As a wife of over thirty years and mother of two grown children, I have had many life experiences. What I have found to be at the heart of who we are as people is our attachment bond with others. We are meant to be in safe, connected, supported, and loving relationships. Johnson (2019) says, “From the cradle to the grave, human beings are hardwired to seek not just social contact, but also physical and emotional proximity to special others who are deemed irreplaceable” (p. 6). Being in a bonded relationship or marriage takes patience, care, selflessness and, yes, work.
As an experienced couples counselor trained in Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) I have heard many stories over the years, but five themes arise regarding the key elements in a relationship that tend to suffer. To have a successful, fulfilling relationship, the elements of security, communication, listening, being intentional, and speaking love must be nurtured.
I have made Security number one on my list for a reason. I believe it is the foundation or cornerstone of a safe and secure bond. When couples come to see me, it is because their attachment bond with their partner has been injured either by verbal or physical abuse, an emotional or physical affair, or years of neglect and distance. When a negative pattern has developed and taken hold, the relationship becomes more isolating and rigid. Each of these negative patterns of behavior are a threat to feelings of security within both individuals and as a couple. (For more understanding of these patterns read my previous post HERE.) Johnson (2019) writes “Security increases flexibility and the ability to explore options” (p. 150). Successful couples have kept trust and safety a priority by being truthful, caring and loving to each other, which creates security.
Whenever I meet with a new couple, I ask them what their goals are. The number one response is improved communication. When you stop listening to your partner, distance is the outcome. It sends a message that you don’t care. At the core of relationships is knowing your partner cares. At the heart of loving someone is listening to understand a situation from your partner’s point of view. Asking open ended questions such as “tell me more” or “help me understand” lead to better communication. Resist asking “Why?” Gottman (2015) poses that when asking, “Why do you think that?” the other person will likely hear, “Stop thinking that; you’re wrong!” (p. 105).
“Anything you say, dear.”
This quote says it all. What each partner wants is to be heard. Gottman (2015) “When you are in pain, the world stops and I listen” (p. 103). When a negative pattern creeps in, listening goes out the window. When a partner is hurt by negative words, the listening stops. Defending and deflecting become the focus, or stonewalling develops. Stonewalling happens when one of the partners shuts down. Research has found that it is often the male partner who shuts down. Gottman (2015) reflects, “In marriages where discussions begin with a harsh start-up, where the criticism and contempt lead to defensiveness and vice versa, eventually one partner tunes out. He disengages by turning away from her, avoiding a fight, but he is also avoiding his marriage” (p. 38). Successful couples have learned to listen more and minimize their partner’s emotions less.
4) Being intentional:
Being intentional and making each other a priority takes forethought. Taking the time to do and say things for your partner shows you care. This might look like buying something you know your partner would like, going out of your way to run an errand, or texting them to say “I love you.” A breakdown in your attachment bond with your partner will happen when you start to neglect them. You stop looking at each other, you start ignoring each other. Successful couples keep their relationship alive by being intentional.
5) Speaking Love:
Ok, here it is. I saved the best for last! I highly recommend the book The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman as a way you can be more intentional and show your partner that you care. It is kind of a road map of love. The premise of the book is we each have our own love language – our own formula for what speaks love to us. Whatever our love language is, we show to others. It makes sense right? But that may not be your partner’s love language. Chapman’s (1995) premise is that when your love tank is full, you are more able to hold your emotional balance and secure connection when you experience the normal misunderstandings and disappointments of daily life with a partner. So when you are speaking your partner’s love language in a way that says “I will do this, or listen differently,” you feel known and loved.
The Good News
My experience as a couples counselor shows me that there are many reasons a couple might have a breakdown in a relationship. The five listed above are the most common that I have seen. But I know there are more – everything from the way you were raised, stress, work, children, your mental health, mood, or your temperament. The good news is that if you are reading this blog article because you are stuck in a rigid pattern or feel unloved in your relationship, there is hope. I have quoted several books in this article that are referenced below that I would recommend. And if you feel like you need to see a couples counselor, I have also included the International Emotionally Focused Therapist (EFT) link below as a way of finding a trained EFT therapist in your area.
Chapman, G. D. (1995). The five love languages: How to express heartfelt commitment to your mate. Chicago: Northfield Pub
Gottman, J. M., & Silver, N. (2015) The seven principles for making marriage work, New York: Harmony Books
Johnson, S. (2008) Hold me tight. New York, NY: Little Brown and & Co.
Johnson, S. (2019) Attachment theory in practice. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.