Happiness is the goal of romance, and lovers often set the loftiest goal: to remain happily ever after, till death do they part. But humans are inclined to grow and change — the world itself shifts, forcing adaptation. In short, change is inevitable. So when it comes to relationships, the question is clear: how can people stay together without staying put?

Unless each person explicitly defines what living “happily” means for them, the odds of achieving it are about as good as winning an Olympic medal with no training regimen. Success takes planning and support — athletes have coaches, entrepreneurs have mentors, scholars have advisors. Lovers are no different, except we must provide these things directly to each other.

So instead of drifting through couplehood or declaring vaguely generic vows, take time to craft your relationships with intention. Whether you’re single, casually coupled or long wed, the following exercise has many benefits:

Start by looking inward. Forget for a moment all external expectations, even those of your partner(s) and parents. Imagine if you can that you are permanently unattached and living life only for yourself. Now ask yourself these questions:

· What matters most to me?
· What kind of world do I want to live in?
· How do I want to contribute to making the world that way?

Using a full-page version of the grid below, mark down your “Non-Negotiables” — whatever you feel you must have or can’t live without, in daily life and in the long run. Maybe you know you need an hour of alone time every day to write or exercise — put this in Quadrant A. It might be important to you to never live in a place with long snowy winters — put that in Quadrant D.

Don’t worry about distinguishing needs from preferences at this stage; just be as honest as possible about what makes you happy and whole.

Then fill out another copy of the same grid with Non-Negotiables for your relationship. How much togetherness is too much? What is important: having mutual friends, a willingness to travel, agreement on politics and religion? Do you have special boundaries or needs around sex and physical contact? What about raising kids?

You don’t have to answer all these questions, just let them inspire ones that matter to you most. If you’re not monogamous, this is a great space to state preferences on disclosure (how much you want to share about outside relations on what timeframe).

Once you’re comfortable with your answers, share and compare! Be ready to explain your wants, bearing in mind that not everything has or requires a rational explanation. Don’t worry if you happen upon conflicting points. This does NOT necessarily indicate incompatibility; it merely draws attention to a potential issue before a crisis does.

For example, let’s say both people MUST live near their parents, which initially seems like an impasse. But through discussion they discover he is mainly thinking of support for future children, and she is more concerned with her father’s ailing health. So there are, in fact, many combinations of resolutions that could meet both needs.

Needless to say, compromise works best when everyone is in good spirits, so take a break if you need to, and when you’re ready, re-adjourn with another clean copy of the Non-Negotiables grid. This time, plot combined relationship needs, factoring in individual goals and boundaries from previous grids.

What you have now is more than a vow. It’s a custom constitution, designed to ensure your relationship doesn’t simply last, but steers everyone toward personal fulfillment.

Even the best constitution must respond to changing circumstances, which is why we have amendments. When struggles arise, find a moment of mutual calmness and review your grid. Listen to each other un-defensively to pinpoint the issue(s), and decide whether your constitution needs updating or if you just need more patience, tact, or creativity in upholding it.

True, not everything can be worked out. But if someday a breakup is necessary, you’ll understand it for what it is — the divergence of two distinct happinesses, not the “fault” of one person or another. Every heart deserves that comfort, and it’s well worth the extra effort.

Zaeli is an Austin-based love coach specializing in open relationships, helping you bring consciousness and intention to your romantic life.

A version of this article was originally published in the February 2016 issue of Austin All Natural Magazine for Zaeli’s monthly column, “The Heartwakers Club”.

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