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Strong Relationships – The 4 Legged Stool Analogy

happy-couple-1My last post about Pandora’s Box reminded me of something I’ve held onto regarding healthy marriage relationships.

Thirty years ago, a well-liked professor shared his thoughts in a class I took in college about what constituted a truly great relationship. His analogy used a 3-legged stool to represent 3 important qualities or components in a healthy relationship. As a young adult, I thought his analogy was a great one but as I grew older, I came to view it as just good common sense.

His 3 legs were: the Emotional component, the Physical component, and the Spiritual component. For me personally, I felt that his 3rd leg should instead be a shared worldview or philosophy of life. But for many, calling it a spiritual component would certainly make sense. But after reflecting on it a while, I felt it also needs a 4th leg — the Intellectual component.

Why a stool? The stool analogy is meant to convey that a strong relationship will stand up to the trials and tribulations of common life. If a committed relationship has all 4 components (or legs), it can survive and support a great weight. If it has only 3 out of 4 legs, it’s still pretty sturdy but there is a chance it will teeter. If a relationship only has 2 legs, it is in danger and is likely to topple or fall. A relationship with only 1 leg is doomed.

Here’s a look at those 4 legs in more detail:

(1) The Emotional component. This conveys the importance of giving emotional support to one another. Listen to each other. Most men thrive on receiving respect from their partner. It serves an important felt need that men have, and it makes a man feel that his partner believes in him. Women want and need to feel that their partner truly cares, loves, and listens. Women feel more intently than most men. Being heard helps them feel cherished and appreciated. Mutual respect also provides important emotional support.

(2) The Physical component. This is certainly sexual, and for many couples a healthy sex life can make or break the relationship. A good physical relationship also means that the couple enjoys pleasing each other (it’s not one-sided). The physical relationship also consists of non-sexual contact that they both give to each other (e.g., a hug or kiss that expresses love). Couples that have a significant disharmony in the physical relationship are in serious jeopardy.

(3) The Shared-Belief component. This component would be better described as the “Philosophical or Worldview relationship”. It is important (especially if kids come into the picture), to share common beliefs and values as otherwise a strong disagreement in this area can rip a couple apart. Sharing similar values and common beliefs is important but it’s often overlooked. For example, how often do we hear of a Catholic who marries someone that is Jewish? Having a good relationship in this area usually means a shared religious faith, or it might mean a shared view that there is no God. A couple is in serious trouble when there’s a gaping rift, for example, as would be the case with an atheist and a devout Christian that are married. It’s extremely unlikely for two people to marry with such strongly opposed ideologies, but nowadays it’s quite an issue when one partner becomes an apostate and the other remains firmly committed. However, it doesn’t mean it’s the death knell of the relationship. Here’s an interesting YouTube video of a couple that survived a crisis of lost faith by the husband.

(4) The Intellectual component. In a healthy relationship, a couple will share similar desires to learn and grow. If a couple is able to share knowledge with each other so that there’s mutual learning, that can really foster a strong relationship. Ideally, there shouldn’t be a huge intellectual gap between the couple. Some might disagree here but if one person is highly intelligent and the other struggles with basic reading and writing, there will probably be issues. In that instance, what might have been initially seen as “cute” will change into frustration. The first person will get annoyed that their slower partner is a few fries short of a happy meal. Meanwhile, the other partner will struggle with feeling inadequate and he/she will feel stupid around their mate, which will eat away at the relationship.

Readers, do you agree or disagree with this list? Are there other major qualities or components to a healthy relationship?


  1. charles

    I really like this list, Logan. Regarding #3, I recommend a book I just started reading called “In Faith and Doubt”, by Dale McGowan. It’s all about secular/religious mixed marriages. Apparently there are loads of couples who make this work. Granted, many of the example are those who came into the marriage with different beliefs. Change of belief in the middle of the marriage can’t be devastating. I guess it depends on what else the marriage has going for it, which is where your stool analogy is very helpful.

  2. Pingback:Small Things Often, Electronic Distractions & The 4-Legged Stool – Revitalizing Relationships

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