A key way to make a love relationship last over time is by appreciating the extent to which a couple itself — the “we” — is an entity made up of two separate people who, together, have a collective identity. That a “couple” is a group of two with its own needs, wants, and foibles. I have written about the importance of the “we” before, in the context of showing and experiencing love, but looking at it through another lens can be useful. What aspects of this two-person group are especially useful to understand?
- Intimacy dynamics. As my own empirical research and Judith Wallerstein’s excellent qualitative study of couples in marriages longer than ten years have shown, four clear styles of intimacy exist among couples that endure over time. (See references below.) They can strive for equality of partners in all things, especially power and intimacy; they can have one partner more emotionally dependent on the other with that partnership strengthening the couple; they can have one partner logistically dependent on the other with that partnership defining the couple; or they can have an agreed-upon emotional distance that allows them to operate as an efficient team without a great deal of emotional involvement. Obviously, the needs of couples in these different types of relationship vary along with the style that has evolved to keep them together. Recognize that your own style may not be that of your best friend or neighbor.
- Boundaries, with each other and with others. Similarily, couples define their boundaries in multiple ways. What is important is that they DO define boundaries. Within the couple, they define “rules” — what behaviors are acceptable and which ones are not? Are there penalties for violating boundaries? Any deal-breakers? Beyond the confines of the couple, each must define how to interact with others — family, friends, those less clearly related. Is a great deal of social interaction required to sustain the couple or does it thrive with minimal social contact? How much socializing as a couple is desired?
- Identify strengths, as individuals and as a team. Each person in the couple brings strengths to the relationship and receives different benefits from it. Do you each give full credit where credit is due? Do you give gratitude to the more maintenance-prone partner, the more flexible one, the more reflective one? Do you appreciate the strengths that you bring to efforts when you act as a couple? Do you know when you need to recruit others to help? Do you agree? If not, how do you negotiate your differences?
- Vulnerable areas. Similarly, each person in a couple and each couple has its limitations. Can you both acknowledge them without blaming or shaming? Can you respect differences and agree on ways to support each other — and the couple — when you encounter vulnerabilities? Can you, individually or together, pick yourself up when you falter?
- Refilling the well, reconnecting when disconnected. Do you have a repertoire of different
ways to regulate the emotional distance between you? Do you separate for a bit to gain better perspective and perhaps refill an introvert’s well, or do you commit to hashing out the underlying source of the disconnect? Does it help to indulge a part of your couple, perhaps the playful child-like part, that may need the wonder of a sunset, the exercise of a walk, run or bike ride, the luxury of a favorite home-cooked meal or visit to a favorite restaurant? Does it help to clean or fix something? Clearing out the outgrown or worn or the accrued dust (or garbage) can have an amazing effect on one’s own energy as well as the space a couple needs to make room for the new.
How, indeed, do you come to know your couple? The first principle of science: observation. Take a step back and notice how you behave as a couple. What are your dynamics? How is stress in one partner expressed? How does the other partner usually respond? Is that helpful or does it escalate into discord? Are you on the same page concerning the amount of closeness or distance that each of you desire?
Copyright 2018 Roni Beth Tower