It's so easy to get caught up in strong feelings for another person. Love is a potent cocktail of emotions, after all, and it can start to seem like it's all that really matters. But experts agree there are quite a few things more important in a relationship than love. And keeping those things in mind, while moving forward as a couple, is essential.
That doesn't, however, mean you can't be a total romantic at the same time. Love poems are amazing. Dinner dates are the best. And nothing beats receiving flowers (or pizza) from a doting partner. Those are nice add-ons; sweet things you can do for each other to show just how passionate you are. But just like your giant heart-shaped eyes, they aren't what will keep you together.
When it comes to love and relationships, it's all much more complicated than that. And "if you’re only in the relationship because of the feeling of love, you will soon feel that the relationship is slipping," Josh Klapow, PhD, a clinical psychologist, tells Bustle. There has to be more going on, like trust, respect, and good communication, or else it'll become stale — and could even grow toxic over time.
"If we are actively seeking these other elements," Klapow says, "then there is a much more solid foundation for the relationship to last."
1. Being Able To Trust Each Other
It doesn't matter how much you love another person: If you can't trust them, it isn't going to work. Trust is essential to healthy relationships, which is why it's always one of the first things experts look for when assessing a couple's connection.
And we're not just talking about cheating and infidelity, but "trust with intimate information, trust with being vulnerable, trust that they will come through in a challenging time," and so on, Klapow says. It all means your partner has your back, and you have theirs.
Without trust, you'll live a life of stress and hurt. So ask yourself, do you really want to spend your days with the gut-twisting worry that comes with having a shady or unavailable partner? It's no way to live, so make trust a goal.
If it doesn't come right away, you can work on getting there over time, possibly with the help of a therapist. Talk about why you don't currently feel secure or cared for, and come up with ways to build trust together.
2. Having A Solid Sense Of Respect
Have you ever had or witnessed this conversation? "My partner's such a jerk." "Then why do you stay with them?" "Because I love them." This classic exchange shows how love can blind you to the reality of a bad situation, including being with someone who doesn't show you respect.
It's tempting to look the other way, especially when the idea of breaking up — and losing the person you love so much — sounds positively miserable. Keep in mind, though, how much more important respect is when looking for a solid relationship, than simply being in love.
As therapist Nancy Kislin, LCSW, MFT says, respect is all about honoring each other's differences. "A couple doesn’t need to have the same interests or even passions, but they do need to have the capacity to understand the other," she tells Bustle. "One must be present with their partner — without judgement, demands, and unreachable expectations."
3. Feeling Safe & Secure Around Each Other
Are you safe in your relationship? Do you feel secure? If the answer is "no," then it doesn't matter even a little bit how much you love the person, especially if it's become an emotionally abusive relationship. A toxic situation is a toxic situation, no matter how you try to frame it. But it can be really tough to see that when all you're focused on is love.
Of course, these types of relationships can get stickier than that. As therapist Rachel Dubrow, LCSW says, "if you are in a relationship for love, it's likely that you will stay in it because one or more of your inherent needs are being met." Love can meet many needs, like a need for validation, for support, or connection.
In the case of a toxic situation, it's often best to look for a safe way out. Love is never going to be enough to fix an emotionally abusive partner, no matter how hard you try.
4. Working On Your Overall Sense Of Happiness As A Couple
Everyone wants to be happy, and happiness is really important — even though you won't be happy all the time. In fact, it's normal to go long periods of time when you're unhappy, especially if you're dealing with a crisis. But when you add up the total happy times versus unhappy times, happy times should come out on top.
Even in the most loving, head-over-heels relationships, this takes work. It's necessary, Klapow says, to continue learning about each other, including sharing your hopes, dreams and fears. "Understanding what is driving your partner in their life and how that may change over time is critical," he says.
It not only helps you feel closer, but it can also mean giving each other a boost when times get tough. Love is one thing, but genuinely supporting each other will create the feeling that you've really got a partner. And what could be better than that?
5. Genuinely Liking Each Other
It's more common than you think for people to stay in relationships with people they don't actually like because they love them. If you can't wrap your brain around it, think about that family member who always judges you or isn't so easy to get along with. You love them, because they're family, but you don't actually like being around them.
The same thing can happen with a partner. You might love them so much, but not enjoy hanging out, not make each other laugh, and not have anything in common. So if things have grown stale, take note.
While you can't force yourself to like someone, an ongoing sense of connection does need to be built and maintained. "It’s all about being truly curious about who your partner is, who they are becoming, and how you can find common interests and connection," Klapow says.
6. Retaining Your Sense Of Self
You were a "you" before you were a "we," and you should continue to be a "you" when you get in a relationship. There's no amount of love that's worth giving up the essence of who you are. If you get into a relationship and you ultimately lose yourself, forget your own interests, and give up on your goals, that's a problem.
It's not necessarily a dealbreaker, and it's not the relationship (or your partner's) fault. But you'll want to make an effort to hang onto the fundamental truths of who you are. You can work with your partner to get back to yourself by creating time for things that are important to you, and encouraging your partner to do the same.
Were you in the middle of writing a book? Were they training for a half marathon? Encouraging each other to go back to your own hobbies and interests actually result in a greater sense of love, as well as a more meaningful relationship.
7. Hanging Onto Your Independence In The Relationship
In a similar vein, feeling free to do the things you want to do, to be yourself, to go places, and to have your own thoughts and feelings, is not just important in a relationship — it's essential. By completing losing all that to love, you'll actually be doing it as disservice.
You can (and obviously should) include your partner in your decisions, but you should also feel free to decide what's best for you, and to carve out your own path when necessary. As an example, this might look like going to grad school on the opposite side of the country for a few years, even though it means being apart. The right partner will understand and support you.
Ultimately, focusing on your own individuality will strengthen your connection because you'll both be coming to it as fully actualized humans, instead of defining yourselves by the relationship.
8. Creating A Fair Partnership
There's nothing better than being with someone who is a true partner in crime. When that's the case, it'll feel like you can handle anything as a couple, no matter what life throws your way. If the relationship is unequal, though, and only one person is making an effort, it'll quickly go downhill.
Working on striking a balance when it comes to things like chores, emotional support, and so on is essential to creating the type of relationship that lasts. Sure, you can help each other out, and show love by stepping up when necessary and being supportive. But be sure to check in regularly so things remain fair.
As Kislin says, "When determining a relationship as a whole, keeping love at the center can detract from other questions and feelings, such as 'Do we want the same things?', 'Do we negotiate well?', 'Do we support each other?', 'Are we emotionally available?', among others." Keep asking yourselves these questions, and it'll never feel one-sided.
9. Updating Each Other About Your Needs
It's completely possible to have a great, happy relationship with little to no sex, if that's what you both want, or if you've found a way to make it work. But if sex is something that's really important to you, and no matter what you do, you can't get on the same sexual page, you're going to have some unhappy times.
This takes us back to the idea that your happiness is more important than love. You can work on your sexual compatibility, of course, but if you've tried everything and you're tired of trying, it doesn't matter how much you love your partner. Holding back or feeling like your needs aren't being met will become a major issue.
As Klapow says, "Nothing is static in a relationship. As time passes and people change and the relationship changes, this needs to be accepted if the relationship is to last." Talking about sex more often can keep your connection alive.
10. Working On Your Communication Skills
Communication is the gasoline in love's engine, which is why there can't be real, lasting love without it. You need communication in a relationship to set boundaries, express your love, fix problems, talk about your needs, and even to have good sex.
As Dubrow says, a relationship can start to crumble when a couple gets caught up in misunderstandings, avoids certain tough topics, or focuses too much on one problem in their relationship, thus leading to cyclical arguments. That, in turn, can lead to frustration and resentment.
You can have all the love in the world, but good communication is going to be what makes things work long-term. "Getting 'on the same page' is important in relationships," Dubrow says, "so that you can learn to move through the challenging times."
11. Feeling Ready For The Relationship
Sometimes the heart is totally complicated. You can love someone, but not want to be with them, or not want to be with them right now. You might have other goals, you might feel emotionally unavailable, or you might just not be ready to make a commitment. Timing is important here, too, which is why wanting to be in the relationship can outweigh love.
If things feel a bit off, talking with your partner about what you want, and where you see things going long-term, can help you both figure out if what you have is actually, truly working. All relationships are different, and a lot of problems are solvable. But love — while wonderful and obviously necessary — isn't the only ingredient, or even (arguably) the most important ingredient, in a healthy relationship.
Josh Klapow, PhD, clinical psychologist
Nancy Kislin, LCSW, MFT, therapist
Rachel Dubrow, LCSW, therapist