Healthy Couple Relationships

“Marriage provides one of the most difficult personal problems in human life . . . the most emotional as well as the most romantic of all human dreams has to be consolidated into an ordinary working relationship.” …B. Malinowski

   Valentine’s Day is just around the corner…time for the frantic scramble for roses, a dinner reservation, and/or the perfect card to symbolize the relationship we have with our significant other! There may be nothing more confusing or mysterious in life than the human experience of love. Philosophy, psychology, theology….poets, singers, and developmental researchers down though the centuries have all tried to define the essence of love. Some have called it a “passing madness”! Others insist that it can be quantified and measured in, believe it or not, a laboratory setting!

   We now have a new ‘science’ of love pioneered by Dr. Susan Johnson at the University of Ottawa. She has discovered that adult love is rooted in the innate need we all have for attachment and connection, not unlike the bond that forms between a parent and infant. This need for contact and comfort is ‘wired’ into us. The healthy couple relationship really depends on whether or not we can safely and reliably connect emotionally with our partner…can I count on him/her to be there for me, and can I consistently turn to, feel responded to, and remain connected to that person? The building blocks for this ‘safe haven’ are not a stacked investment portfolio, a nice house, great sex, or exotic vacations, as important as these may be. Rather, the core ingredient is emotion. The ‘litmus test’ for this is what Johnson calls the A.R.E. Test…are you Accessible to me, Responsive to me, and can you stay Engaged with me emotionally…through all of the ‘up’s and down’s’ that life brings our way???

   Unfortunately, emotion can get stunted, blocked, detoured, misinterpreted, or become highly ‘flammable’ in an intimate relationship. Perhaps we grew up in a family where emotions were not encouraged to be expressed, thus stunting our ability to develop and utilize an emotional vocabulary. A painful life experience or trauma may have pushed our emotions deep inside and blocked our ability to connect about how we ‘feel’. Much emotional energy can easily get detoured into our work, a hobby, an outside interest, or parenting our children…leaving precious little of it left to be shared with our partner. Sometimes we can misinterpret our partner’s emotions or read something into how he or she is feeling that is inaccurate. We can lose our ability to empathize with how our partner feels if we are overly-consumed with how we feel. If we do not spend enough quality time with our partner, it is easy to simply ‘lose touch’ with how the other feels. Finally, poor conflict resolution skills can turn up the emotional temperature in a relationship quickly, where emotions such as anger, resentment, and hurt become highly flammable and toxic.

   I like marriage researcher John Gottman’s 5 strategies for nurturing the essential emotional connection that is required in a healthy couple relationship:

  • Partings…say good-bye to your partner every time you leave, and…learn one thing that is happening in his/her life that day.
  • Reunions…be sure to engage in a 20-minute stress-reducing conversation with your partner at the end of every day. My wife and I call this ‘happy hour’, but it can take whatever form or name you choose! The important thing is the ‘connecting time”.
  • Appreciation…find some way, every day, to communicate genuine appreciation or a compliment to your partner.
  • Affection…kiss, hold, hug, touch your partner in some meaningful way every day…touch connects in the spaces that words leave blank!
  • Weekly Date…plan a weekly date for just the two of you, apart from your regular routine, family, and friends. Dinner out, movie ‘in’, an activity you’d like to try…make a list…take turns planning the date…make it happen! Dating is what got us started…why would we not want to make it a fundamental part of what keeps us going?!

   Beyond Valentine’s Day… the cards, roses, and dinners, let’s find ways to nurture the emotional attachment that is so important in a healthy couple relationship.

Happy Valentine’s Day everyone!!