The Meadows Logo

FE9D29B3-F346-4682-8D3C-A2B9B0FB6D7D Created with sketchtool.

The Keys to Relationship Longevity

October 29, 2014

Written by

Pia Mellody

Author Headshot



By Pia Mellody

“What is this thing called love?” The title of an old song is still a persistent question. We’d like to believe that love is the essential ingredient in relationships and that it’ll get us through all of life’s difficulties. While love is important and makes it all seem worthwhile, the nuts and bolts of relationship longevity are more contingent on value systems, emotional boundaries, honesty, and accountability.

Relational Honesty and Accountability

If I’m honest and accountable, I’ll keep my word and commitments—accepting responsibility for my behavior without trying to justify it based on another’s behavior. It’s appropriate to confront the other’s behavior and to own our feelings about it. It’s very different to say, “When I witnessed this behavior, I had this feeling,” than to say, “Your behavior caused me to feel this way or behave in this manner.”

Inappropriate behavior is inappropriate. If my boundary system and self-discipline are so poor that I rage, demean, call names, etc., it’s my responsibility to protect you from me. My emotional reaction to you or a situation doesn’t lessen my responsibility to be appropriate. Blaming and whining are close relatives. It’s manipulation if I try to change the outcome by blaming others or trying to evoke pity so that I’m not held accountable and consequences disappear.

Forming apologies and making amends are essential in a personal recovery program. However, that doesn’t mitigate the normal consequences of our actions. If the person who’s offended chooses to lessen the consequences after we apologize, that’s part of his program. Accepting responsibility and holding yourself accountable can set the stage for better times in the future. Establishing a record of being moderate and appropriate is certainly a significant ingredient in developing trust in relationships.

Honesty and accountability are important during the challenges we face with partners.

The Dynamic of Fighting in Relationships

The Dynamic of Fighting in Relationships - The Meadows

Honesty and accountability are important during the challenges we face with our partners. You’re naive to think that the power balance in a relationship is even. Value is constant, and power fluctuates. One person will always hold more power than the other.

The balance isn’t the same across all situations, so one might have more influence around money and the other around social issues. It’s important to recognize this and to understand that while one has more power in an area, the other doesn’t lose value in the exchange. If you know more about a subject, mutual respect will allow that knowledge to become prominent. If one demeans the other about the difference, that’s a boundary violation. It’s abusive and serves as a major contaminant to intimacy.

It’s illogical to think that we enter into relationship fights with an intention other than winning. If we’re not in a fight to win, we’re not in a battle at all. Arguments aren’t fights. They might turn into fights, but they don’t evoke the emotional energy that a fight does.

When we fight, we tend to throw caution to the wind, saying and doing things that aren’t personal in ours and our relationship’s long-term best interest. Arguing and discussing become fighting when one or both parties discover that their territory is threatened. A feeling of abandonment takes over or one feels insulted or belittled by the other.

This is about verbal fighting. If there’s physical violence in the relationship, it’s an entirely different matter. In these cases, the priority is to establish a condition whereby physical harm won’t happen. This entails taking whatever action is necessary to ensure personal safety.

During the typical course of relationship fights, one person takes offense at the words or actions of the other and then engages. If the other also engages, the battle is on. The issue is widely debated, then disappears as each party drags up data from the past and tries to inflict as much emotional pain as possible. At this point, one person or the other decides to disengage and walk out or go silent in an emotional walkout. In either scenario, the issue remains unsettled and joins the pile of other unresolved issues festering within the relationship.

Rules of Engagement For Couples

If couples agree to a basic set of rules of engagement for their battles, positive effects are attainable. Establishing fair fighting rules with your partner allows you to handle conflict without harming your relationship.

1. Don’t Walk Out on a Fight

If we stay in it, we find that we can maintain a high level of negative intensity for a relatively short time. There are times when the intensity is out of control, and it’s necessary to take a five- or 10-minute break to let it subside. This isn’t walking out. It’s just recognizing that you need to cool off a little.

After the intensity dies down, the issue reappears and several things can happen. We can agree to a course of action, try to get more data to clarify the situation, offer each other positive regard and carefully listen to each other’s point of view, or agree to disagree and accept that the other has a right to believe as he or she chooses. That is acceptable even if it’s not comfortable.

Rules of Engagement for Couples - The Meadows

2. Don’t Keep Score

We can’t justify our present behavior by citing the past behavior of another. We must learn to accept that the consequences we experience are the results of our own behavior and not because of someone else’s behavior. This is true even when it’s the same behavior.

You being late for an appointment with me last week doesn’t justify me being late today. If I had feelings about your tardiness last week, I should’ve dealt with it last week. Keeping score prevents us from learning to hold ourselves accountable for our behavior and sets up a fertile area where we tend to grow resentments.

Arguments often start in places that don’t have enough physical space for us to feel safe.

3. Establish Boundaries

Arguments often start in places that don’t have enough physical space for us to feel safe. Bathrooms and cars are examples of places that are too small to contain the energy developed in the conflict. In these cases, if the couple agrees to move into a bigger room or to stop the car and get out, they can respectfully ask for more personal space without walking out.

Intellectual and emotional boundaries are essential to effective relationship fighting. Each person must perceive that their personal worth and integrity are being challenged by the other. Without healthy boundaries, each person starts to doubt their worth, and self-esteem drops precipitously. Perceptions of worth are typically what the conflict is really about. If we allow what the other says to challenge the beliefs of our own worth, we’re losing the internal battle. Most of our important battles are fought between our ears. If we can learn to consistently win those and not drop into self-doubt, we’re better prepared for the less important fights with our mates.

4. Don’t Argue Facts

Once each person has related their version of the facts, there’s nothing else to say on the subject. We can argue about the meaning of the facts and how we interpret the probable outcome of a situation. Repeating facts does not change anything but does heat up the discussion. If two people agree to meet at a restaurant and each remembers it and shows up at a different restaurant, the pain is about feeling rejected and abandoned. Yelling the name that each remembers does nothing. Recognizing the error and not having to establish blame solves the problem and allows for mutual tolerance to develop.

5. Agree to Disagree

Sometimes we come to the realization that we have had the same fight over and over and that we are not reaching a solution. Usually, this happens over a difference in value systems. Often, it’s over matters such as how to spend discretionary money, rear children, deal with in-laws, etc. When the conversation is so repetitive that both of us can recite both sides without the other being there, it’s time to look at it as a subject on which progress won’t be made.

The choices available are to agree to disagree or to ask a third party (preferably a therapist) to mediate and then to either accept the recommendations or decide to let go. This really becomes problematic when the value in dispute is of a very serious nature or held very highly by one or both parties. If there’s a difference in spiritual paths—one parent wants the children to be born-again Christians while the other holds fast to the ancient rites of Zororaster—a non-negotiable situation will end in divorce, a decision to not have children, or continued conflict.

6. Determine No Fight Zones

Some places are not safe for fighting. Cars, small airplanes, small boats, etc. —any place in which the energy of arguing increases the danger of the activity. Agree not to fight in these types of places. When a fight starts, put it on hold until you arrive at a safe place. This isn’t as hard as it sounds, and it gets easier with practice.

7. Delay a Fight

Sometimes a fight is just inconvenient. We can’t expect our mates to miss a plane or important appointment to finish a fight. At this point, a delay is in order, and an agreement to finish later is made. If this is done with respect and a sense of worth, it works. Oftentimes, the subject seems less important later, but the two people have made a decision as a couple that no disrespect was intended, and the delay was necessary.

If we prioritize honesty and accountability in relationships, we’ll find that trust is implicit and that we’re both on the same side. The mutual goal is to support each other without losing individuality. We accept the other for whom they are, and we practice boundaries to protect ourselves and for containment to protect the other.

About Pia Mellody

As a pioneer in the field of recovery, Pia Mellody’s theories on the effects of childhood trauma have become the foundation for The Meadows’ programs, and are a major reason for their success. Pia is widely known as one of the preeminent authorities in the fields of addiction and relationships. Her work on codependency, healthy boundaries, and the effects of childhood trauma on emotional development has profoundly influenced the treatment of addictions and the issues of forming and maintaining relationships. She is the author of several influential books, including “Facing Codependence,” “Facing Love Addiction,” “Breaking Free” and “The Intimacy Factor.” At The Meadows, Pia trains our staff, counsels patients and families, and speaks at workshops on campus and lectures around the world.