attends the church, mosque, or what-have-you, religion matters less, and maybe not at all. In this case, you have a looser boundary related to faith. All else equal, this alone is not necessarily a relationship-building red flag.

Surveying your beliefs before initiating your dating search, is critical. For example, "I won't tolerate lies." Ask yourself if is this a fixed boundary.

Or, can you tolerate some little white lies in some situations? If so, what are the exceptions? Get clarity now.

RELATED: Why We Lie And How To Instantly Spot A Liar

Transparency always matters

Be transparent with your partner as well. If your boundary is less than rigid, be honest. Decisions within partnerships are not necessarily zero-sum games. In addition, if you don't know, just say so. Give yourself time opportunity to figure it out. This way you won't need to go back on your word.

And, if you're not honest with yourself, you could open yourself up to an endless sequence of boundary infringements. Or, alternatively, claiming too many fixed boundaries could lead to discord, dysfunction, and ultimately a painful breakup.

Whatever you do, don't get into the habit of expressing inauthentic tolerance because you want to be nice or you feel the need to say yes. This is particularly pertinent for women.

Furthermore, make sure you don't drop important boundaries and create personal rationalizations (e.g., he means well or his possessiveness means he loves me). For men, failing to appreciate the importance of transparency will surely erode trust, respect, and tolerance, and may ultimately sever the bonds.

These behaviors can only lead to relationship quagmires, violations of trust, and some serious regret.

RELATED: The 4 Most Damaging Types Of Lies People Tell In Relationship

Articulate and defend your boundaries

It's one thing to define a boundary and another to communicate what it is, especially if the circumstances when you need to declare them are fraught. To avoid this situation, articulate your boundaries for yourself and be prepared to communicate them to others.

Consider if and when you would declare an ultimatum. And, be mindful, it's not going to be just about what you might lose, but also what you might gain.

Although it might sound hokey, reading up on communication styles, collaborative language, non-violent communication, and negotiation skills can help you avoid unnecessary turbulence and, in fact, facilitate a flow toward a mutually comfortable and acceptable enduring solution.

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Boundaries change — adjust for a lasting relationship

Relationships are not static. Your or your partner's boundaries can shift over time. In fact, they can change from one relationship to another.

But the template you create serves as a benchmark. Fortunately, the time and effort you dedicate to exploring your boundaries will ground you and offer important benefits when you assess or negotiate your relationship as it progresses and the stakes rise.

Therefore, establish boundaries and engage with your partner in ways that cultivate a space that contains these attributes.

If both you and your partner define authentic, clear, and articulate boundaries and the two of you are right for each other, your boundaries will cultivate a successful partnership based on these key attributes.

RELATED: 5 Critical Steps To Setting Boundaries In An Abusive Relationship

Patricia Bonnard, Ph.D., ACC is a certified International Coaching Federation (ICF) leadership coach, certified Martha Beck life coach, and Master/Instructor Energy Healer.