I hope you are understandably suspicious of this title. Yet, over the past 40 years of counseling couples, this question has been the most often asked of me, bar none other. So, I thought I'd at least give it a try.
First, I thought I'd do a current poll amongst my patients, my friends and the Internet, just to see if I was on the right track. So many "most important" qualities come up that saints would be envious if a person had only a modicum of them. Try authentic, trustworthy, kind, attractive, sexy, funny, honest, compassionate, credible, loving, loyal, grown-up, open, great communicator, interesting, spiritual or exciting. Need I go on?
Looking back over the most wonderful intimate partners I've observed in my life, I certainly could agree with that kind of a wish list. But I think there is a different and unique quality that not only talks to who a person is, but who he or she will become. And I have not found it on any site, nor heard it spoken of by any person. It is not so much an interpersonal quality as it is a way of being, and it gets more valuable as time goes by.
The most important quality a person can have that positively affects an intimate relationship over time is the ability to love more deeply following an irrevocable loss.
Though every person faces different adversities in their lives, everyone must re-create their lives in some way after he or she has faced an anguishing trial. Most people start life out with "Nothing ventured, nothing gained," but, over time, restrict their willingness to risk again because they feel they cannot once again bear the pain that loss creates. Slowly, with multiple heartbreaks, the average person moves to "Nothing ventured, nothing lost," and measures life in terms of security and comfort, rather than risk and possibilities. It is a natural reaction for self-preservation but an emotionally life-destructive choice.
Perhaps, if people understand the gift of re-investing in life again no matter what it costs, they would not settle for a life that is pre-limited by fear of loss.
This is a true story that happened 30 years ago.
A Korean man in his early forties was brought into see me by trusted friends. It was late on a Friday evening, the day after his wife and four children were killed by a drunk driver while driving home on the freeway. He was at work at the time, waiting for his family to come home to go to church together.
He had come from Korea as a young man and worked very hard to establish himself before he brought his wife-to-be to his home in the United States. They had all the dreams of a young couple plus the immigrant purpose to establish a new life not possible from where he migrated from. They had originally wanted a large family but were very happy with their two sons and twin, small daughters. Comrades in life and in heart, they were already contributing to their community and preparing to bring relatives over to live with them.
He would not have normally sought out counseling, but trusted his friends. They knew I would do everything I could to help him maintain his dignity in the face of his overwhelming sorrow and they wanted to make sure he would be alright. I listened to the horrific details of the accident, his unbelievable loss, his hopelessness at what he had to face. Not a man to show vulnerable emotions, he could not keep the tears back and sobbed intermittently as he spoke.
I was silent, engulfed in my own disbelief that any human being could survive this level of loss and still go on. I could not hold my own tears back in compassion for his pain and for losses I had survived. I didn't want to interfere in any way with his internal struggle nor entangle my own responses with his. He needed to be exactly as he was.
After two hours of explicit and heartbreaking details, he suddenly stopped talking. The room had grown dark as the evening came on but I was too engrossed in his sorrow to have remembered to turn on the overhead lights. He looked up at me, as if for the first time. I could hardly face the anguish in his eyes.
I asked him as gently as I could, "Kim, what are you going to do?"
His answer is one I'll never forget. It both moved me to my core and also gave me a gift I have held on to my whole life.
He spoke slowly, and with dignified clarity. "I will love again someday, in their name. I will love for all of them and from all of them, as long as I am able."
I have had many close and memorable interactions with so many wonderful people over the years. I have witnessed such sad moments of loss and equal moments of triumph. I know that you can only open the angle of risk and gain equally, and most of us are limited in seeking joy by how much we are willing to risk loss again. Those lucky few who are like Kim do not let the sorrows or disappointments of the past keep them from fully embracing what is not yet known, good or bad.
Yes, I think that being able to fully risk again each time one faces irrevocable loss is the most important quality an intimate partner can possess.