Creating Lifelong Partnerships

by Dr Richard Bolstad and Margot Hamblett

Come Away To A Tropical Island With Me

In 1982, the two of us met each other as parents with young children at the same small alternative school in Christchurch, New Zealand. One night in May that year, we went to a party together, and spent most of the evening dancing with each other. As we got in the car later that night, Richard asked Margot "Do you want to go home?" She replied, "I'd rather go off to a tropical island with you." This was that breathtaking moment, that final step in the series of delicate hints, that suggested we were beginning a relationship together.

In the years since then, the relationship we began that night has blossomed into a longterm commitment, a shared career, and a source of great joy in each of our lives. For the last ten years, we have used NLP filters to understand more fully what is happening to us. Our children and their friends were sitting round talking to us about this one night soon after our first NLP training. "You should keep doing this NLP stuff." They told us, "It's really changed how you get on with each other." It was true. Something had changed in our ability to co-operate, to forgive, to enjoy being together. The advantages have been phenomenal. In a world where "long term relationship" means a year together, we had rediscovered the joy of something else: lifelong partnership.

Many of the people who train with us want that kind of partnership. We often get positive feedback about the closeness and synergy we share on our trainings. Of course, life has no guarantees; we cannot say where we will be in another ten years. But our first two decades have been a valuable experience. At first we assumed that those who trained with us would find their own way to similar happiness -after all, many of them told us that was a key goal of theirs. But sometimes, the opposite happened. NLP training sometimes focused people's attention on what they wanted and were not getting in their relationship. Or people found it hard to apply their new NLP skills in the daily intensity of their most precious relationship. We noticed that we were holding back from teaching specifically what worked in our relationship, out of a kind of misplaced humility. It's good to have the humility of knowing that our map is not the territory. And it's also useful to share what we've learned. If you're curious, here are the things that we, as one couple who've been together two decades, have found to make that work.

What Is A Partnership?

A friend of ours, New Zealand counsellor George Sweet, has a model which he calls the Eight Divorces. He says that when people end a relationship, they often forget how many different "relationships" are ending. So far in this article, we've tended to use the nominalisation "partnership" to describe all the different ways we (Margot and Richard) interact with each other on a regular basis. George's point is to notice how varied such interactions can be. The types of interactions expected within a marriage partnership have also varied from culture to culture and historical period to historical period. One hundred years ago in New Zealand, advertisements in the Personal Columns of the newspapers referred solely to economic arrangements (eg "Englishman, abstainer, like to meet housekeeper (30), take station job, view marriage" -from Phillips, 1981, p 79). By the 1980s, New Zealanders (researched by Colgan and McGregor, 1981, p 84) ranked their priorities as:

  1. being able to talk to each other
  2. romance
  3. sharing interests and friends
  4. being sexually faithful to each other
  5. being together a great deal
  6. enough sex
  7. financial stability
  8. agreeing on how to bring up the children

Are all these factors necessary for a successful long term partnership to survive? Certainly not. However, different combinations produce different benefits. Robert Sternberg (1988) has developed a questionnaire which assesses relationships based on three criteria: passion, intimacy ("liking"), and commitment. Passion alone produces infatuation; intimacy alone produces friendship, and commitment alone produces the empty form of a marriage. Passion and intimacy together produce romantic love; passion and commitment together produce "love at first sight" experiences, and intimacy and commitment together produce long term companionship. When all three are found together, they produce what Sternberg calls consummate love.

The Seven "Partnerships"

Before offering our recommendations about how to maintain a partnership over time, it will help to get clear on what such a partnership could mean in practice, and on what the advantages of such prolonged and multiple interactions have been for us. Why would you want to stay with the same person for years anyway? We think of seven key aspects of our own relationship.

  1. Financial and legal arrangements. In our case we have written agreements about our joint ownership of a house, a bank account, and a training company. Our joint earning and purchasing power has enabled us to set longer term financial goals, and to take more risks knowing we have backup. We have accepted in return that all major financial decisions are negotiated between us.
  2. Family. When we began living together we combined two single parent families, each with a series of connections out to siblings, cousins, grandparents etc. This extended family doubled the complexity of family holiday celebrations, but also gave us an increased sense of family support. The shared parenting situation created the opportunity for most of our conflicts over the initial year together. It also gave each of us a third position look at our child-rearing, and provided extra supports and role models for our children.
  3. Friendship. We are each other's closest companion. We share and maintain networks of friends, and we enjoy going out together as a "couple". We share fun experiences as simple as watching movies together and eating out; as awesome as climbing the great wall of China or visiting a tropical island. We know a lot about what we each enjoy, and about what experiences have gone into making each of us who we are. We have shared many of the most significant individual events in each other's lives, and we share the day by day tasks as simple as washing dishes or making a bed.
  4. Sex. We are lovers with two decades of experience and experimentation in how to excite each other, how to pleasure each other, and how to create a sense of sexual abundance for each other. Each of us has had the previous experience of sexual relationships with other people; the excitement of these pale by comparison with what we get from the anchoring of thousands of sexual experiences with one person.
  5. Romantic Love. Romantic love first emerged in western thought as an entirely separate experience from lifelong partnership. It was considered by the ancient Greeks as a form of madness (caused by the arrows of Eros), and is still viewed with caution in cultures such as China (Franzoi, 1996, p 361). By love, in this sense, is meant mutual adoration, intense preoccupation, and a physical longing to be with the other person. Why does this feel so good? Research on persons who believe themselves to be "in love" shows that their immune, muscular and nervous systems are functioning at an enhanced rate (Bolstad and Hamblett, 1998, p 19). Behaviourally, this results in us gazing into each others eyes a lot, writing each other poetry, and giving each other gifts. Maybe the Greeks were right.
  6. Cognitive Strategies. When given memorising tasks, pairs who have been in a relationship together for over three months are able to remember far more items than pairs who are randomly assigned to each other (Wegner, 1991). This is an example of what Daniel Wegner calls "transactive memory". Apart from their separate strategies (using the NLP term), couples develop cognitive strategies which utilise their combined skills to create enhanced results. Conflict resolution and co-operative planning are just the tip of an iceberg of cognitive symbiosis which increases over time, as noted by John Grinder (1989, p 324-325). "Some of the finest teamwork in the world, some of the most exotic, erotic, lovely, passionate, marvellous parts of your life involve playing arcs in circuits with other people." John suggests that an important condition for the effective use of such transactive circuits or strategies is "(?)�&that you have the capacity to play an arc in somebody else's circuitry and vice versa, and when desired or required could recover the arcs which someone is playing in your circuits and vice versa." John gives the example of his grandmother coping with the death of his grandfather, and rediscovering how to "recover the arcs" which he had played in her circuits.
  7. Mission. When we first began living together we shared many values, and we each admired what the other person was doing in the world. As our children grew up, we noticed that the sense of mission we had in supporting their growth was no longer our focus. Together, we discovered a shared vision of world transformation, began to plan projects which led towards that result, and began to contact a profound sense of spirituality behind all that we did. While we felt as if we were crafting this together, it clearly refers to what others have called being "soulmates".

The Advantages

To summarise from the seven partnership areas, the advantages of lifelong partnership include:

It is important to note that, when these things occur, they are direct results of living together over time. Life-long partnership is, we believe, intrinsically valuable. Mostly, when people think of the advantages of living in a relationship, they think of immediate advantages to staying with someone this week (advantages which could be gained by staying with someone else next week). Such advantages include:

While these are real advantages, they are a small subset of the advantages available from a lifelong relationship. Yet we know from divorce statistics and research on de facto relationships, that most people living in an industrialised country at the turn of the twenty-first century will never know what it is to live in a marriage of 20 years or more. Well over half of all marriages end in separation in less than twenty years (combining results for formal and de-facto marriage; Phillips, 1981, p 84; Franzoi, 1996, p 373). 30% of separations occur at around seven years duration (the so called "seven year itch").

There is nothing "wrong" with serial monogamy (having a series of shorter marriage relationships). A relationship has not "failed" just because it only lasted two years. The last house we owned was not a "failure" because we moved out of it after five years. We were happy with it for most of that five years, and then we wanted something different. In the same way, many people prefer the life-flexibility of moving on to another relationship every few years. We are simply saying that there are some benefits to staying in one town all your life, and there are some benefits to staying in one partnership all your life.

Life-long partnerships, called by biologists "pair bonds" are found in many different species, from parrots to seahorses, from beavers to gibbons. All known human societies have used life-long partnerships, though most have permitted some of these partnerships to include more than two people (Symons, 1981, p96-141). The last century of social change in the western world has produced a situation unprecedented in our history, where perhaps half of all people do not form and maintain such partnerships.

In their book "I Will Never Leave You", Hugh and Gayle Prather argue that this situation has been enhanced by the development of a "separation psychology" which assumes that separation gives you personal power. They say "Thinking in relationship is a very different mental process from the need-centred process we have been teaching each other for the past several decades." (Prather and Prather, 1995, p 10). While most people would "like" to live in a long term relationship, and would like to get the full set of benefits listed above, they do not learn the strategies necessary to make this dream a reality.

Much NLP training clearly promotes such a separation psychology, by encouraging the development of individual goals and missions, and ignoring the value of collective goals and missions. If we are modelling success, we could benefit from noticing that much of humanity's success is collective, not individual. There are things that successful couples learn how to do, that successful individuals cannot. The enhanced memory discovered by Daniel Wegner is just one small example of that.

A Model For Enhancing LIFELONG Partnership
Over the last three years we have studied a number of what we would consider highly satisfying lifelong partnerships. Some of the strategies used by these people in their relationship have already been identified by social psychologists. These include (Franzoi, 1996, p 373-377)

We have also noticed some other important strategies that successful couples share. In our experience there are eight key factors which have supported successful life-long couples in their relationships. They are:
Long term vision.
Individual responsibility
Freedom to ask
Effective conflict resolution
Live and let live approach.
Outframing of other relationships
Nourishing intimacy
Generous sex

Long term vision

The decision to have a life-long relationship is without a doubt one of the most far reaching decisions you could ever make. It will have more repercussions than choosing to buy a house, or deciding on a career, or even choosing to have a child. In the next 25 years, you will probably change houses again, develop an entirely new career, and your child will grow up. If your life-long relationship really is such, it will still be there, and it will have contributed to each of these other decisions.

There are two ways to get into a life-long partnership. One is to search for someone else who wants to be a life-mate. The other is to develop an existing relationship into a long term one. In either case, at some point you need to openly discuss the concept of life-time partnership. Just hoping that what you've got will last is not an adequate beginning. Staying together requires more than just agreeing that it's a good idea. It requires changing both your metaprograms to sort for what will work for you as a couple. This is what we have come to call in NLP the fourth perceptual position (viewing the world from the perspective of "us" instead of "me" or "you" or "others"). Each partner still sorts for what works for them individually, and they do so within the context of what works for the complete relationship.

In the separation psychology that is popular in our culture, thinking of "us" and "we" is considered co-dependent. Fritz Perls was the founder of Gestalt Therapy, one of the major influences on the "personal growth" movement. In his "Gestalt Prayer", he says "You do your thing and I do mine. I am not in this world to live up to your expectations. And you are not in this world to live up to mine. You are you and I am I, And if by chance we find each other, it's beautiful. If not, it can't be helped." (Perls, 1969, p 4) What's missing here is any notion of the value of a shared experience in itself. If I'm thinking of "us" have I really lost myself?

An analogy illustrates how the fourth perceptual position can be used effectively. Let's say you have some food that you really like; something like chocolate. Eating chocolate is a perfectly valid choice, but you don't eat chocolate all day every day. Why? Because it uses up too much money, it gives you a tummy ache, it just doesn't feel good anymore. You accept that eating chocolate is only one of the desires that you are taking into consideration. And what if you discover that eating chocolate has become life-threatening? If you find that this desire endangers your actual survival, it is most likely that you will stop for good, and find some other way to get the satisfaction that chocolate once gave you. Is this "betraying" your real need for chocolate? Is it ignoring your "right" to chocolate? No; it's simply making a choice based on your highest criteria (values).

In the same way, if you decide that a life-long relationship is one of your highest values, then you accept that your individual wishes are just some of the desires that you are taking into consideration. And what if you discover that one of your individual desires (such as a desire to have sex with someone you just met, or a desire to take up employment in Antarctica) endangers the actual survival of your life-long partnership? It is most likely that in this situation you will stop acting on that desire, and find some other way to get the satisfaction it seemed to promise. Is this betraying your true path in life? Is it ignoring your right to respond sexually? No; it's simply making a choice based on your highest criteria (values).

Creating a life-long partnership means creating a shared vision of where you want to be in ten years, in twenty years, in forty years, and in your old age. That vision then becomes a way of evaluating whether your actions are worth taking. Hugh and Gayle Prather say "Learning to love is essentially the process of moving past the smaller likes and dislikes into a vast pre-existing ocean of rapport(?)�&. Naturally this does not mean that a couple must do everything together or that they can't have separate activities that they enjoy. Rather, these should always be pursuits that are within the goodwill of both partners." (Prather and Prather, 1995, p 51).

How does this work in practice. Here are some examples. The two of us decided ten years ago that our vision of the future included us training together. At that time, Richard had been more well known as a trainer, and he received some individual invitations to teach in countries outside New Zealand. He wrote back in each case explaining that we taught as a team. If they were interested in having the two of us, we were available. We made the decision as part of our life-long partnership. Acting alone would not have made sense.

Another example of our conscious use of "we" has been in response to NLP and related training that becomes available from time to time. We have realised that it is not always easy for both of us to leave our business or family at the same time, and go to a training we want to experience. Instead, we have shared out such opportunities, checking who most wants to go and having that person report back in detail about the training later. The experience, for example, of having Richard come back and share Tad James' Quantum Linguistics, or Margot come back and share Michael Yapko's hypnotherapy has not only pooled our learning. It has also given us some of our most exciting times together, giving us the experience of enriching each other's lives.

Early on in our relationship, we arranged that, within certain guidelines, it was acceptable for us to have sexual experiences with other people. At that time, both of us acted on this principle and felt comfortable with the situation. Some years later, while on an overseas training, Richard engaged in a sexual relationship. This time, Margot said she felt quite different about it. She didn't like it, and felt that it didn't fit with our relationship any more. That, of course, was the last time. Do we feel regret about that "limitation" on our freedom? Not at all. Both of us feel glad to know what the other wants (their "expectations" to use Perls' term), and happy to be meeting those needs.

Individual responsibility

Our use of the fourth perceptual position does not mean we lose track of our individual perspectives. It means we pay attention to them more fully, and place them in a context. To create a shared understanding about sexual affairs, or about who goes to which trainings, we need to be extremely sensitive to our own individual impulses and goals. This, then, is the second secret to life-long partnership.

In any relationship, there will be times when your partner is unhappy about something. One of the temptations of such situations is to forget who really "owns the problem", who really is upset: to start thinking that it's my problem and I need to find the right solution to it. It's hard to accept, when someone else is hurting, that only they can find the very best solution for them. They have to live with the solution. So it doesn't matter how well my ideas would work for me, if the other person doesn't think they will work for them. In that sense, they "own the problem". Once I forget that the other person owns their problem I start to believe that I can take away their pain for them: that I can 'make them feel happy'. I may even think that I have to rescue them from their problem because they are not smart enough or strong enough to do anything about it themselves. Once I believe these things, I'm in what Stephen Karpman calls the Rescuer role (Bolstad and Hamblett, 1998, p 85-89). He uses the word Rescuer with a capital 'R' to distinguish it from genuine rescue, which does happen (eg. when a firefighter rescues someone from a house fire). The Rescuer believes that helping someone means doing things for them (whether they asked for it or not), even when it creates difficulties for the Rescuer.

The result of Rescue, Karpman says, is to encourage the other person to act more and more like a helpless Victim (again he uses the capital 'V' to distinguish someone in the Victim role from someone who is a genuine victim asking for a specific kind of assistance). Rescue does not solve the problem, it escalates it dangerously. Instead of thanking their Rescuer (as an actual victim of a real misfortune might thank their helper), the Victim often comes to resent and complain to their Rescuer. They then move into a third role, the role of the 'Persecutor'. Rescuers also slip into the Persecutor role, angrily blaming the "Victim" for ruining the Rescuer's life.

Consider a couple of examples. As we began developing training materials, Richard took on much of the work of typing manuals and brochures. In doing this, he developed a love-hate relationship with the computer (another Rescue triangle, but that's not our focus here!). At times, the computer would lose several hours of his work, and he would resort to screaming in frustration, and speaking to the computer in a very unresourceful manner. At these times, initially Margot would attempt to "help", by asking useful (but unsolicited) questions or making helpful (but uninvited) suggestions about how to change state. This Rescue resulted in Richard attempting to explain to her even more emphatically just how impossible his situation was (Victim behaviour, shifting to Persecutor). As we discussed the situation later, it became clear that the most useful intervention for Margot to make at that time was to close the door to Richard's office, so she couldn't hear him. It was his problem, and he needed to find his own solution (or enjoy feeling persecuted by the machine).

Another example occurred early in our relationship. In the weeks when we were first getting to know each other, we spent a lot of time together in "the great outdoors" (a New Zealand term for the beaches, mountains and fields, which there are a lot of in New Zealand). For Margot, this happened because she loved the great outdoors. For Richard this happened because the easiest place to meet Margot was the great outdoors. Within a year of us living together, Margot began to feel hurt that Richard never spent enough time with her in the great outdoors. She wanted to spend more time hiking, and walking outside. His not doing this left her feeling trapped inside, and then feeling unloved and unhappy. Richard felt anxious that there was no clear limit to the amount of time outdoors that was being asked of him. When we discussed the situation, we recognised that wanting to go hiking was a problem that did not need to be solved by Richard. His half-hearted attempts to "endure" it were just Rescue, and left Margot still feeling a Victim of the situation. Once we realised this, Margot then explored several more effective solutions, including joining a tramping club.

Taking individual responsibility for meeting each of our needs does not mean "going it alone". Notice that in each of the above situations, we needed to discuss the issue, clarify the problem ownership, and un-entangle ourselves. Individual responsibility also includes taking responsibility to notify the other person when something is not working out. In our own couple counselling experience, we have noticed that most couples who separate have at least one major problem which has not been resolved for months or even years, and which one of them feels deeply resentful about. Often, both people knew that this was a problem, but they pretended to themselves that it somehow wouldn't matter. An example might be that the two partners have not had sex for the last several months. This may be related to other more difficult to express problems. Both partners know that something is not working, but somehow they ignore the warning light. Then, one or other of them has the opportunity to have an affair, and takes it. Suddenly, they look at the situation and it seems insoluble.

We cannot emphasise strongly enough that if you detect that you or your partner feels resentful for more than a week about any issue whatsoever, this is a serious warning sign. The life of your partnership depends on taking action until you have a solution that works (discussed under Effective Conflict Resolution, below). Each of you is responsible for detecting such issues and raising them for discussion. You do this for your own happiness, and not to "make your partner happy".

Freedom to ask

What stops people raising such issues? In our experience, there is one central roadblock in the process, and that is inability to permit yourself or the other person asking for what they want. In theory, it seems so simple to ask your partner for what you want, and to allow them to ask for what they want. In practice, partners often find that they are operating on one of two "irrational beliefs" about asking. These are:

"If I have to ask you, you don't love me."
"If you ask me, you are coercing me into doing something I don't want to."

One common situation where this becomes an issue is in relation to sex. In our first months together, we explored a number of sexual options which were new to both of us, and which we both enjoyed. But when Richard would ask Margot if she would like to re-experience one of these options, she would become tense and say that she might at some future time, but she didn't want to discuss it. Richard then noticed that whatever he asked for was less likely to happen than if he had never mentioned it. When we discussed this situation, it became clear that, in the field of sex, Margot was tending to hear Richard's request or suggestion as a demand or an attempt at coercion. Being able to express preferences is as useful in making love as in cooking meals or any other area of life. Margot recognised that she wanted to hear Richard's suggestions as just that, and she set about changing her response to those comments.

The reverse problem happened with socialising at home. Margot invited more friends home for evenings than Richard, and she explained to Richard that she was happy for him to spend time with them, or to go off and read a book or whatever he was doing. But Richard found it difficult to be asked whether he would like to join in the discussion, because he believed it was "impolite" to say "No." in such a situation. Again, this response made it more challenging for Margot to ask him, because he was operating on the belief that her asking was actually a form of pressure. He learned to let go of that belief and say "Yes." Or "No." as it suited him.

Over the course of our relationship, we have learned to ask more clearly for the specific responses we want from the other person. Such requests often emerged from our discovery that an action which one of us viewed as "just being considerate" was viewed as irrelevant or even inconsiderate by the other person. Richard thought that it was just being considerate to put a used cup back in the kitchen to be washed; while Margot thought that collecting them up every couple of days was a reasonable approach. Margot thought that when visitors were present for a meal, it was considerate to wait until they had started before beginning to eat; while Richard thought that his starting first was a way to encourage them. In each case we learned to explain our view of the situation to the other person and ask for them to change. Your partner cannot read your mind perfectly, no matter how much "in rapport" you seem to be. They do not always know what you need, and so your ability to ask for what you want is crucial.

Effective conflict resolution

What about the situation where one person explains their concern, and the other person says "Well, if I do what you're asking, then I would have a concern myself." This is what we would call, in our Transforming Communication seminar, a Conflict of Needs. Successful partnerships involve successful conflict resolution. The following story gives an example of its power.

A short time ago, we received an email from an American NLP student. He was writing to tell us about a difficult experience he had in his relationship with his wife. He says: "You see, my wife and I came to an impasse last night that we both thought might begin the end of US. We've been married a short while, but both of us let our anger sometimes get ahead of our tongue...say things we shouldn't and create states of unhappiness within each other we shouldn't." At this point he came across an article on our conflict resolution model. His letter continues: "After reading through the article and using the techniques of "I messages" and "verbal pacing" while matching non-verbally, we managed to realize that our conflict was only a "simple miscommunication." Although my wife had not read nor was trying to use the methodology, she was responding easily to my use of some of it. To me, this even more corroborates the power of the method. Anyway, I just wanted to say "Thank YOU" for posting the article and sharing such an important and powerful model for conflict resolution with the world..."

We are not intending to teach this method here, and recommend that partners study it much more fully (see Bolstad and Hamblett, 1998). Much of the research on successful partnerships has focused on the patterns that people use to deal with the conflict situation. From this research it is clear that there are three keys to successful resolution of conflicts. They are

  1. the use of a Partnership-preserving frame,
  2. the fluent shifting between clear first and second positions, and
  3. the development of solutions that have a sense of equity.

Let's take an actual conflict which we had, and consider how it was resolved, using these three principles. In the first year of our relationship, we had a few disagreements which weren't being successfully resolved. At times Margot would simply stop talking or leave the room without explaining what happened; and Richard would carry on trying angrily to discuss what he thought needed to change in a process that would continue for an hour or more without any progress. Richard thought that if we just kept talking we'd reach agreement, but for Margot the more we talked the worse it felt.

Finally with the assistance of a counsellor, the two of us were encouraged to make clear descriptions of what happened. Margot said "When we disagree, you talk in a louder, faster, steady voice and do a lot of explaining of your position. I start to get anxious that I'm going to forget my side of the disagreement and be talked into something I didn't really want. I feel overwhelmed, and just do what I need to protect my position,"

Richard added "When you say less, and especially when you walk out of the room, I get anxious that you're not willing to look at my concerns; that you'll just go ahead and ignore them. I explain more, hoping we'll see our way to a solution.". Notice that both these descriptions, from what in NLP we would call "first position" explain what "I" am upset about, rather than what "you" should do. They are "I" messages rather than blaming or advice-giving messages.

The counsellor restated our concerns as intentions: "So Margot you want to be sure that you have the space to keep your side in mind". Margot nodded. "And Richard you want to know that it will get sorted out in a way that looks at both your needs". Richard agreed. The restating or reflecting process used by the counsellor is a crucial skill for conflict resolution, and she encouraged both of us to use it to step into "second position" (to experience the problem from the other person's perspective). She then summed up: "Okay then our outcome is to find a way that Margot has that space AND Richard knows both views will be considered, is that right?" Redefining the conflict as a problem that "We" are seeking solutions for is a powerful presuppositional statement. It presupposes that there is a "we" and that our aim is to create a sense of equity and meet all our needs fully.

Once we had heard each other's concerns, thinking up solutions to meet both sets of needs was easy. We did two things. At the start of any disagreement, Margot and Richard wrote down their needs, their I messages, to make sure they could check later on that both were respected. Secondly, we agreed that if either person felt overwhelmed, they could take "time out" from the discussion, provided they arranged when they'd be back to complete discussing the issue. That way, Margot knew she could always get space, and Richard knew she would come back to solve the conflict.

As with most successful agreements, after only a few times of using these arrangements, the arrangements didn't need actioning. The level of trust and respect, that had built up between us, solved the problem for us. Undoubtably, this conflict brought us closer together! It became an opportunity to affirm our caring for each other at a deeper level.

Live and let live approach

Of course, not all conflicts can be so easily solved. Robert Dilts' Neurological levels model suggests that problems can be examined at a number of different levels: environment, behaviour, capability, beliefs and values, identity and spirit (Dilts, 1993, p 55-56). Where a couple thinks of their conflict as involving changes in the environment, or in their specific behaviours and use of skills, the win-win conflict resolution method will work very well. Where a couple thinks of their conflict as involving changes in their beliefs, values, sense of who they are, or spiritual relationships, a different approach is needed.

Consider the following two examples from early in our relationship. Firstly, the lawn garden story: Margot trained in organic gardening and farming, and she was enthusiastically applying her new gardening methods in our suburban < acre section garden. Margot's garden there supplied much of the vegetables we used. One of her more innovative visions was to plant vegetables in holes dug randomly across the lawns, using the living grass as a mulch to protect the plants. Richard had a somewhat more traditional view of what a lawn ought to look like. He didn't like the idea of having to mow around pumpkins and cabbages, and he wondered if the children would miss having lawn to play in; but most of all, he just liked "tidy" lawns.

In Margot's attempt to discuss her lawn gardens, she had several choices to make. If she focused on her values (valuing self-sufficiency above neatness, say) and her sense of identity (as an organic gardener rather than a suburban homeowner), she would be challenging Richard's values and sense of identity. He would be unlikely to be willing to "negotiate" these deeper issues. If she focused just on her specific goal to grow vegetables in this experimental way, she could reach a solution which worked for this behaviour, but let Richard carry on living with his more traditional values. She decided to do the latter. We agreed to have half the section organised "tidily" and half utilised for self-sufficiency. We each took care of our half section (which solved the lawn-mowing problem). Once Richard saw the lawn gardens in action, he actually adjusted his opinion (they didn't look as bizarre as he had imagined). In this way, without insisting that he change, Margot was able to "model" her values, and Richard was free to consider whether they might work for him. We later recombined the section areas and were both happy to have some plants in the middle of the lawn.

Another example was the pottery business issue. This arose out of a conflict over the earning of money. At this time, Richard had a full time teaching job, and Margot had been at home caring for her youngest child who was just about to start school. We had agreed that once this child started school, Margot would find a paying job to contribute more fully to the family finances. Her first choice was to work from home as a potter. She had already exhibited some of her pottery and was an accomplished artist with clay. She had a part time job teaching art to teenagers. Richard's opinion, however, was that she was not approaching any of this commercially enough to produce a viable income. He considered Margot to be playing at earning money rather than thinking of herself as responsible for a family. He resented feeling that he was going to end up doing the "real work" that kept the family going while she lived off his earnings, as an "artist".

If Richard had focused on the values and identity issues (valuing stable income more than free time, thinking of oneself as a breadwinner rather than a free spirit) he would be directly challenging Margot's values and sense of identity. She would be unlikely to be willing to negotiate these deeper issues. If he focused on his resentment about the unfair distribution of money, he could negotiate a deal that worked for these practical matters, but left Margot to pursue her own values. After unsuccessfully attempting to convince Margot of his beliefs and values, he decided to do the latter. We arranged that, while we would still combine our earnings to pay family bills, each of us would take out a personal spending amount which was proportionate to the amount we had earned. That way, the bills would get paid, but our "pocket money" depended on the commercial viability of our work decisions. Left to make her own decisions, Margot eventually decided that the pottery business was indeed not worth the effort she would need to put in to make it work. After some time training, she found her way into a social work career.

In such values areas, each of us found ways to influence the other, but recognised that direct persuasion or negotiation did not work. Working with couples, we have found that many serious conflicts occur where one partner tries to pressure the other to change their values, their sense of who they are, or their spiritual beliefs. There is a balance here. If there are too many values differences between a couple, the live and let live approach will mean that they have less and less to do with each other. But attempting to force the other person to change at this level is risky. Over time, in a successful partnership, people do indeed change their opinions and alter their priorities. But they do that most successfully when they have the freedom to consider what works for them. It is hard to leave your partner eating food you consider unhealthy, or making financial decisions you consider risky, or adopting spiritual beliefs you consider shallow or na(?)ve. We have found that the most effective ways to influence someone in these situations are not criticism and argument. Instead, what works is modelling your own values consistently, and leaving the other person space to decide.

When your partner behaves in ways that you don't approve of, it is also useful to consider how you think of those behaviours. The research on successful partnerships shows that these partners adopt an "optimistic explanatory style" to account for their partner's behaviour. They assume that all the things they approve of in their partner are a result of the positive qualities that they so love. All the things that they don't approve of are simply a result of circumstances such as their partner's childhood, stressful events in their immediate life situation, or misunderstandings. These are the same rose tinted glasses which people who enjoy life use to look at their own situation through (Seligman, 1997).

Leslie Cameron-Bandler suggests that a couple who want to develop a more tolerant attitude to their partner's behaviour can use a technique based on this type of optimistic explanatory style (1985, p 210). She suggests that you identify the behaviour you object to in your partner. Then:

NLP gives a series of very valuable tools for clarifying how people differ at the level of values, beliefs and personality. Eliciting someone's metaprograms (personality traits) and their highest values for a relationship enables you to understand the differences and to celebrate and build on the similarities (Bolstad and Hamblett, 1998, p 179-190). Our friend and NLP training colleague Bryan Royds tells a beautiful story of how, on his first date with his life partner Susi, he took out a pen and began writing on a table napkin. "So," he asked her, "What's important to you in a relationship?" He wrote down the list of values this generated, and was increasingly excited by their similarity to his own. But the point at which he was convinced that the relationship would work was when Susi took the napkin and pen, and said, "Okay now; what's important to you in a relationship Bryan?"

Many of the differences which we puzzled over early on in our relationship were differences in metaprograms. For example, during our first holidays together, Richard was looking forward to a long quiet rest, perhaps reading books, and occasionally chatting with Margot. Margot was excitedly phoning up her friends and relatives, arranging for them to come over for lunch, for dinner, and for anything else. She was also planning for us to go out together with friends. Suddenly, Richard began to wonder "Why doesn't she want to just be with me?" When he expressed concern that there wouldn't be any holiday left, Margot began to wonder "Why doesn't he want to go out with me?" Richard relaxes by himself (he's an "intovert" to use the metaprogram term) whereas Margot relaxes with other people more (she's an extravert). Neither of these ways of relaxing is "wrong". They are just different. It's useful to understand that such differences exist!

Outframing of other relationships

Partnerships would be a lot easier to manage if there were no-one else in the world but the two of you. Some of our most complex disagreements have involved our relationship with other people, including our children. As single parents, each of us had placed our children first in our lives. Their welfare, their happiness, was the first criterion for each decision. Once we were living as a couple, this values system no longer worked, for the children or for us.

Each of us found that, although we cared about all the children, we could empathise most easily with our own original children. The same behaviour that seemed selfish and contemptuous in the other person's child (say, forgetting to do the dishes when arranged) seemed an honest mistake and easily understandable in our own child. We needed to keep monitoring our joint behaviour with this in mind. It is okay for us to feel differently about two different children, but we wanted to make sure that our agreements as a family were carried out as arranged in both cases.

It was natural for our children, recognising the difference in our feeling, to seek support from the person they felt closest to. As teenagers, for example, they would ask their own original parent if they could borrow the spare family car. As a parent, it was tempting to simply say "Yes". As partners, we learned to remind them to check with the other partner before we agreed. The message we conveyed to them by doing this was that things such as the car were now our shared property. To discuss those things meant talking to us as partners. Our relationship "outframed" the decision to loan them the car, using the NLP terminology. Many of their arrangements with us now took place in the context of our partnership.

In more subtle ways, the same was true of arrangements with our own parents and siblings, and our friends. These people understandably were not always comfortable with the shift in context. Richard's mother might be more comfortable being able to invite Richard over to her place on Christmas day, without him having to discuss it with Margot. Margot's brother might wish he could have Margot's children over to stay, but not Richard's child. Our friends might feel that we had "changed" (in a negative sense) since we were together. We learned that, if we wanted our partnership to survive a lifetime, our relationship came first.

Nourishing intimacy

Having given so many examples of resolving conflict, it is important to remember that the focus of a successful life-long partnership is on co-operation, rather than on disagreements. Even when the conflicts are many, serious and complex, it remains our central aim to have times of fun and affection together. The NLP concept of anchoring helps to clarify the importance of this. When couples are in conflict, frequently they spend all their time together talking about problems. Soon, just the sound of the other person's voice or the sight of their face reminds each partner of conflicts. They are developing a "phobic" response to each other. We recommend clearing such responses using the NLP Trauma/phobia process (Bolstad and Hamblett, 1998, p 118-120) and re-anchoring the relationship by spending time together doing things that are fun for both people.

Family Therapist and NLP model Virginia Satir had a very beautiful way of assisting couples to re-anchor their positive response to each other. She would ask them in detail about how they first met and fell in love (Satir, 1967, p 118-121). As they described this experience, they stepped back into the state of being in love and being attracted to each other. Satir would then have them look at each other, anchoring this feeling to their present relationship.

By asking these questions, Satir also elicited from the couple six very important "strategies" to use an NLP term. These strategies cover the three key areas of relationship identified by Robert Sternberg (1988): passion, intimacy, and commitment.

  1. How do you get the feeling of loving someone?
  2. How do you get the feeling of being loved by someone?
  3. How do you get the feeling of being sexually attracted to someone?
  4. How do you get the feeling that someone else is sexually attracted to you?
  5. How do you get the feeling of being committed to a relationship?
  6. How do you get the feeling that someone else is committed to their relationship with you?

Each of these feelings is an internal response, but it happens at specific times, as a result of something you see, hear, or touch physically, or a combination of these. If you think of a time when you felt loved by someone else, for example (strategy number two), the external event that let you know this might have been a certain look from that other person, or seeing some gift they gave you, or hearing them tell you they loved you in a certain tone of voice, or feeling the way they held you in their arms. People have different ways of getting this information. For example, Margot gets this information with equal power visually and auditorally, whereas Richard gets this information almost entirely visually. It's a certain look on Margot's face that really lets him know she loves him.

When it comes to sexual attraction, Richard uses visual information and Margot uses auditory information for both strategies. Looking at Margot lets Richard know that she is excited by him, and also is what "turns him on" most effectively. Margot finds that listening to Richard gives her the best information about how excited he is, and listening to him saying certain things is also what turns her on most effectively. You can imagine how useful this information is.

Many couples have difficulty conveying and receiving these three essential messages ("I love you", "I'm committed to our relationship" and "I'm turned on by you"). This difficulty is almost always a result of not knowing how to send the message in the form that the other person will receive it. In a couple who have been together for some time, there will have been times when these messages got through. As Virginia Satir noticed, asking about the first contact they had will often give good examples. It can be important to go back to those times and find out how this couple send messages successfully when it's working.

Some couples develop a taboo against knowing this information. They fear that knowing and responding to the real life "chemistry" they have generated will somehow take the "magic" out of the relationship. On the contrary, we believe this knowledge shows you how to rub the lamp in order to release the genie of intimacy. You have every right to find out just what makes your partner feel loved, and just what turns them on, in detail. You can then choose to provide the very experiences that create the feelings you want to create. If you have fears about doing this, then we recommend re-reading the section on "Freedom to ask", above. Research supports the proposition that the more openly couples discuss their sexual desires and tastes, the more satisfied they are about the relationship as a whole (Franzoi, 1996, p 372).

Nourishing your relationship involves providing regular experiences where you can both run all six of these strategies. Exactly which experiences will depend on your unique individual strategies. You may organise times to create agreements and check how your life mission together is working; you may set aside regular times to spend time alone together, you may arrange regular times for sexual contact, or you may simply set a regular time to check that these things are going well for both partners.

Generous sex

There is a paradox in our society's attitude to sex. On the one hand, we seem obsessed by it. Sexually evocative advertising bombards us at every step. But the role of sex in life-long relationships is poorly understood. Research shows that in the first two years of the relationship, the percentage of married couples who have sex more than three times a week is 45%. For gay male couples the percentage is 67% and for lesbian couples the percentage is 33%. When we look at couples who have been living together for over ten years, the percentage of married couples has dropped to 18%, that of gay male couples has dropped to 11% and that of lesbian couples is at 1% (Franzoi, 1996, p 372).

The longer couples have been together, the less they have sex. Is this because they don't "need it" as much? Well, actually the research shows that the more sexual activity a couple has, the more positively they tend to describe their relationship, and the longer the relationship tends to last (Franzoi, 1996, p 371). The strongest determinant of satisfaction in a couple is to count the number of times a week the couple argue and the number of times a week they engage in direct sexual activity. Having more sex than arguments is a good predictor of a happy relationship (Franzoi, 1996, p 372).

As a society we have overemphasised the power of sex to draw people together (or to draw them to purchase certain items), but we have underestimated its power to maintain relationships. When we ask couples why they have reduced the amount of sex they have, their response is predictable. They tend to say firstly that there is not enough time to have sex. Secondly, they tend to say that they do not desire it as much as they used to. These responses are based on some misunderstandings about the role of sex in a life-long relationship.

Some years ago, we began training in the traditional Chinese Taoist system of chi kung (which loosely translates as energy work). In that system, the value of sex in a relationship is based on four factors not being considered in our usual western model. These are:

These four benefits are independent of individual and time-specific sexual cravings. To use a metaphor, we in the west have thought of sex as a bit like a chocolate cake: a luxury that some people crave more than others, that you crave more at certain times, and that is best eaten in a binge. The Taoist model sees sex as more like the breakfast of champions: a key daily nourishment to be enjoyed in a balanced way.

If a couple believes that all sexual contact has to lead to orgasm (and in the case of men to ejaculation), then sex has a compulsive, binge-like feel to it. You need to "keep going until you are satiated". Taoist sex is not goal directed. In Taoist sex, each moment of sexual arousal is in itself an indication of the generation of healing energy and loving, intimate feelings. Successful sex may take five minutes or five hours, and may or may not include orgasm or ejaculation.

Once we took on board the Taoist sexual model (Chia and Chia, 1986, Chia and Arava, 1996) we began to experience sexual arousal as energy work, as meditation, as a reminder of love. We have continued to have a commitment to some sexual contact every day. How much we have depends on our individual preferences at the time. But just as many couples would not think of leaving home in the morning without kissing each other goodbye, we remember to celebrate our sexual relationship every day. The sexual techniques we learned in our chi kung studies (vaginal muscle exercises, control of ejaculation etc) have been fun, and the feeling of increased energy in sex has been exciting, but the biggest benefit has been in our mutual feeling that sex is both abundant and free from pressure.

Learning the Taoist approach to sex was one of the steps we took to solve what Dr Dean Delis and Cassandra Phillips describe as the Passion Paradox (when one person wants more intimacy than the other; Delis and Phillips, 1990). The passion paradox is one of the most familiar experiences in working with couples. One person wants more sex, more time talking, more commitment than the other. A study of male-female relationships done at Yale University found that in 19% of relationships both partners were "equally involved" in the relationship in general. In 36% of partnerships the woman was "less involved" and in 45% of partnerships the man was "less involved". This imbalance is partially due to a personality difference between people who enjoy connecting and people who enjoy being separate. The research shows that there are slightly more men who enjoy being more separate, but the difference is not huge. Whichever way the paradox runs, the result is often quite painful for both partners. Delis and Phillips recommend solving the passion paradox by having the person who wants more intimacy experiment with letting go, and the person who wants less intimacy experiment with opening up more. The Taoist approach to sex does both things at once. It suggests that the person who wants less sex will nonetheless actually commit themselves to some regular sexual contact. The person who wants more sex will commit themselves to accepting that this contact may be quite brief. At first, it sounds like this could only produce a "compromise". However, in the safer context created, a whole new level of intimacy and freedom emerges. This is quite a complex change for both people, and to apply it, we recommend that you

One really encouraging piece of news about sexual desire and life-long partnership comes from studies at the University of Pennsylvania (Chu, 1997, p 154). Studying cycles of sexual activity and of the hormone testosterone (which regulated sexual desire), researchers found that in couples married for some time, the hormonal cycles were synchronised, resulting in a better synchronisation of sexual desire. This is just one more piece of evidence suggesting that human bodies are designed for pair bonding.

Summary: The LIFELONG Partnership

There are many successes you could have in your life. Some of them may not look so great viewed from the perspective of the end of your life. But if you imagine yourself out there at the end of this lifetime, looking back, we're fairly certain that the energy you put into maintaining a life-long relationship will seem worth it. Benefits include:

To enhance your chances of continuing to get these benefits, we recommended the following eight steps:


Dr Richard Bolstad is an NLP Master Practitioner and Trainer who has worked with clients individually and as a trainer of groups since 1990. He can be contacted at PO Box 35111, Browns Bay, Auckland, New Zealand, Phone/Fax: +64-9-478-4895 E-mail: Website: Richard's lifelong partnership with Margot Hamblett sadly ended with her death in 2001