Most relationships start with happiness and hope. The last three decades of scientific research on love reveals what you need to do in order to mutually sustain those positive feelings. It also explains why in so many relationships shared positive feelings erode over time.
It comes down to this: An intimate partnership can function in one of two ways — securely or insecurely. If you want lasting happiness, you need to be in a securely functioning relationship.
When a couple functions securely, their love and friendship grows stronger with time. They maximize shared happiness and minimize distress. In secure functioning, things feel fair, equal, just and sensitive. Riffs get quickly repaired. Past upsets do not linger on as negative memories.
But if a couple functions insecurely, love inevitably gets eroded over time. Issues pile up so high that eventually they hide the love once so abundantly shared. Little upsets turn into big fights. Negative memories can mount to the point that it becomes hard to feel positive feelings.
Instead of feeling secure and loving, a feeling grows that things are unfair, unjust, unequal, or insensitive. Triggering escalates—blowing up, shutting down, avoiding, walking on eggshells—until someone cannot take it anymore.
Most couples I work with in my intensive marriage retreats have been functioning insecurely. Most don’t even know what is at the root of their upsets and negative reaction patterns. My work is to help them become a team of two, operating consciously in ways that co-create secure functioning as a couple
Secure functioning between two partners as a couple is not dependent on each being a secure individual. It’s more about knowing how to operate well as a team, so that you rewire unconsciouly driven emotional patterns to promote security.
What makes a couple secure? Let me keep it simple. Three key factors must be in place. Like the three legs of a stool, you need all three to be solid, stable and secure. The three essential keys to secure functioning are: (1) Prioritization, (2) Collaboration, and (3) Co-Regulation.
I’ll go over them one at a time…
1. Prioritization — “We Come First”
One key factor is prioritization. Partners feel first of importance to the other, number one on each other’s priority list. Their motto is: “We come first.”
Couples are a primary survival unit. It’s “Us against the world.” “We are in the foxhole together.”
The primacy of the couple over all thirds is necessary for secure functioning. Partners need to know and feel they are each other’s most significant other. All other people, things, and activities come after they do. Even the kids. Even work.
To function securely, each has to feel they are the top priority. Top of the food chain. And together, they operate like a team to manage all thirds. A “third” is anything other than the two of them. Any other person, object, or activity is a third.
And think of it this way. All thirds are designed to intrude on the couple system. By their very nature, thirds are competing for vital resources — your attention, your time, your interest, even your money.
The primacy of the couple over all thirds is a necessary foundation for secure functioning. In the competition for resources between your partner and a third, if it comes down to it, make sure your partner is not the loser.
Insecurely functioning couples will not establish this. It will be a blur. It may seem like the kids come first. Or someone’s career. Or their parents. Or their iPhone.
This sense of being sidelined by a third will inevitably trigger insecurities like “I don’t really matter to you,” “I’m last on your list,” “I’m not that important.”
The person sidelined will start not liking the third. And the other person will feel caught between their partner and the third.
Most of the couples I work with finally realize that the insecurity of not feeling first in importance had eroded their love lives for years, if not decades.
Their suffering is usually based on a complete misperception. I ask each, “Who triggers you more than anyone else?” Inevitably each says the other does. Whomever triggers you the most is the most important person to your brain.
It would be good to turn that towards its positive direction. Nobody can make you feel happier than your most significant other.
I’ve helped many couples straighten out this error that led to insecure functioning. It can be done in a matter of a few days. Most go home saying they were as happy as when they first met!
2. Collaboration — “All Decisions Are Good for Both”
A second key factor is that securely functioning partners operate from true mutuality. Their motto is: “All decisions must be good for both of us.”
When it comes to making choices, doing things, deciding on anything—moving somewhere, buying something, going to an event—they collaborate.
They want to co-create win-win solutions, in which both partners are fully involved in the decision-making process.
They do not make unilateral decisions, large or small. If a friend calls suggesting an activity, they consult each other before agreeing.
Things feel fair and they operate as equals, sharing decision power. They don’t compromise, they don’t try to “win” at the other’s expense, but they always collaborate to find win-win solutions.
They make sure both of them are truly happy with any outcome. And sometimes that is difficult… requiring more time and creative thinking.
It could be about what activity to do, this vs that, where they expand beyond the immediate single event to map out how to do this and that at differing times.
“Chinese vs Italian food tonight?” might be answered by “Mexican” we can both agree we want, or by alternating choosers. These are relatively easy.
More challenging decisions — where to live, a career change — require more creativity. Go slow, make sure you know your partner’s entire perspective as well as your own, and allow your good will and creative minds to lead your way. But quickly pause the discussion if you detect distress (more below).
Securely functioning couples operate like partners in a three-legged race. The principle is that “if you fall, I fall.” Hence, neither partner will allow either of them to feel like a loser. Nobody gives up. Nobody takes the fall.
And each person tries to get what they need by figuring out what the other person needs. They engage in creative bargaining, enticement, and even seduction. They exert influence by figuring out how to give something their partner really wants.
Operating under the law of attraction: they try to make each other want it by making it attractive to the other person.
They only use positive negotiation strategies. They never try to persuade the other by using fear, anger, pressure, shaming, threat, or guilt.
3. Co-Regulation — “We Relieve Each Other’s Distress”
A third key factor for secure functioning is active, mutual distress relief. Their motto is: “We quickly relieve each other’s distress.”
Being able to go to your partner for quick distress relief is a part of being in the foxhole together.
Co-regulation is the neurobiological term of where one nervous system helps the other stay regulated, stable and secure. A simple example is a mother holding a crying infant, who soon calms down with the physiological contact.
This form of interactive regulation is a native biological signal system of safety. Intimate partners also provide this for each other on a daily basis when they are securely functioning. Nothing beats supportive touch, friendly eye contact and a soothing voice tone — along with a few positive words.
Many couples will attempt to co-regulate each other if one of them is distressed by a third. When suffering from a bad day at work, an argument with a friend, something not going well — most partners will attempt to give soothing or solace to each other.
Of course, ones intention to relieve distress may differ from ones ability to do so. For instance, some people need to speak all about an incident and just be heard. If their partner interrupts with advice, instead of just listening, this often adds to distress rather than relieve it.
You need to understand what relieves distress for your partner. It may be different than what does that for you.
It’s relatively common to try to make one’s partner feel better for externally caused distress. But what about distress between the two of you?
It is much harder for partners to relieve each other’s distress if it results from their own interactions. Such internally generated distress can escalate rapidly. One partner’s reaction triggers distress and a counter-reaction in the other. I call this a reactive cycle, a negative emotional pattern that insecurely functioning couples often engage in.
Yet in the end, distress is distress, regardless of cause. Securely functioning couples attempt to relieve distress, no matter what the perceived cause.
Certainly, when the distress is co-triggered between the two of you, you have to become more skillful. This involves the ability to pause, calm yourselves down, and then quickly repair each other’s distress.
Insecure couples must master the skill to do this. It’s what I call Relationship CPR. I have written about Relationship CPR in another post. And you can get a detailed, step-by-step guide for doing this in the book Five-Minute Relationship Repair.
Why take on mutual distress relief? Are we not culturally trained to believe that everyone should be responsible for their own feelings? Sorry, those platitudes only result in insecure functioning. Following such ideas has led people to detach from each other when upset, and big emotional walls usually result.
It is important to realize that the couple operates as a primary biological survival system, a basic mammalian herd-of-two. As in any herd, all members’ survival alarm systems are wired together. If one runs, then within seconds they are all running. Subcortical survival alarms all react together, as if wi-fi connects them 24/7. Such is a herd of mammals.
Similarly you and your partner form a survival herd. Your subcortical survival alarm systems get wired together. If your partner’s distress alarm starts ringing, so will yours within seconds. Like in a three-legged race, if they fall, so do you.
It’s obvious in a three-legged race, that taking care of each other serves mutual self-interest — rather than blaming each other if someone starts to lose their balance. It’s in your mutual interest to keep each other upright.
In the same way, it is in your self-interest as part of a couple system that both of you feel good. You can only feel as good (around your partner) as they are feeling good about being with you. It is entirely mutual.
The absence of repair will put you on a path of ever mounting distress. Little things will eventually be reacted to as if they are quite big. Again, it’s in your self-interest to repair everything.
Securely functioning couples know this, and they quickly relieve each other’s distress — especially if they cause it!
Making New Rules
It is in your self-interest to relieve each other’s distress and engage in quick repair. To put each other first. And to make sure all decisions are good for both of you.
These three key factors of secure functioning overlap, of course. And there are other factors as well. But to keep it simple, these three key factors are the “legs of the stool” of secure functioning.
These three key factors are ideals to guide you. Strive for them. Of course, nobody will be perfect. There will be times that you trigger each other. Okay, just repair it.
There will be times you blunder with thirds and your partner feels sidelined. Repair it. And do something to make up for it.
There will be times when it is hard to collaborate and find a win-win. Think larger and make something else a win for your partner, if they feel they lost this one.
Commit to operate out of these principles and you can establish conscious guidelines for who you are as a couple — securely functioning. They become the new rules you make together, that carry you forward in a way that fosters lasting love and happiness.
Why have rules? If you automatically have operated as a securely functioning couple — which means you probably do these three key things organically — then you don’t need rules. Just keep doing what you’ve always been doing.
But if you have signs of insecure functioning (see the beginning of this article) then the data is in. Your automatic behaviors do not lead you to feel secure with one another. So you will need to upgrade and follow something other than your thoughts, feelings and impulses.
That’s where the idea of social contract comes in. That’s why societies have laws: to remind people to do what they may not feel like doing (like stopping at a red light) because ultimately it’s in their self-interest (not to collide with another car).
In my marriage retreats I help couples put their relationship on a positive track by discovering the tools they need for secure functioning. By the end of the retreat, using the tools they acquire, they have rebuilt positive feelings of connection, hope, and trust.
To stay on track, most couples I work with will turn their discoveries into new rules for themselves, agreements or laws for how they will operate as a couple. They take these rules home with them, along with the tools to succeed at applying them to daily life.
I have repeatedly seen the three keys above to be the most powerful new laws couples can make. They are like living vows that carry a partners forward in a positive direction, helping them to share a lifetime of happiness together.
You can acquire the skills for repair in detail in Five-Minute Relationship Repair. Gathered from decades of working with couples in my intensive retreats — this book helps you discover what’s at the root of reactive patterns and teaches you ways to quickly stop and repair upsets before they lead to major disconnects.