The 4 Pillars Of A Long-Lasting Relationship, From a Marriage Counselor

Image by Jess Craven / Stocksy

A happy relationship is not guaranteed even if you are fortunate enough to find the right person. After three decades of counseling struggling couples, and after experiencing transformation within my own marriage, I’ve been able to identify the core components of a lasting and fulfilling relationship. Not just one or the other. Even more, I’ve been able to help couples see what it takes to build a relationship where love and happiness are ever-growing.

Everything I had learned and experienced personally kept bringing me back to four core principles that have proved unshakeable over time. I’d like to introduce you to what I call The Four Pillars.

Pillar 1: Responsibility.

We are each responsible for our own happiness and well-being.

One of the essential questions I include on my intake form for new couples is “How fulfilled are you with yourself and your life, separate from your relationship?”

I want to bring attention, from the get-go, to how profoundly our own inner happiness affects relationship happiness. Investing in the process of becoming the happiest, best version of ourselves is our responsibility. Without this ownership, no relationship can reach its potential, or perhaps even work at all. Connecting to our own wholeness is the foundation for building any relationship with someone else. 

When we feel unhappy in our relationship, we tend to try to change our partner. We just want our needs met by them as quickly as possible. Turning inward first can feel daunting, the delay in gratification too utterly vast. “Slow down to speed up,” I try to inspire my clients. “Investing first in yourself pays off—you are worth the investment.”

I suggest four ongoing practices for building greater self-happiness and well-being:

  • The Practice of Self-Knowledge: Continually growing awareness of our feelings and fears, inner thoughts and bad habits, desires and values, passions and gifts. Self-knowledge paves the way to living with self-acceptance and authenticity. 
  • The Practice of Self-Love: Becoming your own best friend, with a growing, unconditional appreciation and compassion for yourself. Directing your inner thoughts and self-talk toward kindness and concern, mindful of your inherent worthiness. 
  • The Practice of Self-Care: Investing in good habits that nourish you physically, mentally, and spiritually. Taking proactive steps toward overall health and nutrition, managing stressors and addictions, healing of trauma, and pursuing hobbies and that which inspires you.
  • The Practice of Self-Development: Investing in a process of growing your character to become the best version of yourself, as a person and romantic partner. This could include becoming more emotionally balanced, a better listener, more honest, or more confident

Pillar 2: Growth.

We use our friction to help us grow, individually and together.

“Your friction is a good sign; you’re being called to grow.” This is one of the first things I say to reassure new couples coming to counseling. When handled in a proactive way, the challenges in our relationship are not only a part of a natural, positive process of transformation; they should ultimately create more closeness. We don’t want to just go through it but grow through it. As the African proverb says: Smooth seas never make skillful sailors. 

According to the wisdom of Kabbalah, the universe is our mirror. Everything can be seen as happening for us, not to us—to show us something we need to learn or change. This mirroring of our growth shows up most especially in our committed relationships. We are here to love one another more fully and push each other to grow. So rather than avoiding, blaming, or rushing to make the tension go away, we benefit most to embrace our times of challenge. Turn within. Practice self-knowledge. Examine how your partner’s grievances or behavior might be bringing to the surface the very issue you know is yours to heal and overcome. Maybe it’s to set better boundaries, show others more sensitivity, let go of control, overcome your fear of confrontation, or to take better care of yourself. How might you be stagnant as a couple? 

Importantly, emotionally reactive diatribes filled with put-downs and words we can never take back are not what I mean by embracing the friction. Learning tools and skills for creating what I like to call healing conversations is one way to make the most of our times of struggle. 

To make the conflict work for us and not against us, I recommend using Imago Dialogue, a powerful communication tool that helps awaken love during disagreements. Learning to employ three active listening skills—mirroring, validation, and empathy—the goal is to keep defensiveness away so both partners feel heard and understood. It’s OK if partners don’t agree. Feeling heard is indistinguishable from feeling loved, which opens our hearts’ capacity for compromise and care. 

Pillar 3: Priority.

We make our partner the most important other person in our lives.

We often underestimate the continual effort required to prioritize our partner so they are certain of their importance. It’s natural to take our blessings for granted. We lose appreciation and forget how fragile relationships can be if we neglect them. This is why we must nurture and fight for our long-term relationships, fight to not lose appreciation. Fight to not get distracted by the fires we need to put out on a day-to-day basis. We can get into a mindset where we expect our beloved to be there when we need them, counting on the strength of the foundational bond to weather any neglect. 

With couples who have kids, one of the fastest ways to assess the priority given to the relationship comes when I ask them to rank these three key areas: relationship, kids, self. Guess what most say? If you have children, how would you do the ranking? Keep in mind that self doesn’t mean eating bonbons all day in between massages. Self means the responsibility we have to grow, to invest in our happiness and well-being, as we spoke about in Pillar 1. Nonetheless, most people (especially moms) rank kids first, then marriage, then self.   

Here’s the order I recommend: self, marriage, kids. The logic goes like this: The more we build our own wholeness (self), the more energy and capability we have to build a close, balanced, happy relationship. The stronger and happier our relationship, the more our children—who are a result of us—benefit from the unity we create. Happy parents make better parents. 

Pillar 4: Generosity.

We use our relationship to be a force of sharing in the world.

Beyond the measure of one plus one, coming together to share what we have with the world strengthens your bond while deepening the love and respect. This final pillar is more abstract but equally important to continuous and growing happiness with your partner. As your relationship evolves, creating a more caring relationship with the world around you opens up a whole different channel of love and oneness. 

Having children and creating a home can certainly bond a couple together, yet these important responsibilities do not have a goal of extending outside of oneself. A shared purpose outside of you and your family sends your combined positive energy out to the community, out to the world. This shared generosity not only helps smooth your differences, but it awakens the potential for the ultimate fulfillment as a couple. 

Finding your unique goal together should not be rushed. The key is to allocate thought and time spent together for continuously exploring your higher common goals as a couple, to help humankind. Your sharing doesn’t need to be big or dramatic to add value. It could be time, money, talent, connections, life experiences, and—let’s never forget what we always have to give—love and kindness. When it comes to sharing goodness, there are no small actions. The idea is to grow our capacity to extend outside ourselves for the sake of others, and do so together. 

The takeaway.

When we embrace and continually invest in The Four Pillars, we are essentially building a dwelling place in our relationship for wholehearted love to enter and expand. I recommend reading over these pillars again and again—ideally with your partner. Be honest with yourself as you assess where you stand with each one, individually and together as a couple. It’s important to build on all four pillars, but most especially identify and work on the most neglected ones. Human tendency is to avoid our weak spots. Adding your energy to your frailest pillars will likely yield the greatest transformation in your relationship. 

Finally, do your best to inject joy and kindness into the process. We all grow better when it’s light and we are having some fun. 


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