Four Things Every Relationship Should Have
There are about a thousand things a healthy relationship has- kindness, honesty, love, connection, etc. For the sake of this blog post, I will do my best to boil this thousand down to four main bullet points that I and other couples therapists have identified as healthy, foundational necessities for a couple to thrive.
While you read this post, please keep in mind that every couple is different. I know the tired and ubiquitous “we are all unique” loses it’s meaning after some time, but it is true and critical to sustaining a deeply connected relationship. Each couple comes with their own histories, their own dreams, and their own idiosyncrasies. Further, each individual in each couple comes with their own set of aforementioned nuances as well. This makes relationships messy, but also beautifully connected and fulfilling due to the depth of exploration each individual couple requires.
The skills below can be developed at any time, and can be nurtured to create a securely attached, happy, and supportive relationship, as long as both partners are open and game to put in the work. If you are feeling overwhelmed, or as though building these from the foundation you already have is impossible, think about seeing a couples counselor, attending a couples workshop, or consulting a third party to further explore and understand where you are in your relationship.
1. The ability to self-regulate
I understand this one has more to do with the individual than the team. You know that phrase, “it takes two to tango.” The more easily each partner can individually self regulate, the easier it is to co-exist in a happy, romantic relationship. How many times have you gotten in a blow out argument with your partner, only to retell the story to a friend and state “It was so silly, I don’t even know what we were fighting about.”
These futile blow out arguments can be avoided just by slowing down, taking a beat, and regulating your body through activities such as deep breathing, going for a walk, or drinking a glass of cold water. Activities like these actually send the message to your nervous system that you are in a safe space, and can step back from your readiness to attack. Now instead of skyrocketing into a place of anger and yelling or distanced silence, you help your partner understand your thoughts and feelings from a calmer and more logical space. The hope is that this will allow your partner to respond from understanding instead of from defense.
2. Reparative moments
Arguments are inevitable. This means, instead of avoiding the argument, you can focus on the more realistic magnificence of the repair. “Repair moments” are the moments before, during or after the argument when one partner makes a gesture of forgiveness or soothing towards the other. This could look like humor, acknowledgement, or anything that suggests an olive branch. Repair moments have also been described as a golden and underappreciated aspect of The Gottman Method (The Two Gottman Ideas You Should Be Talking About)
Doctors John and Julie Gottman explore the idea of soothing your partner with humor or acknowledgement (i.e. “That’s a good point”) prior, during, or after either one of you shifting towards an escalated point of arousal. Through repair moments, you and your partner are helping each other regulate, as well as process regrettable moments.
3. A shared sense of control
“Shared sense of control” can also sound like “balance,” or “compromise.” Think about a time when you were angry- really angry. Your partner forgot to take out the trash and all of a sudden you’re in survival mode: your fight or flight response is activated, your face is flushed, and your heart is beating quickly. Instead of communicating calmly and logically, you’re giving your partner the silent treatment or yelling. Upon reflection later, you’re both thinking, “how the hell did we wind up here again?”
After months or years of arguments or silent treatments, your body becomes much quicker to react to the person who has been hurting you. Your brain knows this person is someone you love wholly, but your body forgets and slips into yelling, blaming, or giving the silent treatment. These actions are not only ways for your body to communicate you feel out of control, but actually attempts to regain control. Brene Brown, in her short video on blame, gives us a reality check. She explains that this evasion of accountability does not give you real control, and hurts your partner.
The cycle looks as follows: You ask your partner to take out the trash, they criticize you for nagging, you become irate, your partner withdraws, you both feel alone, and a guarded/misattuned relationship is perpetuated. Alas, the dreaded “how did we wind up here again?” Well, why wouldn’t you? How is either one of you supposed to feel connected and heard when you’re both feeling threatened?
Sharing control (in this case, taking accountability and being vulnerable) can allow space for each partner to feel heard and understood. As I’m sure you can imagine, actually doing this is extremely difficult. To start, try accepting responsibility (even if minimal is all you can manage right now), expressing with “I statements” instead of blame, and allowing space for hurt feelings.
4. Rose Colored Glasses
I know this can sound fluffy and unrealistic, but hear me out. Focusing on the positive moments in your relationship allows you exactly that: an awareness of the positivity that could be occurring every day without you noticing it.
Most have learned terms such as cognitive bias and self-fulfilling prophecy in our Psych101 classes (click links for a memory jog). While these are different phenomenon, they both have to do with idea that if you seek something, you will find it. It is human nature for us to seek negativity (believe it or not, this also goes back to our ancestors and survival).
Our negativity bias takes the stage in diagnoses including depression, generalized anxiety, PTSD, etc., and is exacerbated by social media, comparing our own relationships to others, and comparing our partner’s behaviors to our own. In relationships, this drive towards negativity can even lead us to assigning negative intent or value to your partner’s neutral or positive sentiments (Looking at Your Partner Through Rose Colored Glasses).
As a result of this negativity bias, or negative sentiment override, partners sometimes have to train themselves to find positivity through focusing on small helpful and supportive moments. Remember to practice gratitude both in your daily experience and in your experience with your partner. Find things you appreciate, and write them down to come back to when times feel tough.
So, what does the perfect couple look like?
Good question. The perfect couple never argues and agrees on everything and lives happily ever after with a perfect work-life-social balance and only notices positive things about each other and always shares control, vulnerability and accountability. But lets be real here- humans are flawed, and there is no such thing as perfect!
Here’s a better question: What does a realistic and generally healthy couple look like? Because each member of the couple is raised in a different environment, they do not share every single core value and belief, and therefore have perpetual problems. They communicate about their problems openly and vulnerably most of the time, and self regulate when getting angry prior to yelling or shutting down. Sometimes they slip up, and engage in reparative communication about why the argument escalated and how to prevent this from happening in the future. They get annoyed by but accept the exasperating flaws in each other, and focus on the deep connection they share and the positive moments they have. They have a deep love and connection for one another, and thrive in their friendship, fondness, trust and admiration.
Remember, all of this is easier said than done, especially when there are wounds to heal. You are going against biological instinct when I suggest things such as “think before you act” and “share your control.” This takes practice, training, and sometimes a little help from an individual and/or couples therapist.