When I was in college, I was friends with a fellow music major who was dating another music major. They seemed so very much in love – they spent tons of time together, had similar interests, and regarded each other with respect and love. They were physically affectionate and their actions toward each other seemed to convey a sense of delight in the other; in essence, to the outside observer, they seemed like ‘the perfect couple.’ They had it all, or so it seemed.
One day, I was sitting outside eating lunch with my friend who was in this seemingly perfect relationship. I remember what a beautiful day it was – the perfect blend of warm sun and cool breeze. We were discussing various things and began to talk about relationships. My friend began sharing her wisdom in this area, using insights from her own relationship. There was one thing she said that I still remember to this day. She said, “Our relationship is so wonderful, so easy. It’s like we don’t even have to try. Relationships are not supposed to be hard work.” This is something that has stayed with me. I have often wondered how many couples start their relationship with this sentiment. It is not uncommon that I hear my clients talk about their initial, though I think misguided, belief about their relationship – that ‘we love each other, and therefore, we will stay strong. We are not like other relationships that have failed.’
When I interview couples who have been together 10, 20, 30+ years, I tend to hear a different story regarding what has kept their relationship strong. What are those elements, you might ask? To state it briefly, it is an intentional and loving focus on the relationship. Below, I have listed some of the insights that couples have shared with me, which tend to be supported by research, as ingredients for a healthy, secure, and strong relationship. So, if you are in a place where you are assessing whether or not to make a commitment to someone, or perhaps you are already in a committed relationship, read on and consider whether these elements are present in your relationship. If you are struggling in your current relationship, couple’s counseling could be a helpful way for you to get back to a healthy foundation, upon which you can continue to build and strengthen your relationship.
What seems to be the most important element of a healthy and loving relationship is a couple’s sense of safety and security with one another. Now, I am not just talking about physical safety and security, I am talking about the emotional kind. When relationships possess this type of safety, we trust that we can turn to our partner for support, comfort, and understanding. We know that no matter what, our partner will be there for us, will not reject us, and will help us work through whatever issues may arise.
Of course, it is incredibly easy to take for granted just how important this sense of emotional safety is. We get busy in our lives, whether it is our careers, children, or extended family, and we forget to continue to strengthen this foundation. We might think that it will always be there, but if we don’t foster this sense of security, it may weaken, even become non-existent. When this happens, detachment, distrust, fear, resentment, and anger may start creeping in where the secure foundation once was. There are several things to keep in mind when building this felt sense of emotional safety.
First of all, in times of stress and struggle (and yes, there will be those times), it is important to remember to turn toward each other for comfort, even if your partner is the cause of your stress. In a healthy and secure relationship, both partners are able to turn to each other to hear, understand, and validate each other’s experience – and to comfort one another – instead of turning away. When we feel heard, validated, and understood, we tend to experience a sense of safety and trust in the relationship and this tends to strengthen the bonds of the relationship. Putting aside our own emotional reactivity and defensiveness serves to reduce potential relationship wounds, and we feel more connected to the other.
Even when couples are unable to hear and validate each other (and let’s remember that no relationship is perfect, and this will happen in every relationship), it is important to come back to the relationship and make a repair after an argument. This can include an apology and recognition of what went wrong, among many other ways of reconnecting (affection, cuddling, holding hands, small acts of kindness).
Another way of building the foundation of your relationship is to really get to know your partner’s inner life: wondering about them, showing you are curious about them, asking further questions to deepen the discussion. This conveys a sense that you accept your partner for who they are, faults and strengths, which creates a sense of emotional safety and security. Feeling accepted by someone we love helps to develop a sense of healthy interdependence with your partner – that each partner can be accepted as their own independent person (with similar and different thoughts, opinions, and feelings from the other), while at the same time feeling secure enough to rely on and feel in connection with the other.
When considering whether to commit your life to someone, it is also important to consider your philosophies on life. What are the hopes and dreams for your future? Are they in alignment with your partner’s hopes and dreams? If not, are you able to identify a way to make both dreams happen? What are your philosophies on raising children, managing money, or managing a home? Too many couples go into a relationship without discussing these important issues and are surprised when there is conflict around these issues when they come up. Of course, you cannot discuss every detail of your life or identify every possible area of contention, and you cannot presume to agree on everything as a couple (you are two different individuals, after all). However, starting these conversations now, rather than in the moment, will allow you to begin to learn more about your partner.
In addition to learning about his/her life philosophies, you will also learn about his/her style of relating and discussing. You will also begin to develop your own style as a couple regarding how you relate to each other. Things to keep in mind as ‘golden standards’ of relating to your partner include respect, acceptance of the other’s experience (it is, after all, their experience), curiosity about their point of view (ask them questions about their perspective – you will learn more about your partner), validation/empathy for what they are going through (saying, “that makes sense” does not have to imply agreement, rather, it conveys “I get you”), understanding, and flexibility, to name just a few.
If you find yourself reading this information and feel unsure about ways to build this in your relationship, or perhaps you and your partner are in a pattern of conflict or detachment, you may want to consider seeing a couple’s counselor. This person can help you identify ways to come back to one another, reconnect, and repair past relationship wounds.
So, does love keep us together? Well, yes, I believe that love plays a large role in our connection to others – a love that conveys respect, acceptance, understanding, empathy, curiosity, and balance. That type of love takes work in order to continue to stay strong and secure. It is also a type of love that will expect trials and stress and is able to work through that stress, and in doing so, come out stronger in the end.
Aleisha Maunu, MA, LMFT, CACII, is a therapist who works with individuals, couples, families, and children/teens. Her areas of experience include adoption/attachment, substance abuse, and other family/couple concerns. She provides services through Maria Droste Counseling Center in Denver, CO.