A marriage is an attachment relationship for adults. As in childhood with one’s primary caregiver, attachment is a relationship bond to a thoroughly supportive other. In human evolution, that person was the advantage that helped you to survive and raise children. Psychologically, this parent or partner helps regulate your emotions and connect you to your strengths.
Marriage, or any committed romantic relationship, hinges on a simple question. When I need your support, are you there for me? The question is not of money or housework, but of emotional support and three types are essential:
- Affirmation – Will you, can you, reassure me that I am a good and worthy person? We are hardwired to doubt our original dignity. Thus we need a person to mirror our strengths and goodness back to us.
- Encouragement – Will you remind me of my strengths, resources and potential when I feel weak?
- Consolation – Will you hold me when I feel defeated or lost? Will you stand by me when it feels like others have abandoned me?
Couples who sense that their relationship is in serious trouble have come to believe that their partners will no longer support them in these basic ways. At that point you start pulling away because you have to shore up your independence. Your friendships become more valuable than your marriage. Your partner cannot lessen your pain and cannot deepen your joy.
Why This is Harder Than it Sounds
Why do so many relationships deteriorate in this manner? Three factors pose steep challenges:
- Insecure adult attachment style – If you did not experience security in your first attachment relationship (with your primary caregiver) then you will have over-sized or under-sized needs in adulthood that most people cannot satisfy or cannot reciprocate.
- Insecure self-identity – You are so wounded yourself that you cannot muster the presence or the empathy to support your partner, or you quickly suspect that your partner’s needs are a critique of you and you get defensive.
- Projection, displacement or scapegoating – Your partner decides that you are the problem, lashes out at you and again you get defensive. This situation is most difficult even for the very mature person.
How Do We Get Back to Supporting Each Other?
A great number of books have been written on this subject.† Here is a emotional recipe to get started. All ingredients are for both partners.
- Dare to be vulnerable – In a “make-up” phase or with a marriage therapist, be rigorously honest and thoroughly subjective about your pain, your needs, your weaknesses and self-doubts.
- Find your compassion – See your bleeding, broken partner with your heart, without judgment. Listen and feel as if you are meeting this person for the first time.
- Be charitable – Make allowances for your partner’s shortcomings, slightly easing your ethical and moral demands, even trimming your own needs. This is real self-giving love. Ubi caritas est vera, Deus ibi est.
(†) A few recommended books:
Johnson, Sue. Hold me tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love. Little, Brown, 2008.
Borys, Henry James. The Sacred Fire: Love as a Spiritual Path. Harper, 1994.
Yerkovich, Milan & Kay. How We Love. WaterBrook Press, 2006.