God knows a lot about us, even more than Dr. Phil, Dr. Laura and Dr. Ruth combined. And one of the first things He did after creating Man was to put him in a relationship. "It's not good for Man to be alone."

And that's when the fun began. Ever since, we've been trying to figure it out. How does this relationship thing work? Sure, we know all about the benefits, but it sure would be nice to have a smoother ride.

  • How do I build a relationship on strong footing and make sure it keeps growing?
  • How do I avoid some of the pain and distress that inevitably comes?
  • What rules can I follow to make my marriage work?
  • Why must it always be so complicated?

I suppose thousands of "experts" and amateurs alike have tried to answer questions like these throughout the millennia. To the best of my knowledge nobody seems to have gotten it right yet. So, I don't have much to lose. Why not give it whirl?

So, based on my 30 or so years as a therapist and a few more years of marriage, here then is my "short list" of relationship essentials.

But first a few disclaimers:

  • I do not include trust, respect, and love on my list. Without these basics, a relationship is not even getting to first base.
  • What follows is not an all-inclusive menu. But, then again, relationships are far more complex than fine cuisine. And life is a lot more expensive than a fancy restaurant.
  • I do not claim to live as the perfect example of what I describe here. Just ask my wife.

1. Mutual Goals:

She might be the most generous, most charismatic, most intelligent, and most attractive person in the Universe. But if you want to raise a large family, live in Darfur, and utilize hypnotherapy to change the world, and she wants to contemplate geomorphology and live in a cabin in Vermont, it's not going to work very well.

Fortunately, when our life goals are so diametrically polarized we usually recognize the disparity. But more often, we enter a relationship without formulating any goals at all. We mistake commonality for mutuality and find out too late that we view life very differently. Sharing a passion for sushi or zydeco music is a rather paltry foundation for a marriage. Yet it happens every day.

We mistake commonality for mutuality and find out too late that we view life very differently.

You may not be 100% certain about your objectives in life. That's okay. But you do need to know enough about them to see if your relationship mate is on the same page...or at least the same chapter. Without goals or objectives, your relationship will lack a bearing and a direction and over time, will stagnate.

2. Appreciation:

Everyone wants to be appreciated. But great relationships take this concept much further.

Each of you contributes different qualities to the relationship. These qualities are rarely balanced. While one may give the bulk of the financial support, the other may carry the social and emotional responsibility. True appreciation means that you really value what the other one brings to the table and are grateful for every contribution.

And those involved in relationships that are uniquely special, do exactly that. They see and understand the characteristics that make their partner special. They convey that feeling in a sincere and loving way. And they never lose sight of what makes them exceptional.

3. Reaching out and Taking in:

Giving and taking are the ways in which our needs get satisfied. And in every good relationship, balance of these concepts is essential. But that doesn't mean that each of us must give 50% and take 50%. Some of us are heavily wired to give, while others are programmed to receive (mostly).

Real balance is achieved when you understand how it works in each unique relationship. You may be very generous with your money, but less so with your time. You may be very needy of compliments and affirmation but material gifts and possessions are meaningless to you. So one party may end up doing 70% of the giving, but the balance can still be perfect.

The key is: know yourself and know the other party in the relationship. When you know what you need most and what you are capable of giving, the delivery system works. The better you know yourselves and each other, the better you'll both be able to get what you need and give what you should.

4. Communication:

This is probably the most over-used and least understood concept in the world. Simply, communicating is the activity of conveying information. But in the context of creating a fabulous relationship, it is much more than that. It is the means by which feelings and emotions are transmitted and processed.

Naturally, words are the building blocks of good communication. But much of how we feel and what we need is conveyed through body language, mood, and expression. When a relationship is in trouble, the parties often complain that they cannot be expected to "read minds." But being able to read your partner's mind really well is often a telltale sign that a special closeness exists and that the communication is of a very high level.

Mind reading should never be an expectation, but it can be an exhilaration. Couples who have attained an exceptional level of togetherness often report a unique ability to "know" exactly what their spouse feels and thinks and desires at any given time. Of course, this requires a dedication and a commitment to being totally in tune with one another. And it does take some serious time to develop.

And being a good communicator does not mean that you feel free to "bare your soul" and "let it all hang out." That's like saying that freedom means being able to do whatever you want. That's life in today's warped blogosphere. True freedom is the ability to intelligently evaluate your choices before acting. And communicating well involves an assessment of what to say and when and how to say it – and also, when to say absolutely nothing at all.

5. Healing with Forgiveness:

Life is short... and complicated... and precious. If you allow your sensitivities to dominate, you will forever be depressed and resentful. You may also find yourself pretty lonely. Nobody wants to bond with people who are stuck in the victim role all the time.

Children hold grudges; mature adults allow for imperfection and forgive.

A great relationship does not get bogged down by life's miscues; it moves on. People are not perfect; they are far from it. We all make mistakes, all the time. We say the wrong things, we are impatient and callous, we are selfish and demanding, and on top of all that we always think we are right. But children hold grudges; mature adults allow for imperfection and forgive. They see the big picture and weigh the indiscretions with appropriate measure.

And your ability to admit when you are wrong goes a long way in helping the forgiving process to develop and to endure. It is so difficult to utter those three magical words, "I was wrong," that I often recommend that people should stand in the front of the mirror and repeat the phrase 20 or 30 times a day – just to get more comfortable with it. (You can start with five.)

Anticipating the oncoming red flags is a great way to avoid the need for forgiveness. If you know that your partner just can't stand having to wait for you, making that extra effort to be on time becomes essential. If clutter drives her up the wall, make it your business to be tidier – even though neatness may be totally unimportant to you.

Like every great M.A.R.C.H, the key is synchronization. When everybody stays in line, keeps focus, and plays their music, the result is a beautiful parade.

Let the band play!