THE BLOG
02/23/2016 09:50 pm ET Updated Feb 23, 2017

The "Power Couple" Illusion

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My boyfriend recently asked me if we could "do more power couple activities together". I did not like this suggestion. What exactly are "power couple activities", I thought, and if we aren't currently engaging in enough of these activities, what does that say about the time we do spend together?

I asked him what he meant by "power couple activities" and he said that he just wants us to go to more social events together. It's a fair request, given that I prefer to stay home and read on Friday nights.

His request was innocuous, but, as is often the case in any relationship, it's not what he said that bothered me -- it was my interpretation. We eventually figured out that we have very different definitions of the term power couple.

My definition: Two people who sound good on paper, but are not necessarily happy with themselves or with each other.

His definition: Two people who are fun to be around, are killing it in their respective fields, and feel lucky to be together.

We were both right in our definitions, but his is obviously a more desirable model for a relationship. In pairs described as power couples, some have toxic relationship dynamics, while others are healthy and nourishing. We wanted to know what differentiates the two.

After talking about power couples and what's important to us in a relationship, we agreed that value is often placed on the image a couple projects to the world instead of how they actually interact with one another. A strong relationship cannot be built on an image. A strong relationship is built on mutual respect, trust, and support for one another. Being part of a power couple sounds sexy, but without a solid foundation, relationships that sound good on the outside are not always what they seem.

For example, you can tell a lot about a couple's relationship dynamics based on how they speak about each other in public. I'm always put off when I hear one partner act condescending toward the other while out with a group of friends. Unfortunately, it happens quite often, even in pairs described as power couples. Everyone has bad days, but if a partner is consistently not supportive in public, chances of him or her being kind behind closed doors are slim.

The irony of these kinds of "power couples" is that feeling safe and supported in a long-term romantic relationship is foundational to success in all areas of your life. According to Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg, the most important career decision a woman will make is who she chooses as a life partner. There's a lot of advice on the Internet and in self-help books about how to follow your passion and find your "dream job". But there's a lot less about how to find a relationship that is an essential component to this success. For some people, it's common sense. For others, who maybe don't have positive role models for healthy relationships, embarking to find a supportive partner is like walking through a maze in the dark.

Walking through a maze in the dark is scary and disorienting. In this space, the illusion of the power couple can be especially alluring -- and for a good reason. With no reference point for healthy relationships, pairing up with a well-accomplished person can seem like a ticket out of oblivion. But in reality, it's a way of seeking validation outside of oneself.

I fear that young women are particularity vulnerable to falling into bad relationships based on outside perception. The idea of "prince charming" still exists -- except instead of riding in on a horse, he'll come save you in a BMW, obliterate your student loan debt, and make you a counterpart in a power couple. Even strong women who can hold their own financially get caught up in this myth, and in the most devastating of circumstances, prince charming turns out to be violent and abusive.

So what conditions make a relationship healthy and fulfilling? I wish I could answer this question in neat little bullet points, but it's more complicated than that. Everyone has their own unique needs in a relationship, and personal histories influence what these needs might be. What's important is feeling safe enough to let your guard down and express to your partner how you feel and what you need -- equally important is receiving a satisfactory response. Being vulnerable is scary -- it's the emotional equivalent of being naked together for the first time -- but it's fundamental for healthy relationships. Real power couples have mastered being vulnerable together. They aren't driven to project a superficial version of their relationship to the world. Instead, they're comfortable being who they are.

The success of a couple should not be measured based on their individual achievements. Rather, it should be measured based on how they treat each other. Who you choose as your life partner (if you choose to have one) will have tremendous consequences in all aspects of your life. Choose wisely, and be careful not to chase an illusion.