When it comes to relationships, there are always three people in the room: you, your partner and your relationship. Every relationship has a life of its own and evolves out of what you and your partner bring to it. The fabric of the relationship can be seen as woven together from eight interdependent threads, creating a tapestry that is uniquely yours.
Examining how these threads come together to create the balances and imbalances informing the relationship can provide insight into what's working and what may need some work. That said, while relationships are something to work at, they shouldn't be work. Rather, a relationship should strive toward an organic evolution of textures and colors that need tending and cultivation.
There are eight interdependent aspects of a relationship: social, emotional, intellectual, spiritual, physical, sexual, material and cultural. Rather than a list, we might think of these as cooperative and integral features more nested together than stacked upon one another. Their balance and measure is unique to each situation, but they are ever present, and inform the relationship as a whole.
The Social Fabric
Social exchange is at the heart of every relationship. This is where the worldview of one individual -- his or her assumptions, expectations, and ideas about the way the world works -- intersects with the worldview of another. Returning to our fabric metaphor, the social aspect represents the warp, or lengthwise threads, that are the fabric's foundation.
The interplay between world views creates the balances and imbalances informing the deep structures of any relationship, romantic or otherwise. Because our worldview is something we bring to the table almost immediately, these deep structures tend to be formed early on. At their core are the needs and values informing individual behavior and decision making. As these needs and values become more openly expressed, the relationship evolves.
The Emotional Thread
If the social aspect of relationship is the warp of the fabric, the emotional aspect is the woof, the crosswise threads giving the fabric its strength. The emotional landscape of a relationship has several different features. Investment and availability are the bedrock, while the way emotion is expressed and connects forms the contours contributing to the relationship's uniqueness.
Within this emotional landscape, availability is probably the most significant feature. Finding balance between the needs of each partner and the availability of the other to meet those needs informs the quality of social interchange. It's also a barometer for the level of investment each partner brings to the table. This interplay drives not only how emotion is expressed, but establishes each partner's sense of value and worth.
Sexuality and Intimacy
Like emotional availability, the sexual aspect of a relationship can be seen as a barometer of investment. When considering this, one of the most important things to bear in mind is that men and woman approach and respond to this aspect of relationship very differently.
At first blush, the role of sexuality in a relationship might seem obvious. In truth, sexuality is one of relationship's most elusive aspects. While we may be initially inclined to fall back on conventional gender stereotypes, closer examination reveals that expressed sexuality for both men and women is influenced by a variety of factors, including biology, cultural imperatives, and historical time frame. This makes sexuality exceedingly dynamic and complex in that the sexual perspective of each partner is not only unique, but changes over the lifespan. Further, what was true for generations past may not necessarily be true for the current generation, and will likely change again in the future. (1-2)
The one evident consistency is that sexuality and sexual expression differ greatly from person to person. Sorting out the nuances of sexuality particular to each partner is essential to a relationship's evolution.
Physical compatibility is also relevant, but differs from sexual compatibility; it reflects more the balance of how two people comport themselves in the world. If one partner is docile and unathletic, while the other is more active or has predominantly athletic interests, it may imbalance the relationship. A more balanced level of physical engagement is likely to inform social interchange through shared interests and, somewhat more indirectly, emotional exchange through a sense of ongoing connection.
When we think about how intelligences influence a relationship, it's quite common for us to put native intelligence, or IQ, at the forefront. Interestingly, it's the more subtle and complex social, emotional, and spiritual intelligences that are integral to balanced relationship. In fact, native intelligence has increasingly been recognized as least influential in shaping our ability to relate effectively with others.
What is likely most important here is emotional intelligence, with social intelligence running in close parallel. Emotional intelligence entails the ability to move from an ego-centric, or self-centered, worldview to one that is more ethno-centric, encompassing others. This level of self-awareness allows us to begin understanding another person's perspective and, in turn, exercise empathy and, by association, respect.
We can think of the spiritual aspect of a relationship as coming in two flavors. On the one hand, it harkens to the religious, and on the other, to the evolution of higher states of consciousness, or spiritual intelligence. Spirituality as a religious tableau provides a certain degree of social and cultural continuity. Spiritual intelligence supports an evolution of emotional intelligence from empathy to compassion and altruism. This evolution moves us from an ethno-centric worldview of immediate relationship and community to a more global, or geo-centric, worldview.
The continuity provided by religious spirituality is one facet of the cultural feature of relationship. Culture here refers to ethnic and racial background, as well as socialization and acculturation. This aspect of relationship is somewhat less about the demand to create balance, and more about deepening our sense of regard for another individual's personal narrative.
The Material World
Probably the least important, but in some ways most influential, aspect of relationship is the material. Compatible goals in terms of status and social striving can provide a sense of shared ambition and interest that feed our sense of ongoing connection. This emphasis on the external can, however, sometimes present us with an obstacle to cultivating the more abiding, internal aspects of relationship. Balancing the two, while holding space for our partner's intention, only adds to the relationship's dimension.
Strength, Flexibility, and Resilience
Returning to the original notion that these eight features are nested and integral, we start to understand how their interplay creates both balance and imbalance. Again revisiting our fabric metaphor, this tension is offset by the naturally occurring bias introduced when the warp and woof come together creating flexibility, while adding strength and resilience.
As such, one of the most enduring characteristics of any fabric is that it can be repaired. Whether mended, rewoven, or reinforced, most any pull or tear can be fixed, with proper attention. The same can be said, in large measure, of relationships. By attending to and cultivating each thread that contributes to the fabric of our relationship, we are able to maintain, and very often enhance, the rich tapestry of our lives.
Carpenter, L. M., Nathanson, C. A., & Kim, Y. J. (2009). Physical women, emotional men: Gender and sexual satisfaction in midlife. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 38, 87-107. (http://buff.ly/1s43KeW)
DeLamater, J. D., & Hyde, J. S. (1998). Essentialism vs. social constructionism in the study of human sexuality. Journal of Sex Research, 35, 10-18. (http://buff.ly/1mCSmoU)