Having a Healthy Couple Relationship -
Having a healthy couple relationship is the best predictor of individual well-being.
It’s all about attachment, mutual understanding, and support - being each other’s safe haven in a relationship. My favourite joke with couples is – if our creator (whatever that is to you – God, society, evolution…) wanted us to live together in harmony, couldn’t we have been made more alike?
Modern life, with its many responsibilities and distractions, makes it a challenge to truly connect on a regular basis with loved ones. Without tending to the emotional side of the relationship couples can drift apart and turn to other things, activities, or people. We used to be able to rely on an extended circle of family friends and community. Now we expect all needs to be met in our primary adult relationship – that’s a tall order at any time.
We are all influenced by the relationships that we saw modelled as children. Many people say, I'll never be like my mom or dad, yet find themselves in the same difficulties in their couple partnerships. Many people did not feel safe in their family so have had to cope with protecting themselves as best they could, which can be how they cope in their adult relationships too.
It’s nearly impossible to live intimately in relationship and not have hurt, frustration, and misunderstanding some of the time. We always hurt the ones we love the most. Each partner deals with that hurt differently – some will want to avoid any touching into the pain (withdraw) and some will be unable to be at ease until the pain is cleared out (pursue). What’s your conflict style, do you withdraw or pursue? What’s your partner’s style?
Research has shown that it is not whether or not couples have conflict in their relationship that determines a successful and satisfying relationship, but it is how the couple perceives and resolves the conflict that predicts which relationships will last. Those who safely turn to each other in times of trouble can work things out. I have taken advanced training in Emotionally Focused Therapy for couples because it helps couples acknowledge the conflict and still stay open to each other. It makes space for each person’s reality without judgment. This allows people to truly connect with their deeper yearning and emotions and turn to their partner for the support and understanding they need.
I love working with couples and seeing the positive changes they can make when they have the courage and support to be truly present for each other. I am in awe of their trust and willingness to risk.
Healthy couples show the following characteristics:
Every relationship is unique – in its strengths and challenges. There are as many different ways of having a relationship as there are individuals. Celebrating and accepting differences and working together to bring our strengths to a situation make for healthy, supportive relationships.
Still, there are some general things that characterize the most successful relationships in terms of attitudes, values, and effective conflict resolution. Our attitudes and actions towards our partner colours every day and every reaction we make. Couples who have a friendship basis to their relationship characterized by fondness, admiration, and a turning towards each other tend to stay together long term. It helps if we focus on the positive rather than the negative during an interaction and remain open to understanding the other person’s point of view (but we don’t have to agree with them, just realize there is usually more than one way to view a situation). Having a foundation of 'we- ness' rather than 'me-ness' places the focus on the couple/family rather than just one person’s needs being met. When conflict arises they are able to listen without personalizing criticism, show concern for each other, use humour to release tension, and have strategies to repair the relationship.
In any relationship, there has to be a commitment to resolving conflict that allows disagreement, dialog, accepting influence from our partners, and finding solutions that both partners can support and live with. For partners who never saw or heard their parent(s) argue conflict feels uncomfortable and might be interpreted that something is wrong with the relationship. Since none of us are exactly alike it is to be expected that we will see things differently, or have different expectations or needs at any given moment.
For partners where there was lots of conflict in the home they may rely on the same tactics as were modelled for them – coercion, shunning, overpowering, name-calling and/or shaming. Interestingly, conflict tends to set off our alarm bells and due to stress reactions (see my blog on stress) we act by instinct and have difficulty controlling the anger, frustration, fear and/or despair related to that moments.
Last but not least – in a long-term successful relationship each partner supports the other’s life dreams. There is a sense of reciprocity in becoming/being the best that each can be so there is equity in life achievements as well in the relationship. There is no physical, social, spiritual, emotional, cognitive, or financial abuse. These are major obstacles to a safe, loving and mutually supportive relationship.
There are times in a relationship when one person is happy with things, so it comes as a surprise when their partner says I’m not happy. When this happens there is a tendency to want to convince the unhappy partner to be happy, look at all the good we have got. Regretfully, although partially true, this doesn’t help the unhappy partner to feel happy – the unintended consequence is that s/he might feel invalidated, misunderstood, or dismissed.
So if one person isn’t happy, even if you are happy, if you are in a committed relationship then the relationship is not a happy one. To use a mathematical equation, if both partners are happy then their relationship score is 2 (1 plus 1). But in one is unhappy their relationship score is 0 (Minus 1 plus 1). What’s your relationship score? You can only find out by asking your partner. Most of us are blind to the real condition of our relationship.
Hard as it can be, be thankful if your partner shares when s/he is unhappy because a) they trust you enough to tell the truth and b) things that are out in the open can be worked on together. Being open and accepting leads to greater understanding and reliable long-term happiness.
Typically, those daily irritants that you are arguing about are only the tip of the iceberg – what you see on the surface. Underneath and often unaware are feelings, feelings about feelings, perceptions, expectations, yearnings, and unmet primary needs.
If you find you can’t do that for each other, consulting a counsellor trained in Emotionally Focused Therapy for couples can set both of you on the path to deepening and strengthening your relationship. Being able to identify the cycle of interaction – who needs to withdraw because it feels unsafe and who pursues because it is too painful to not be connected – makes the cycle, and not the individuals the focus of change. As I say to my couples – you are both right and you are both wrong – let’s drop those constructs and try to discover in a curious, respectful and non-judgmental way all that is going on under the surface so that you can genuinely connect and be the safe haven for your partner to seek when things get tough in life or love.
Check out my related blog post on Relationship Maintenance.