The Five Core Distinctions of an Extraordinary Relationship

My divorce was painful, but necessary.

For twelve years, leading up to the court decree, I had gotten intimately acquainted with what it’s like to have an ordinary relationship. That relationship wasn’t overtly abusive. There was no secret cheating. It was simply normal in its dysfunctions: power struggles, self-centeredness, resentments. As a practicing divorce attorney-mediator, I see a lot of ordinary relationships end up the way mine did.

When you’ve only been in ordinary relationships, how can you know that there could be something so much better?

If you dare to believe it, there is a kind of relationship that soars above ordinary. Perhaps most people will never experience it, because the average relationship is, by definition, ordinary. But there’s no reason to stay stuck in an ordinary relationship.

My divorce was a long time ago, and this year I’m celebrating a decade in a truly extraordinary intimate partnership. And it continues to get better every day.

What distinguishes my current relationship from my first marriage? Or, more importantly, how can you, dear reader, create an extraordinary relationship?

It all starts with who you are being.

The following key distinctions are about how you show up in the world, and are truly magic ingredients to find the partnership of your dreams, or to transform your ordinary relationship into an extraordinary one.

1. Being Accountable vs. Blaming

Feeling bad in your relationship? Be accountable for that feeling, because it’s you feeling bad—and it probably has nothing to do with your partner. While it’s easy (and ordinary!) to blame your partner for how you’re feeling, it’s freeing and empowering to take absolute responsibility for your own internal experience. Make a practice of it and see what a difference it makes in your life and your relationship.

Importantly, when you feel bad, DON’T ACT OUT (i.e., don't take actions or make communications) until the bad feeling passes. The feeling will subside eventually, and it will happen faster when you allow for the feeling, instead of trying to fix something to make the feeling go away. And, by the way, the thing you have an instinct to fix when you feel bad is almost always the wrong thing. If your main goal is to increase affinity and love between you and your partner, focus there first, and usually pursuing that goal doesn't require fixing anything.

Buy yourself a bracelet. (Our workshop and program participants get one free as a gift.) Wear this bracelet and switch hands every time you complain. Learn how often you complain and how it feels when you do. With this new awareness you will start to feel a powerful truth: internal circumstances have nothing to do with external circumstances. Complaining only makes your internal circumstances crappy, and doesn’t change the outside world at all. The only thing you can really control is your internal climate. Stop poisoning your mind with loads of complaining, and start enjoying your time on earth, 100% of the time.

Once you are accountable for your own feelings (and the triggers of those feelings), you can be authentically interested in supporting your partner with his or her feelings. Talk about ways you can safely name when your partner is Acting Out, without blame or further triggering him/her. Figure out how he/she can safely name when you are Acting Out.

Lastly, be accountable for your own basic well-being. If you’ve developed into a clinically narcissistic adult because your parents weren’t responsive to your basic needs as a baby, own this, get treatment, and spend the two years it will take to achieve wholeness.

Distinction #1 is probably the hardest distinction to recognize and live into. If you’re still reading, it gets easier.

2. Seeking Growth vs. Results

Stop seeking results. Instead, seek out opportunities for growth and evolution. And even better, start recognizing that everything either brings what you desire or else education. Either is great!

If you seek results you just get confounded by paradoxes. For example: when you criticize and indict your partner’s issues, the issues just get more locked in. Evolve and transcend this problem by committing your support to your partner’s issues, and watch the issues evaporate. You can only support evolution (in yourself or in anyone else) by accepting and loving fully the person that is here now. Don't fear the changes.

An ordinary misconception is that it is a luxury, or a sign of weakness, to bring in a third party to help you as a couple gain perspective and break out of your (unconscious?) patterns. Most people don’t expect they can diagnose and fix a problem with the transmission in their car, and your intimate relationship is a far more complex system of emotions, drives, and biology. Find a relationship coach that you can trust, and check in with them regularly to get help clearing away the garbage that gets in the way of affinity. Surrender to this person’s viewpoint purely because it will help you swing the tennis racquet better, and don’t get competitive about needing to be the one in charge or the one who knows things already.

Katie's and my relationship is extraordinary in significant part because we take any issues we can’t resolve easily between us to a man we’ve been working with since the beginning of our relationship. While we no longer live in the same state as our coach, we Skype with him regularly, in order to clear things up. The cost of these check-ins is well worth it to us to have a vibrant and amazing life partnership, free of relationship “noise” and clutter.

3. Championing Affinity vs. Being Right

Be a person who fights to evolve and see something new, not someone who promotes what you already think. Start believing that the winner of any fight between intimate partners is the person who can get off their position first. Being in relationship has nothing to do with logic, being "right,” or winning. Consider all interactions with your partner as the soil for more love and affinity to grow.

Persuading someone to accept your position or opinion is a useful exercise in a courtroom, but generally not in the kitchen.

Examine why you feel the need to have your partner accept your point of view on any particular topic. In other words, investigate like Sherlock Holmes the areas where being right is more important to you than affinity. This is your wounded younger self running the show, not the true, mature you.

A simple exercise: channel your partner’s issues and speak from there, in order to completely validate that position. Then switch.

If you can’t at any moment answer “Yes” to an express or implied question from your partner “Do you love me?” then stop the conversation. Conversations have little value (and can often be harmful) when there is no present commitment to taking care of the other person, to make them happy. Recognize how much power there is to build relationship by relinquishing a position and holding someone’s heart. You came together as a couple, and in so doing have created a new entity. Treat your partner like part of your own body, because in fact you are both parts of this larger body.

Instead of trying to be right all the time, think of your partner as your greatest teacher. Because he or she is exactly that.

4. Viewing your relationship as a Privilege vs. a Right

Your relationship is a privilege, never a right. Don’t think you have the right to take your affinity away when you are feeling bad, or you will learn that you have no right to the relationship.

Katie was once surprised that I was not possessive like her prior partners, and asked, “Don’t you want me to be yours?” The answer, so obvious to me somehow, but stunning to her: “No, I want you to be your own, and for you to be with me because you want to be.” Long after marriage I still feel the same. Why would I settle for having a claim on someone (a false idea, anyway), when it feels so much better for a completely free person to continue to want to be in relationship with me?

It’s a privilege to come together with another person to co-create together, and to have different strengths at the table working together. Don’t indict or minimize your partner for the ways he/she is different, or less organized, or less gifted with kids. Celebrate instead the different strengths. Your partner may be more creative or more spontaneous.

You don’t have a right to extract equal contributions of anything from your partner. Relationships are not “fair.” The only thing that matters is that each partner is bringing 100%.

5. Having Vision vs. Agenda

Don’t push an agenda on your partner. Don’t be a project manager.

Instead, make sure that both parties share a joint vision of growth, and stay focused on that. Clarify what both people are enrolled in and committed to. Then make requests and clean communications that speak to your partner’s commitments. Clean communication means, among other things, not dumping your feelings on your partner, not loading covert messages beneath your words, and not hitching a tough conversation onto a wholly separate conversation.

A simple way to think about this distinction is that to truly let go of agenda means happily giving your partner what they want, not what you think they need.

Which of these distinctions doesn’t make sense to you or seems impossible? What would you like to know more about? Contact me at and let me know.

John Hoelle is a family attorney and "couples mediator" who uses conflict-resolution techniques as a creative, practical, and even fun way to identify and clear away the toxic material that poisons what otherwise could be an extraordinary relationship. Learn more about Couples Mediation at

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