The Simple Rule That Keeps Relationships Happy For Life

Therapists Harville Hendrix & Helen LaKelly Hunt share the thread that runs through the healthiest marriages.

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If you are still waiting and wishing that your partner will just see the light and behave the way you think he or she should, then you are living a fantasy.

Most of us live with a figment of our imagination rather than the real flesh and blood person who is our partner. We see our partners through our image of what we think they are, rather than seeing them as they are or as they see themselves.

And here’s the rub: when you take up the banner to “improve” your partner, you are annihilating him or her.


You are wishing the real person to be gone and your image of him to take his place. And you treat him accordingly. But that’s also what your partner does to you… and you wonder why your relationship isn’t going so well now that the euphoric stage of romantic love has passed?

I invite you to take a journey of discovery. Engage your partner with curiosity and surrender any judgment. You may discover a whole new, amazing world. Your partner is an “other,” with a whole world inside, a world you cannot fully enter, and that you cannot change. You may want sameness— for your partner to be just like you or your ideal image— but that’s not going to happen.


RELATED: How To Get Your Partner To Change For The Better

The simple rule that builds a great relationship

If you want a great relationship, you have to let your partner be.

Your frustration with your partner is an objection to her being herself; it is an objection to her reality. You object to the fact that she is not like you and does not fit your idealized picture. Let’s be honest: Your frustration is a denial of reality. The deepest form of suffering is the denial of reality, and the greatest denial of reality is denying the reality of the person you live with.

Your partner will always strive to be who she is, even if she’s trying to fit into your image. If your partner tries to deny herself, she will eventually become angry or depressed. That wish for sameness is the source of difficulty in living with another person. Difference is the reality.


The same is true if your partner is a man, of course. 

RELATED: How The Happiest Couples Survive When One Person Changes (& The Other Doesn't)

Six ways your partner’s inner world is different from yours

  1. Your partner’s feelings are different.
  2. Your partner’s thoughts are different.
  3. Your partner’s temperament is different.
  4. Your partner’s sexual desires are different.
  5. Your partner’s childhood was different.
  6. Your partner is NOT you!

Get it?

Practice simple acceptance. Ask: “Why does he do that?” “Why does she feel that way?” Ask what it is like to live in your partner’s skin.

When you judge your partner, he cannot help but become defensive. When you approach him with curiosity, you have taken the first step on the path to intimacy.


RELATED: The #1 Secret To Getting Your Spouse To Change

The reason we go from acceptance to wanting to change the person we love

In the early romantic stage of your relationship, you felt inseparable, as though you were so much alike. You knew that all of your needs would be met in this relationship.

But in the second stage, you experience conflict. You disagree; you fight. Your partner wants things that you don’t. How could this be? Who is this person? You try to get your partner to see things your way, to behave as you wish. You criticize, shame, and blame, all in the effort to coerce him into being who you think he should be. But he becomes defensive, distant. And this process will only escalate until the relationship is torn apart. Before you know it, you are leading parallel lives, and the prospect of divorce has raised its ugly head.

But this doesn’t have to happen.


You are longing to love your partner, and he is longing to love you. But you have become separate. Trying to create sameness will not get you there; learning to accept and honor your differences will. In a healthy relationship, you realize you live with another person who is not an extension of you.

Your partner is a unique individual with an equally valid point of view. When you learn to love those differences that you now find so annoying, you have entered the realm of mature love.

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Harville Hendrix, Ph. D., is a couples therapist with over 40 years of experience as a counselor, educator, clinical trainer, author, public lecturer and has received many awards for his work with couples. He and his wife, Helen LaKelly Hunt, co-created Imago Relationship Therapy, a therapy for couples now practiced by over 2,200 certified therapists in 30 countries.