What makes a couple relationship healthy?
When couples start therapy they often say, “I don’t want the kind of relationship my parents had”.
But, when the proverbial hits the fan, they find themselves sounding just like their angry mum/dad, or their critical father/mother, often leaving them feeling not only deeply ashamed but stuck. If that was their model, how do you move on?
In the last few decades, psychologists have begun to acknowledge the importance of the quality of the parental relationship. Research supports the view that this has a more fundamental impact on children’s emotional, educational and social well-being than individual parenting.
Research by the Department for Children, Schools and Families and the Department for Education and Schools found that children whose parental relationship is “healthy enough” feel safer and more secure and have healthier psychiatric outcomes. This, in turn, promotes more functional and sustainable future partnerships.
Other research (DFES) found that children from chronically conflicted couples are more likely to develop a wide range of psychological and physical problems. Whereas periodic conflict between couples is normal and often healthy, ongoing acrimonious exchanges which are frequent, intense and poorly resolved, are harmful.
According to Silver and Gottman (The Seven Principles for Making a Marriage Work), a healthy couple relationship also has a positive impact on our immune system. In one University of Michigan study, happily partnered couples were found to have a higher amount of white blood cells than those from conflicted relationships. Researchers found that an unhappy partnership can increase your chances of getting sick by roughly 35% and even shorten your life by an average of four to eight years.
As a couples therapist, I believe that a 'healthy enough' couple relationship offers their children a protective shield against the impact of life’s inevitable bumps - a bit like the protective role that immunisation offers the body.
So, did your parents’ rows, mutual dislike and recriminations dominate the atmosphere of your family life and linger on in your memories? Or, equally damaging, was your parents’ mutual antipathy characterised by cold disdain?
Do you in turn struggle to form and sustain more robust relationships? Don’t despair. Couples therapy can help. The fact that you are reading this suggests you’re aware that couples therapy can be helpful.
What does couples therapy work towards?
Handy hint - it is not the romantic idealised image of “two as one”, “perfect harmony” and no disagreements, ever.
Differences of opinion and occasional rows are not only important in healthy relationships but a sign that things are more robust. But, this is only if they are managed reasonably within limits and that there is a shared expectation of repair.
A row can be important to open things up and let off steam. In turn, this can make way for renewal, repair and growth. Sometimes it is important for children to know that a disagreement between their parents is OK, but, crucially, only if there is genuine repair and growth afterwards.
Whilst each relationship is unique and richly complex, I believe that there are three ingredients, which, if worked on by both partners, can increase trust, safety and health in a relationship.
Think BCG - belonging, comfort and growth
Belonging is the feeling of being an accepted, acknowledged and respected member of a team or support network. This also implies having some shared values and goals.
In neuroscience, studies demonstrate the vital role that belonging to a team or social support network plays in healing after the psychological effects of trauma. This also goes for couple relationships.
Trusted support is essential when the chips are down. A robust partnership is one where respect for each other’s differences, needs and vulnerabilities is openly accepted and, crucially, demonstrated. This creates an underlying feeling of reciprocal security and deep trust.
Comfort... from touch. A healthy couple relationship is one where regular touch, such as physical contact on greeting, kisses, embraces and, of course, sexual intimacy, is a given. Regular, safe touch deepens attachment and can often provide expressions of connection when words aren’t enough.
Reciprocity is critical here. You take it in turns to be the comforter and shoulder of support.
American psychosexual researchers and writers Metz and McCarthy believe “we literally need physical touch.” Studies indicate that healthy touch reduces anxiety, soothes and eases grief and reduces frustration.
Safe touch is nature’s balm - as the renowned trauma theorist Bessel van der Kolk reminds us “....the most natural way that we humans calm down our distress is by being touched, hugged and rocked... and this makes us feel intact, safe, protected, and in charge.”
And, in a healthy intimate relationship, touch and sexuality are well integrated and reciprocal.
Comfort... with vulnerability. Our capacity to know, feel at peace with and express our own vulnerability is a crucial element within couple relationships. Couples in robust and resilient relationships will have this on their radar. This includes awareness and respect for their own needs (emotional, physical) and for each other. They both know it’s OK to be needy.
(Space for) growth. Healthy partnerships make space for both individual partners and the partnership itself to grow. Each partner recognises the importance of nurturing their individual lives, interests and other friendships and will support each other bringing space and liveliness to the relationship.
Without this, couples can feel stuck and stifled. Respect and interest in each other’s differences (opinions, tastes, etc) opens up space for each other’s potential.
We often hear that relationships 'need working on'. I think this means making a point of showing your appreciation when your partner has done something that you have valued. That way it’s more likely to happen again. When you ask how the other is or how their day went, really mean it. Be genuinely interested in their response; it is important to make room for the unexpected.
And together you can be sure that this work and these shifts will not go unnoticed by your children.
It takes genuine effort and work to keep a relationship fuel tank topped up. The trust, intimacy and support that grows from this work is the reward that speaks for itself.
The combination of factors - belonging, comfort and space for growth - can bring about shared feelings of safety, security and trust.
If the quality of your parents’ relationship has left you feeling stuck and worried that you are repeating patterns, couples therapy with a specialist couples therapist will help you and your partner develop feelings of belonging, will support your need for comfort and facilitate and nurture growth in your relationship.
If you think your partnership needs more in-depth attention, do look for an appropriately qualified clinician with specialist clinical training in couples therapy. Find the words 'couples therapist' in their list of qualifications and check membership with a specialist relationship professional body, such as Tavistock Alumni, COSRT (College for Sexual and Relationship Therapists) or Relate.