Not many adults have experienced a healthy parental relationship as children, whether or not the parents lived together. When we don’t grow up having a template for a healthy romantic relationship, how do we know what one actually looks like?
You might think that anyone would know the answer, but do they? Is it how many times they have sex, or what kind of sex? How many vacations they take together? How much money they make?
What constitutes a healthy relationship is something very simple: a safe emotional connection. Partners who feel secure about their relationship are able to avoid the common negative patterns that get started when one partner reaches for the other and fails to make safe emotional contact. They shrug it off as due to some odd circumstance because they know their partner really is there for them.
But for an insecurely attached couple, failing to make contact when one partner is in need will start a negative spiral of disconnection that hurts emotionally and physically.
How do we get better at making consistent emotional contact with our partner? It’s something that can be learned and perfected. Sue Johnson writes about this new way of looking at love in her book “Hold Me Tight.” The key elements, she writes, are quite simple – A.R.E. The key to lasting love for couples is based on a special kind of emotional responsiveness that has three parts:
• Accessibility. Can I reach you?
• Responsiveness. Can I rely on you to respond to me emotionally?
• Engagement. Do I know you will value me and stay close?
What does this look like? Imagine a mother and baby. What happens if the baby cries? Mom immediately moves toward the infant. What happens when mom gets to baby? She tunes into the baby’s tone and cry – is it a fussy cry? A hungry cry? A messy diaper? A mom tries to assess the situation and respond appropriately and correctly. And once the baby’s need is addressed, what happens next? Mom and baby engage in play, using words and touch to let baby know how much she is loved.
Adults have the same need for one or two special people who are close when we need them, tuned into our emotional world and delighted to engage with us. The need is just as strong for any human as between mother and baby.
A.R.E. you feeling secure?
Let’s take a closer look at A.R.E.
Accessibility means staying open to your partner even when your own sense of security is rocked. Let’s say Jay forgets to make date-night plans with Becca this week. Becca loves their weekly date and might have gotten annoyed or worried if he forgot to make plans. She might have read something into his forgetting. But instead of paying attention to her doubts, Becca reminds herself that Jay loves her deeply and he has had a tough week at work. She makes a dinner reservation and sends Jay an email telling him how much she’s looking forward to spending time alone with him.
Responsiveness demonstrates your ability to tune into your partner and show how his or her emotions impact you. It means receiving and prioritizing the emotional signals your partner sends and responding in a clear way. How do you know if you’re tuning in properly? Listen to the body: responding in a sensitive way to our partner soothes and calms both of us on a physical level.
An engagement is a peak moment in any romantic relationship. And if you imagine a happy couple, you’ll see just what engagement is: a special loving attention we give only to our beloved. We look longer, with deep affection; we are absorbed, captivated, involved. We feel chosen.
An easy way to determine if you have a secure connection is to ask oneself, “Are you there for me?” Knowing the answer is an unqualified “yes!” is the foundation for a healthy relationship. If you have uncertainty, or just plain doubt, take a look at Johnson’s book or work with a therapist specially trained in emotionally focused therapy for couples.
Nancy Andersen, licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, provides emotionally focused therapy in her Loyola Corners office in Los Altos. For more information, call 833-9574 or visit nancyandersenmft.com.