“At the heart of my program is the simple truth that happy marriages are based on a deep friendship.”
-John Gottman, PhD., Renowned Couples Therapist and Researcher
What makes a primary relationship go well over the long run? Of course, relationship dynamics are complex and what works for one couple, may not work for another. However, a few key factors are typically present in any healthy, long-term relationship. These include: a sense of deep friendship, intimacy and continuous growth.
As most people know, relationships built primarily on physical attraction, without a strong connection beyond that, typically falter. Attraction does play an important, however. It provides the opportunity to get to know the other person better; you feel curious, interested and engaged, wanting to know and share more about each other. While attraction may provide the catalyst for beginning a relationship, it’s friendship that sustains it. Sharing, camaraderie and ample play/fun time together characterize the friendship component of healthy couples. With a deep friendship, there is also much honest, open communication about oneself and one another. To learn more about ways to communicate better, read: 18 Communication Skills for Couples.
While a certain degree of intimacy is present among good friends, when it comes to couples, strong emotional and physical intimacy is a necessary ingredient in healthy, long-term relationships.
As famed family therapist Virginia Satir wrote: “Intimacy is a condition in which we can experience feeling seen, heard, understood, touched, and accepted, and to offer this to another.” (quote from book “Two Step: The Dance Toward Intimacy,” by Eileen McCann).
Emotional intimacy can be partly understood in the context of attachment theory. Attachment theory was developed in the mid-20th century by psychologists John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. Through parent-child observations, they found distinct styles of attachment present, ranging from “secure,” to those that were less secure and more troubled. The theory states that, generally speaking, attachment type is a direct product of the quality of relationship between parent and child. Simply put, when children are able to depend on their parents for comfort and support, secure attachment develops. Through the consistent and thoughtful responsiveness from their parents, children learn that relationships are to be trusted. They also eventually learn how to regulate their emotional life, by having reliable “regulation” from their parents. In contrast, when parents are not consistently present, or when they relate to their children in negative ways, such as being abusive or dismissive, then a less secure attachment evolves. Insecure attachment is characterized by fear of closeness, fear rejection and difficulty trusting.
In the 1980’s, researchers Cindy Hazan and Phillip Shaver extended the original theories on attachment styles to romantic relationships, evaluating the 3 major types of attachment found in adults known as secure, anxious/ambivalent (also known as preoccupied), and avoidant (sometimes referred to as dismissive or anxious/avoidant). The basic theory here is that the attachment style shaped in childhood, continues to get expressed in adult, romantic relationships.
In healthy attachment, individuals are able to find a balance between intimacy and independence. This type of bond, known as secure attachment, is built on openness, stability and trust. “Secure lovers describe their most important love experience as especially happy, friendly, and trusting. They emphasized being able to accept and support their partner despite the partner’s faults. Moreover, their relationships tended to endure longer” (Hazan and Shaver, 1987, pp. 514-515)
In contrast to healthy forms of attachment, insecure styles are fraught with greater fear and distrust. Rather than a reasonable balance of closeness and individuality, insecure attachment tends to breed polar dynamics of enmeshment (e.g., co-dependency) or excessive distance.
As the name implies, the anxious/ambivalent attachment style is characterized by worry and insecurity about relationships. One or both members of the couple may feel desperate about getting close, but at the same time, feel quite fearful of rejection. There can be a sense of obsession and clinginess, as well as entangled qualities, where one or both members of the couple are highly reactive to the other (e.g., mood swings at the slightest provocation).
The avoidant attachment style also involves feelings of insecurity about relationships, but the way this is dealt with is through emotional distance. People who have avoidant characteristics tend to be more aloof and “shut down” emotionally, fearing intimacy and exhibiting reluctance to commit.
Attachment styles are broad generalizations, and while research demonstrates that nearly 60% of the population falls under the “secure” category, it’s likely that many people exhibit characteristics of each type, to varying degrees and at different times.
In terms of longevity of relationships, Hazen and Shaver (1987) found that relationships characterized by secure attachment lasted the longest, with an average of 10 years. This contrasts with a 4.86 years average among those with anxious attachment styles, and 5.97 years for those with avoidant features.
It’s important to know that attachment style is somewhat malleable. For example, if somebody had a troubling childhood that led to insecurity about intimate relationships, those hurts can be healed through various means, such as psychotherapy. Healthy relationships in general, are also healing. For example, if you lean more toward the anxious or avoidant end, establishing a relationship with somebody who is secure may shift your relating style in a positive direction. If your goal is to have a satisfying, long-term relationship, the key is to be aware of your early life conditioning and tendencies in relationships, and learn to work with those. Human beings are wired for closeness and connection, so if you’re having a hard time maintaining a healthy relationship, it may mean that you (and/or your partner) need to do some work to remove the obstacles that are inhibiting this natural process.
Last, but certainly not least, a key component of intimacy among romantic couples includes physical closeness, of which a healthy sex life is a part. “Healthy sex” of course is defined differently for each couple, but generally involves regular sexual and physical contact that is respectful and connected.
In the article, “How to Build Intimacy in Your Relationship,” Dr. Helen Fisher discusses several ways to increase closeness, with good sex being one of them. She notes how sex is one way to “get the oxytocin flowing” as “oxytocin is a brain chemical that produces feelings of trust and attachment.”
In addition to increased feelings of intimacy, research has identified many health benefits of sex, including stress relief, bolstered immune system, higher self-esteem, improved heart health, and decreased pain.
In the New York Times piece, “The Happy Marriage is the ‘Me’ Marriage,” writer Tara Parker-Pope explains how relationships that spark personal growth tend to be more satisfying and last longer: “Research shows that the more self-expansion people experience from their partner, the more committed and satisfied they are in the relationship.” “Self-expansion” refers the process of acquiring new knowledge and life experiences that contribute to personal growth and development.
The author goes on to note how “the effect of self-expansion is particularly pronounced when people first fall in love.” Couples take on new identities and social roles when they enter into a relationship, which expands their view of themselves; this process can be quite exciting and stimulating.
“Over time, the personal gains from lasting relationships are often subtle. Having a partner who is funny or creative adds something new to someone who isn’t. A partner who is an active community volunteer creates new social opportunities for a spouse who spends long hours at work,” writes Parker-Pope.
Like anything that is alive, good relationships require ongoing attention to thrive. Some people mistakenly assume that a “good relationship” is easy. The reality is that satisfying and meaningful relationships require effort. If you have very little difficulty or zero percent conflict, then that could be a sign of lack of intimacy and stagnation. Of course, balance is the key here. If a relationship is fraught with disagreement and argument, then that won’t work either. Akin to any kind of progress in life, with relationships, it’s important to have regular challenges that push you to the next level. And of course, this needs to be matched with ample time for relaxation and rejuvenation together.