One Little Answer to Four Simple Questions Determines A Healthy Relationship
In the fall of 1993, I was making a career transition from university fund-raiser to Marriage and Family Therapist when I saw my first client in a Los Angeles clinic. She was a beautiful, young, soft-spoken woman in despair over her relationship. While we sat together she explained how much she and her husband loved each other but for some reason, things were not going well. For nearly an hour, she shared her confusion and the drama of their life and then … I never saw her again. Ever. Today I think of her as an angel who inspired me to focus on working with couples.
Since then I have encountered hundreds, maybe thousands of people in varying degrees of despair over their primary relationship. When I meet these people for the first time they usually say something like, “We can’t communicate,” or, “We don’t know how to communicate.”
Then, these smart, talented, creative people articulate the structure of their lives in textured detail. They speak lovingly about their children and they’re incredibly clear about the blessings in their lives; good jobs, nice neighborhoods, comfortable homes. I listen carefully while they describe their arguments using words that dance around the edges of their loneliness.
Then there is this moment when things crystalize for me and I can actually feel the ache in their heart and I understand how much it hurts to feel disconnected from their partner — who is sitting right next to them on the sofa in my office.
In my experience, what looks like a communication issue to them is always something else. You see there’s no speech pathology here; no communication disorder or difficulty around speech production or any of the main components of language including grammar, syntax or semantics. These couples are very skilled in language arts and when one person wants the other to know what a jerk he’s been or how unbearable she’s being — they are crystal clear. In those moments, there is no miscommunication whatsoever.
What these couples are experiencing is not a communication problem. What they are experiencing is a failure to connect.
Connection is key when it comes to relationship or marital distress. It’s not some la-ti-da, new age idea … although personally, I kind of like new age ideas. Connection is actually about attachment — a theory intensely researched today and one that seems to be emerging as one of the critical human issues of the 21st century.
Attachment or connection — which is the term I prefer — is about the human need to find and maintain contact with someone who is utterly irreplaceable.
It is a primary motivating principle in human beings and an innate survival mechanism. There is a lot of evidence the need to attach is hard-wired into us through millions of years of evolution. Attachment is best described as having a safe haven and a secure base in a potentially dangerous world.
In our primary relationship and in everyday life, attachment or connection is about emotional responsiveness, trust and a secure bond. It seems to bubble up in us as a longing or a need. When a person finds they can’t connect or feels disconnected from their partner, it creates an emotional overwhelm so powerful that a state of negativity actually hijacks the brain. That’s also a time when no new information can get in and no amount of reasoning or logic seems to help. I think of it as a 5-alarm fire with no access to water.
As for those couples that say they can’t communicate — this is the time when they are likely to use words that can shred each others’ character or they send a message by turning their back and walking away from the person they love the most in the world. Then, after taking a few hours, days or even weeks to recover, they pack their emotions away or sweep them under the rug and get back to the tasks of daily living. It doesn’t take long before both partners are tip-toeing around the mound of emotions under the carpet.
When I ask couples to recall what the fight was about, it’s all rather vague and both partners see things very differently. But over time, the exact same fight, in one variation or another, will happen repeatedly; disintegrating their relationship bit by bit.
Let’s be clear. All couples fight, even the happy ones.
Some couples even have the good fortune of sharing humor in vigorous disagreements and lively debates. I don’t know any of those couples but I’m told they exist. What I do know is that happy couples find a way to step out of their arguments without shredding their relationship or turning away.
Distressed couples get locked into a rigid pattern of negative interaction — a kind of feedback loop or negative cycle — and they can’t get out. Without help, this negative pattern of interaction will distress the relationship and take it down — even if both partners love each other very much. That’s what makes it so painful.
The way to determine if you’re in a healthy relationship can boil down to the answer to a few simple questions:
- Are you there for me?
- Do I matter to you?
- Am I important to you?
- And if I need you, will you be there for me?
If the answer is “No” or “Maybe” an internal alarm will go off. But a clear and unequivocal “Yes!” (with the behavior to back it up, of course!) is calming and indicates a healthy relationship.
That’s when you can be sure someone’s got your back. That’s when you are supported and free to step out into the world feeling empowered. You feel as if you can do just about anything. You feel stronger, more confident and can navigate stressful situations with relative ease. It seems paradoxical at times that people find freedom through connection. But it’s true.
This one concept, CONNECTION, makes a huge difference in the lives of individuals, couples and families and doesn’t require anyone to placate, change who they are or twist themselves into a pretzel to please someone else.
It’s important to know that getting stuck in a negative cycle is fairly common. The key is not to ignore it by saying, “Let’s give it another six months.” or “I’ll wait one more year.” because the next thing you know, five years can go by and things are worse — not better.
Thirty years of scientific research, has determined one thing for sure: Time does not make a distressed relationship better.
So the good news for couples everywhere is that there is a way out of the distress and the negative cycle. And, it’s amazing to see how partners can support each other and manage anything that comes their way if they have a secure emotional bond.
I think that’s the way love and intimacy are supposed to be; a safe, secure place where people can show up, fully authentic, find support and share this thing called Life. It’s a wonderful feeling and you can have it. I wish that for you… and for your partner.
WANT TO USE THIS ARTICLE IN YOUR eZINE OR WEB SITE?
You can as long as you include this complete blurb with it: B. Anne Hancock Psy.D. is the founder of Wellness Counseling Center in Charlotte, North Carolina. She is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (California and North Carolina) and makes an affirmative impact in the world by helping couples connect. Receive three simple ideas that will heal even the most distressed relationship… and take a good one to great at: http://www.TheWellnessCounselingCenter.com.