The 3 Keys to Relationship Cohesion
In an attempt to better understand how relationships begin, maintain, or slowly fade away, I propose a simple model that, I believe, can explain much of a couple’s behavior. The purpose of a model is to turn a complex world into a simple framework that is both insightful and of practical value. The “Relationship Cohesion” (RC) model I propose here can quickly help couples understand the relative “strength” of their relationship. In addition, this simple model can also be used to point the way towards creating greater stability and flexibility in one’s romantic partnerships.
The foundation of the RC model is that, at its simplest level, there are three “legs” to successful, stable relationships. These three legs could briefly be labeled as 1) Good Sex. 2) Proximity and 3) Love. Good Sex is pretty easy to define: both partners enjoy having regular sex together that is mutually satisfying. Proximity could be defined as both people living near or with each other. Obviously, “near” is relative. Yet, two people who live 10 minutes away from each other will clearly have a much easier time maintaining a relationship than a couple who live many hours away from each other.
The third and final “leg” in the RC model is “Love.” Of course, like “Proximity,” “Love” is not an all or nothing thing. However, the greater the love a couple has for each other, the greater the bond they will share. Yet, it should be noted that “Love” has an almost identical twin. It’s called New Relationship Energy, or NRE for short. When couples first get together, they can strongly feel that they are in love, when in fact what they’re really feeling is NRE. When the NRE fades (usually 3 to 10 months), love may replace it — or it may not — depending on the couple.
Now that the three legs of a relationship have been generally defined, let me explain the dynamics of the Relationship Cohesion model. Imagine a small table. If a table has 3 strategically placed legs underneath it, that table will be very stable. Take away one of those legs, and the table can still stand, but it will be much less stable. Take away the 2nd of the 3 legs, and the table will surely soon fall over.
Using this analogy of a 3-legged table, let’s look at how relationships begin, maintain, and often “fall over.” At the beginning of most relationships, all 3 legs are often firmly in place. While there may not be actual love there, NRE is a suitable substitute at the beginning of a relationship. In long-distance relationships (where proximity is a “missing leg”) the combination of NRE and good sex (2 legs) is enough to keep the relationship stable enough to stand. If a new relationship does not have at least 2 legs, it will soon end. For example, if two people meet at a festival and enjoy great sex — but live far apart and don’t have NRE, the connection will almost surely end.
Taking the 3-legged table analogy a bit farther can help explain various relationship dynamics. For example, many couples have the “leg” of Proximity (and may even be living together), plus they may have NRE or true love for each other, but their Good Sex has faded or even ended. Can that couple maintain a relationship like that? The answer is “yes,” but they will always feel just a bit unstable with that one leg missing. In long-distance relationships where the Proximity leg is missing, once again, a coupling can work as long as the two other legs are strong. Yet, if the Good Sex (or the Love) fades, then the prognosis for the couple is bleak at best. While couples may love each other a lot, the law of physics is such that tables do not balance for long on a single leg.
In my private practice as a psychotherapist, I see couple dynamics inevitably be influenced by the tenants of the RC model. Oftentimes, couples feel there is something wrong with themselves or their partner when, from my perspective, the only thing “wrong” is they are trying to make a table stand with only one leg. Until a second (or third) leg is firmly in place, it doesn’t matter how much love or communication the couple has with each other. Like with the law of gravity, some forces are completely impersonal. Unfortunately, the law of Relationship Cohesion is such that 3 strong legs are best to maintain a relationship, 2 legs are adequate, and having just 1 leg inevitably leads to a relationship fading away.
In essence, one leg is never enough for very long, whether that one leg is Good Sex, Love, or Proximity. Any two legs can work for a long time, although there will always be some instability. Three legs are best, but in my experience as a therapist, I’d say it’s also somewhat rare. Part of the problem is that Good (or passionate) Sex and living together are not the best bedfellows. Often, couples who love each other but live together for a long time (the monogamy model) have a hard time maintaining the Good Sex leg.
For most of human history, couples didn’t have to worry about how to maintain 2 or 3 legs. Proximity was a given — since you couldn’t have a relationship with someone far away. Likewise, Good Sex was usually in place because sex is usually best during the early years of a relationship, and in the past, people rarely lived very long. Unlike nowadays, couples of the past didn’t have the problem of trying to maintain a good sexual relationship over many decades.
Since people now live a long time and can often have relationships with people who are not in close proximity, new relationship models are needed. The standard monogamy model of relationships worked relatively well in a world where people rarely lived past 30, and long-distance relationships weren’t an option. Yet nowadays, things are different. Long-distance relationships are common, and living a long life is ordinary. One new approach for adjusting to these new realities is the relatively new relationship model known as Serial Monogamy (SM). Serial Monogamy is where people have monogamous sexual relationships for relatively short periods of time, then move on to someone else. Currently, the average relationship lasts 2 years and 9 months, then partners find someone else. Of course, the problem with the SM model is that each relationship break-up can be traumatic, and finding a new relationship is oftentimes quite difficult. Yet, since the monogamy model rarely works well anymore for long, at least Serial Monogamy can prevent people from being trapped in a loveless relationship for a lengthy time.
Another relationship approach that is gaining traction is what is often termed the Polyamory Model (PM). In PM, couples can keep Love as the central core of their relationship, while allowing their partner to experience Love and/or Good Sex with another person. In this way, the 3 needs (legs) of partners can often be met, just not all with the same individual. When done right, this can lead to having more of people’s needs met. At the same time, when done well, the Polyamory Model can lead to additional skills in participants due to the necessity of communication and consideration needed to maintain such an arrangement. When done poorly, the Polyamory Model leads to folks getting a face full of their shortcomings and issues, such as jealousy, poor communication, etc. However, seeing one’s shortcomings can even be seen as a good thing, yet only if people are truly committed to working on their personal issues.
In today’s fast-paced and crazy world, there is no single right or wrong way to “do” relationships. Yet, it’s useful to have helpful frameworks for understanding how good relationships occur, and various relationship models for getting one’s needs met. With these new frameworks and models of relationships, couples now have the option to be flexible in their approach and find what works best for themselves and their partner.