What makes loving relationships strong and long-lasting — and does the absence of those same components cause downfall?
In my quest to understand what makes or breaks romantic relationships, I started asking happy couples who have been together for a significant amount of time if they could point to the core reasons for their success.
True for romantic relationships, and top-level for other types too, I’ve recently discovered that there are actually two simple ingredients that emerge as crucial: freedom and respect.
Admittedly, these surprised me because I was expecting answers like trust, honesty, communication, stability, security, understanding, support, and the like.
After diving into freedom and respect from multiple perspectives—mental, emotional, psychological and spiritual—I wanted to unpack why these underpin all the other aspects that we’ve come to highlight as important.
The ability to be authentically who we are while in a relationship is a given if it’s going to last, right? Turns out that it goes much deeper than that. As individuals we’re constantly changing because we learn, heal, grow, and evolve over time.
It would make sense then that our partners would need to support that evolution if the relationship is to stand the test of time, but it’s the physical space (breathing room) and freedom to explore (ourselves and the energy of the world around us) that are also key.
“We must love in such a way that the other person feels free.”
— Thich Nhat Hanh
Personally, I’ve always cherished my alone time while in relationship. As I began to awaken to personal growth through shadow work, contemplative science and Buddhist psychology, I also felt the pull to travel alone in order to understand what it felt like to explore new places and meet new people autonomously—and not merely as the other half of a couple. The more I learned about myself, spirituality, and other cultures, the more I was knew I merely scratching the surface.
By natural extension, under the umbrella of freedom is creativity and self-expression, passion for life and personal pursuits, sacred sexuality, individuality, joy, self-love and purpose.
If our souls feel stagnated, stifled or suffocated in any way, we seek escape. For some, that might mean retreating into another room to read a book. For others, it might mean living separately.
Each of us has the ability and choice to communicate the importance of freedom with our partner without feeling guilt and without surfacing deep-rooted issues that may exist from their past. If we’re honest and we explain that maintaining more than just a mere sense of self will allow us to deepen our own genuine happiness, the right partner will not only understand but encourage that liberation.
Everyone deserves to be respected and to show respect to others. Period. Yet, that’s certainly not how it plays out in most relationships. We get angry, frustrated, hurt, anxious, and triggered by past wounds—and sometimes we react in ways we’re not proud of.
When disagreements happen with our partner, we may say things that are disrespectful. When we cannot pause before the words hit the air, something shifts in the relationship. And the more it happens, trust, communication, and passion begin to erode while resentment builds.
Most fascinating of my discussions was that all of the couples I spoke to, whom have been together for over 25 years, highlighted that they have never crossed the line of respect with their partner—no matter what emotions they felt during their fights. There were no tales of slammed doors, no thrown objects, no fuck you’s uttered. Ever.
They admitted that their communication wasn’t perfect, that they definitely disagreed, but that there was an unspoken line that neither crossed. They paused because they respected themselves and their partner simultaneously. They voiced their need for separate space to cool down, and their needs were understood and met.
It forced me to compare my past relationships to that anecdotal standard. None of my past partners nor I had been able to respect ourselves or each other in that exemplary way.
But I also know now that I get to choose how I think, speak and behave going forward. Every interaction with another human, regardless of the nature of the relationship, presents an opportunity to practice the pause. I can opt for compassion because of the work I’ve been doing on myself. I can try to see what each person and each experience is reflecting back at, or teaching, me.
Under the umbrella of respect lives self-worth, honest communication and intent listening, problem-solving, trust, loyalty, empathy and compromise, safety, security and emotional support.
When we love ourselves and someone else enough to prioritize freedom and respect—and they do the same for themselves and us—both expectation and the need for external validation fall away.
Instead of looking to one another, each partner looks inward to feel whole and loved without the need to derive those things from their counterpart. What we do derive from these healthiest of relationships is an enhancement to our existing inner joy.
And that, my friends, is sexy AF.
While I once thought that true love was the stuff of fairytales, I’ve come to realize that all of those “love stories” simply created a false and unhealthy narrative of attachment and reliance on another for bliss. While freedom and respect in relationships won’t garner top ratings, they are the basis of the most beautiful love story imaginable—and it’s completely within reach for every one of us.