“Honey, Let’s Get Divorced” (Modern Love, New York Times, December 5, 2010, Style p. 6) describes a woman in a functional marriage confronting the need to adjust the terms of her relationship with her husband. Hers is not a bid for a more open marriage; it’s a healthy and perfectly understandable fine-tuning of the elements that make any romantic relationship work.
What’s good for maintaining an interpersonal partnership, whether married or living together, is not necessarily the ideal for either partner individually at any given time. And besides, people change over time. So the differences between you and the person you committed to ten years ago may be a lot wider today than when you started out.
The article in today’s paper brings to mind what I consider the seven factors that allow romantic love to thrive. Each factor is like a rubber band that is stretchable by each partner to some limit they define for themselves. As they say, "Everybody has their limits". What keeps romances alive is the ability of each partner to clearly identify what is negotiable (stretchable) and what is non-negotiable in every aspect of being a couple.
I will list what I consider to be core elements in making a relationship work:
1. Shared identity or experience, meaning shared appreciation of beliefs and life-activities. These may include things such as culture of origin, religion, child-rearing, and hobbies or sports.
2. Satisfactory division of labor. For example, it is not necessarily unfair for one mate to do all the cooking, cleaning, and child care if both parties are happy with the arrangement. What’s critical is not how you divide the responsibilities, so much as it is getting them all acceptably divided. This is the commitment on the part of both to put in the time, effort and money to make the two-person enterprise work. In effect, it is a small business model. Everything that needs to get done is handled by one of the partners, or contracted out for a fee (like day care).
3. Inter-personal metabolism; meaning a mutual consent about who takes the lead or an agreement to have either party initiate anything. This may involve adaptation to the emotional volatility or quietude of the other person (think Doc Martin); or adjustment to go-getter or couch-potato life-style differences.
4. Openness to dialogue, re-examination and change. (This is probably the most important factor).
5. Sociability or the lack thereof. Introvert vs. extrovert.
6. Value system (morality).
7. Together-time vs. autonomy. This is the balance between being with the other person and having your own activities (alone-time).
Most couples’ activities and break-ups involve these elements. Individual rubber bands can snap or become unfastened. The ensemble of bands can also exert more pull more than one of the individuals can tolerate.