A Unifying Principle for Healthy Relationships

The legendary physicist, Albert Einstein, spent the latter part of his career searching for a unifying principle of the universe. Also known as a Theory of Everything, Einstein believed there is a single law underlying the physical forces that make up this world. Alas, he never found this holy grail of physics and the search continues.

Recently I have started wondering if there might be a unifying principle that explains why some relationships can be healed, while other relationships seem destined for disconnection and despair. As unlikely as that sounds, let me explain why I believe it is true.

Sometimes I begin working with a couple that appears to have every reason to heal what ails the relationship. They have common values, they communicate clearly, and their interests are similar. On paper they look like a couple that will absolutely make it. Yet, there are times when these couples break apart anyway.

Then there are couples who seem to have little going for them. Their political and religious views differ. They struggle to communicate with each other. They don’t enjoy many of the same activities. Yet, occasionally a couple I work with that has all of these strikes against them is able to reestablish a healthy, loving connection.

These surprises in terms of which couples make it (or don’t) caused me to to begin looking for a constant principle that shows up in the relationships that experience healing. If it isn’t shared values, good communication, and common interests, what might it be?

The eureka moment came for me one day as I watched with admiration as a wife and husband, who are very different from one another, started to experience healing after some hard work in counseling. How were they were doing it? They were sending signals to each other that the other person’s needs were important to them.

Notice what I didn’t say. I didn’t say they were filling or meeting each other’s needs. That’s not always possible in relationships. This couple was simply indicating that the needs of the other person mattered to them. They did this by asking curious questions, showing empathy for the other’s struggle, and wondering if they could partner in some way to deal with the needs each one had.

Observing this couple’s expression of concern for the needs of one another caused me to think back on many other couples I have worked with over the years. In virtually every case where healing took place this principle appeared. Even in relationships where a crisis as serious as infidelity was part of the story, the ability of each person to notice and respond to the other’s needs was a major reason the relationship was repaired.

So, I give you the Unifying Principle for Healthy Relationships: show interest, concern, and compassion for your partner’s needs. If each person does that for the other in the relationship, all manner of hard things can be overcome.

–Jack McKinney

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