What makes a marital relationship healthy, according to couples therapist Meredith Keller, LPC, ACS?
Secure attachment. Each of us defines intimate relationships differently. Some of us might be more accustomed to unstable, precarious attachments and find committing to more mutually regulating attachments threatening. Others are comfortable with more independent, spacious attachments. Regardless, we each have an attachment style, and learning about our own and our partner’s is integral to creating functionality within a relationship.
First, one might ask, how do I feel secure in a relationship? How might that differ from what makes my partner feel secure? Perhaps I appreciate regular check-ins throughout the day, while my partner feels more supported in knowing that he is trusted and needs only to touch base with me once a day.
Theory tells us how we attach. Our attachment preferences were sculpted by our primary caregivers. Regardless of how and which different attachment styles we formed, in a relationship, we must be aware of our styles and concerned about our partner’s.
Meredith pointed to the popular disbelief, a Hollywood fiction around the “right” way to be attached. There is a notion that a particular type of togetherness — a close, interwoven connection — is evidence of romantic love, and any break in that togetherness indicates something askew. Meredith explains, however, that healthy attachments are made up of regular breaks and reconciliations and should be cultivated. Coming together as well as separating is normal and necessary for healthy connections. And the art is in how we navigate this together. The better couples become at governing this, the stronger and more secure their attachments grow.
Meredith provides some examples of natural separations and reunions inherent to our human rhythms: going to bed at night and then waking in the morning is one fundamental way we naturally separate and return to ourselves for rest, and upon waking return to one another.
And this is as natural and necessary as breathing — like the sea — the tide going in and out. This is the way a relationship functions — one or both people go to work, someone goes to attend to other members of their family, or visit with a friend, or play golf, and then they come back together.
And to the extent couples can do this without a lot of drama or a lot of trauma, without punishing the other for being away, or having to overcome a big hurdle to reunite, without experiencing abandonment or a threat to one’s own identity during a disconnected period, the couple’s bond is strengthened and their rhythms regulated.
What helps couples master this complex dance gracefully? How each person fosters his own identity and individuality is paramount.
What else are you (apart from wife/husband/partner)? Whether vocation or avocation is important; appreciating the different roles that you inhabit, such as sister, friend, school principal, triathlete, PTA leader, advocate, activist, avid fisherperson or spelunker, art enthusiast — whatever lights you up and causes you to illuminate others — these aspects of you require attention; when they are eclipsed by a relationship, the relationship can become malnourished. When one’s interests and identity are in conflict with the other’s sense of feeling securely attached, separating and rejoining can be more fraught. The richer and more established each individual’s sense of self, the regular cultivating of the self’s fruits, the heartier the relational capacity. The more each partner can practice honoring the important, separate aspects of the other, even as they trigger insecurity or unease, the better able the partners can openly learn this relational dance together.
Investing in areas of your life separate from the relationship that are pleasurable and rewarding, nourishes rather than detracts from the relationship. If one spouse does not yet have those in place, it is vital that they explore their interests, and that the exploration itself becomes a priority.
Spirituality is something else that supports healthy separation and reconnecting. Whether it’s a religious affiliation or a spiritual practice, something that one is connected to in addition to, but also larger than the relationship, creates stability. Of course, it can also be something the parties share.
Sharing jointly held interests and endeavors offer yet another way that partners cultivate intimacy. From her own life, Meredith provides an example of fostering kittens. Fostering provides not only a needed service but also pleasure in the caretaking and reciprocal affection received from the animals; the whole family shares the value itself and the added value of fostering together.
A note on the application of all of this to parenting: These relational principles are not merely for the romantic or dyadic relationship, but applicable to parenting as well. A parent’s capacity to honor their individual, multifaceted self is important in parenting. It contributes perspective, “right-sizing” the importance of the child (not confusing the child with the sun, but placing its importance among other important responsibilities and pursuits) and modeling mature, balanced behavior for the child.
Pausing to consider red flags gives us a chance to “head them off at the pass” before they become something requiring intensive intervention or the remedy of divorce. Exploring the tenants of healthy relating offers a way to protect our most valuable assets: our relationships, and our most essential responsibility: how we care for one another.
Alexander Mediation Group