A meaningful relationship is built on respect, trust and equality, according to Jennine Estes, a marriage and family therapist. Partners are able to share how they feel and what they need, she said. They provide each other with a deep level of security and protection. They have each other’s backs. During the worst of moments—feeling sick, grieving a terrible loss—they are by each other’s sides.
According to Brooke Schmidt, a marriage and family therapist, “A meaningful relationship is one where you can feel free to be your authentic self.” You feel “connected, accepted, wanted and cherished,” she said. And you help your partner feel the same way.
Meaningful relationships don’t simply happen. Of course, sometimes, the ingredients are naturally already there. But usually we make meaning, separately as individuals by making sure we’re being clear, compassionate and thoughtful; and together as a couple by prioritizing the relationship and communicating constructively and fighting fair.
In other words, couples create and cultivate meaningful relationships. Below, Estes and Schmidt shared suggestions on how.
Make conflict safe. A common misconception is that conflict is a sign you’re in a bad relationship, said Estes, who owns a group practice called Estes Therapy in San Diego. However, it’s often the opposite. “Relationships [that] don’t have conflict typically have years of disowning their needs and shoving everything under the rug.”
What makes a meaningful, healthy relationship is navigating conflict constructively. This means not yelling, cursing, getting defensive or blaming your partner, Estes said. It means being present and available, she said. It means acknowledging your partner’s pain and comforting them.
Estes suggested thinking of conflict as “an opportunity to build a stronger connection.”
She shared this example: One partner tells the other, “I feel like I don’t matter right now, and I’m really sad about it.” The other partner replies: “That must feel so terrible. I am so sorry that you feel that way. I want to reassure you that you matter to me so much. I’m glad that you can let me know how you feel.”
Explore your contribution. We tend to walk away from conflict thinking about how terrible our partner is, how offensive they were and how poorly they acted, said Schmidt, who owns Arrow Therapy in Eden Prairie, Minn.
Instead, she suggested turning the spotlight on ourselves. Because it’s likely you didn’t behave that great either. For instance, you might explore these questions, she said: “How could I have handled myself differently? How could I have contained myself better, or how could I have controlled myself differently? What could I have done or said in a way that was more relational or respectful?”
“When couples can walk away thinking more about themselves and their behavioral offenses, they’ll soon find themselves in a meaningful relationship,” Schmidt said.
Listen with your full heart. “Meaningful relationships need emotional depth,” Estes said. This includes listening to your partner and being genuinely curious about how they’re feeling and what they’re thinking, she said. This is in stark contrast to trying to prove a point and wanting to be right. When you are really listening, you are listening “with the intent to understand where [your partner] is coming from,” setting aside your own agenda, Schmidt said.
For instance, Estes said, you might ask such questions: “What is it that makes you feel as if you don’t matter to me? Is there something that I said that has you feeling that you don’t matter? How long have you been feeling this way?”
Share from your full heart. In other words, be vulnerable with each other, especially during conflict, Estes said. Which, she said, might mean saying, “If I take my mask off and let you see what I’m really feeling and how afraid I really am, I’m afraid you won’t love me.”
It might mean saying, “I’m really hurting right now,” and “I’m struggling,” and “I’m sorry I wasn’t there for you,” and “I feel so alone,” and “I am angry. I’m not sure how to fix this. Can we work on this together?”
Provide a roadmap. According to Estes, “You can’t have a successful relationship if you don’t give your partner a clear roadmap.” This means being transparent and specific about your needs. It means telling your partner how you’d like to be comforted.
Estes shared these examples: “I’m feeling really worried you might not like spending time with me and prefer working; can you reassure me on how you feel for me?” or “I’m afraid and I need a hug. Can you give me a hug and help me know everything will be ok?”
Of course, you might not know what your needs are in the first place. Many people don’t. Which is why Schmidt suggested checking in with yourself and identifying what you need and what you want. Then express this to your partner. “If you don’t know what your needs and wants are, you can’t expect your partner to know,” she said.
Again, meaningful relationships are safe, sincere and honest. Partners are authentic and vulnerable with each other. They empathize. They work through conflict, and use it to bolster their already strong bond.