Growth moves connections forward. Each partner matures while the relationship changes its shape. Issues, challenges, and opportunities get added to the connection altering the original picture.
Partners either adapt or choose not to and the relationship gets redefined. The growing cache of shared experience makes the couple feel close. They carefully build trust to further support the foundation they have built. Gradually, the idealized world of discovery becomes more real and introduces some struggle. Feelings of trust and desire make the couple eager to dive into life together.
Sharing commonalities brings cohesion to relationships. Yet, dependency requires a blend of nurturance and accountability that fosters comfort and safety. Once a decision to share intimacy has been made, trust slowly forms. As partners grow closer, fun, warmth, and interest dominate as they enjoy more togetherness. Much of the focus of the connection hinges on what the couple has in common. Excitement grows as both people savor the connection.
At this stage, the relationship pivots on trust. For some, trust starts at zero and has to be earned, action by action. For others, trust is assumed until it is broken. In either case, trust is the consequence of a series of accountability tests.
Each time we pass an accountability test, our connections strengthen. Each time a test fails, our relationships gradually weaken. It’s hard to imagine intentionally doing something that subtracts from trust. However, it’s possible to neglect trust by failing to realize that every single interaction counts, whether big or small. When we do what we say we’re going to do, we build trust. When we fail to follow through on commitments, we chip away at this foundation. It builds when we take ownership and deteriorates when neglected. Each exchange provides an opportunity to move trust backward or forward.
The rules of engagement change constantly as relationships evolve so the conflicts and challenges that lie ahead can be managed flexibly and effectively. Among the first of these challenges is the ability to sacrifice the comfort of attachment when the relationship needs to grow and change. Although it is tempting to savor the indulgence of oneness during the trust phase, evolution requires the willingness to give up some safety so we can stretch ourselves to new levels. We are strongest as partners when our relationships enable independence.
The Intimacy stage has unique vulnerabilities that can get partners stuck. The biggest risk is opening up and then not being accepted by the other person. The lowering of guards and untethered sharing bonds two people as one. Togetherness easily becomes indulgent when pleasure is the reward. In a thriving relationship, this bond is used as a platform from which to launch new growth. Now, the partnership has a foundation that is strong enough to support some exploration.
Relationships that evolve positively are characterized by open and sharing interactions. When people struggle with personal connection, they are often protecting themselves from feeling vulnerable. It’s natural to fear intimacy when growing close to someone. What if you reveal a part of yourself that your partner finds undesirable? We all maintain some level of guardedness between what we think and feel internally and what we let the outside world see. Lowering that guard makes you vulnerable to misunderstanding. But it also opens up the possibility for closeness and connection that feeds your heart with goodness and hope for the future. Closeness is scary, but the reward includes the embrace of safety.
Partners in strong relationships deliver a healthy sense of unconditional positive regard. When people struggle with respect, they often either hurt their partner by saying or doing something degrading or they violate a level of personal privacy or confidentiality. These are the most damaging breaches in relationships. When we choose to make ourselves vulnerable to another person, we are owed the assurance that our vulnerability won’t be violated. We are entitled to the confidence that our partners won’t say or do hurtful things.
Relationships that tolerate disrespect, belittlement, degradation, meanness, or cruelty are designed to make one person feel stronger at the expense of making another person feel weaker. An imbalance is woven into the fabric of the connection. Relationships that permit the violation of privacy are, by design, not safe.
Respect is strengthened or weakened with every interaction. Partners seeking to reinforce their trust with a foundation of respect must exercise daily stewardship over the most sensitive aspects of their sharing. Beyond the obvious avoidance of hurtful words and actions, both people possess a responsibility for protecting matters that are sacred in their connection with each other.
Accountability is fulfilled when partners do what they agreed to do in the relationship. Breaches in accountability are inevitable. Large breaches of accountability undermine the foundation of a relationship. Repairing this level of damage must be done carefully and gradually. Building back trust happens slowly after a substantial breach, and any further lapse takes the progress immediately back to zero. Smaller breaches of accountability are often repaired by taking responsibility, apologizing, and committing to different behavior in the future. These are the course corrections of relationships.
In an effective connection, partners consistently follow through with commitments. When people struggle with accountability, they are communicating a lack of interest and value in the other person. Accountability breaches in relationships can weaken the fabric of a connection. A broken promise is like telling someone you don’t care enough about them to make them a priority in your life.
Most of us have some tolerance for an occasional lapse. We all drop the ball every once in a while. Things happen and priorities shift. We get busy and our responsibilities are spread thin. Forgetting to take care of a detail or missing a deadline can happen when we are overwhelmed, and some things can slip through the cracks. Relationship accountability, however, involves a deep commitment to another person. This is a measure of your integrity. When you make a commitment in the context of a relationship, you are giving your word – an extension of yourself.