The following describes how my approach is different, not only in the intensive retreat format, but also in the underlying model of marriage health I use in my work. In presenting that model, which I call Love 3.0, I will address why traditional couples therapy so often fails to help distressed couples or offer them adequate tools to improve their relationship, and why it is not merely the intensive retreat format that gives my work its effectiveness.
When two people join as a couple, they become each other’s emotional home. The desire to join can be inspired by shared feelings of happiness and connection. Unfortunately, as we all know, many couples end up feeling less happy over time.
Most couples build their emotional home unconsciously. Without a conscious blueprint or the right tools, many will not be able to lay a solid foundation. Instead of maintaining the happiness that brought them together, they experience increasing levels of distress.
For over 30 years I have helped couples overcome such distress and renew the happy emotional home they once shared. I work using an intensive approach, typically six hours a day for three days in a row.
I started specializing in this format long before “couples retreat” became a social meme. My intensive approach not only got better results, but it revealed things about couples that weekly work never showed. Out of these discoveries, I developed a model and tools that help couples make rapid, profound changes.
I call this model “Love 3.0” and it underlies what is effective about the work I do and the remarkable outcomes I help couples achieve in a matter of a few days. It’s not merely the intensive approach of a retreat that makes the real difference. The power of my retreats is due to the underlying model of the work itself.
Falling in Love is Easy
It just seems to happen. But staying happy in love over time is quite another matter. All couples run into bumps along the road of love. Partners who maintain happiness in their emotional home are good at navigating these bumps.
Many of us do not know how to do this. We stumble and fall into reactive holes. Over time the holes get deeper. Our emotional home becomes more distressed until we can no longer tolerate the resulting upset and lack of satisfaction. It almost seems “normal” that couples end up dissatisfied… but does not have to be that way.
Lots of couples come to me on the brink of divorce, stuck and unhappy for years, even decades. I have worked with the full range of relationship issues, frequently including infidelity or dishonesty. During my three decades of working with highly distressed couples, there’s little I haven’t encountered.
Remarkably, most of the couples I work with have been able to recover joyful, loving feelings in a matter of a few days. This always seems like quite the miracle, given the highly negative states in which they start their retreat. How is it possible to reverse years of misery in so little time and begin re-building a secure emotional home?
In a word: neuroplasticity. The brain can rewire when it gets better input. I’ve repeatedly seen what heals couples’ ruptures and what helps them reconnect with positive feelings. Another way of putting it is that I’ve repeatedly seen couples rewire each other’s brains to create a secure functioning emotional home.
The Neuroscience of Attachment
My approach to working with couples has been guided by research in neuroscience and attachment theory. Attachment theory examines how humans emotionally bond with one another, whether that’s a mother and child or a pair of married spouses.
Attachment functions in one of two ways: secure or insecure. As you would expect, secure functioning spouses are able to maintain shared happiness while insecure pairs fall into reactive patterns that erode happiness and create increasingly distressing interactions.
Couples can transform an insecure relationship to function securely. It takes work, and you have to know what tools to use for your efforts to succeed. But be assured that you do have the power to successfully engage in that work. You do have the power to transform a highly distressed relationship into a secure functioning partnership.
How do I know you have that power? It is simply this… If you are in significant relationship, you are central in your partner’s emotional universe. I often get blank stares when I state this to clients. Many come to a retreat feeling hopeless, thinking they have tried everything. They often say they do not feel important to their partner at all. They feel they come last on their partner’s list.
In fact, feeling unimportant is often at the root of insecure functioning and underly why partners get more upset, reactive, or walled-off over time. But, here’s the real deal… I simply ask them this question: “Who can upset you more than anyone else on the planet?”
Inevitably, partners point at each other. And then it dawns on them that they get upset to the degree that the other person is significant. Hence, the person who upsets us the most is the most important person to our brain and attachment system.
Nobody Upsets Me Like You Do, Darling
I’ve thought about giving my next book the title of this section, with the accompanying subtitle: You’re the Most Important Person in the Universe to Me.
Of course, we would not want the measurement of importance to be how upset and insecure partners can make each other feel. But where there is power, there is potential for transformation. That’s where neuroplasticity comes into play.
Partners deeply affect each other’s attachment wiring. How they act continuously rewires each other’s brains. It happens each moment they interact.
You have a big impact on how your partner is wired to think about you, feel about you, and behave around you. At all times, you are either wiring your partner’s brain to be happy and secure with you… or, to feel distressed with you. The latter, of course, is what leads to less loving, more reactive behaviors.
I say this not to convey any sense of blame. Blame is not a useful construct. I consider blame to be a fundamental mistake in analytic thinking. Using blame is a root cause of insecure functioning.
Rather than blame, I mean to convey to you a sense of your own power and agency to change things. I am saying that, even if you can’t feel it, you do have the status to the attachment wiring in your partner’s brain to be effective. You can rewire each other to share a secure functioning emotional home.
Again, you need the right tools to apply this power and get good results. Without the tools, couples suffer increasing discontent over time because they don’t know how to resolve upsets and maintain satisfaction. But with the right tools you can rewire your relationship to be more loving and less reactive—and enjoy a secure, collaborative, and happy emotional home.
You also need to establish and follow the right rules that reinforce using those tools when needed. Just as there are rules of the road for driving cars on streets, there are rules to maintaining a secure connection with an intimate partner. Not knowing what those rules are will lead to traffic jams and collisions.
The tools and rules for a securely functioning partnership are what I have been calling Love 3.0. The principles of this model are backed up by the past three decades of scientific research in neuroscience, attachment theory, and couples satisfaction.
If Love 3.0 is an new model of relationship, what are the previous ones? Chances are you already know them, but let me make each one explicit.
Love 1.0 — Codependence
This was a common model of relating before the 1960’s. It was usually accompanied by stereotypical roles based on gender. The male was the provider, or the financial caretaker, and the female was the homemaker, or the emotional caretaker.
In this traditional model, spouses rarely connected on a deep level of emotional intimacy. Dad was usually raised to ignore feelings and focus on worldly success. So, largely because of his lack of training to explore or express emotions, feelings were seldom much of a subject for discussion. Marriages operated largely on a transcational basis. It was all about raising the kids and bringing in the money.
As a result, in Love 1.0, an emotionally-attuned female caretaker often ended up taking care of everyone else’s feelings, at the expense of her own. In attachment terms, she had to put aside her own emotional needs in order to preserve the marriage. Consequently she would feel increasingly unhappy, dissatisfied, and perhaps even trapped insofar as her feelings appeared not to matter to him.
This would be amplified if her economic survival depended on him. Or if divorce was associated with shame, which it was before the 1960’s. Or if she believed the family staying together was the best thing for the kids. All these typical factors and more put pressure on her to give up her needs and, as best she could, keep him from being upset.
One definition of codependence is a relationship where both people are concerned with what just one of them needs. He certainly was focused on whatever he needed. She was focused on what he needed. Nobody was focused on what she needed.
Understandably, this arrangement would result in resentment that only built up as time passed. She would resent how she gave and gave in the relationship, but got nothing back emotionally. She would end up with a sense that, “I care for others’ feelings, but nobody cares for mine.”
Not being able to discuss, much less remedy this emotional inequity, things would get increasingly unsatisfying for both partners. The husband often pointed out his hard work and contribution as financial provider, and this could trump his wife’s claim for her emotional needs.
As divorce was rarely an option before the 1960’s, given the social and religious stigma attached to it, couples operating from this model would end up suffering an inevitable erosion of shared happiness and then settle for a superficial, transactional relationship. Underlying emotional issues would never get addressed or repaired. And that typically left the female emotional caretaker in an ever-escalating state of anger, resentment, and eventually numbness.
When couples therapy started to come into vogue in the late 1950’s, this emotional caretaker relational style was identified as being codependent. It was seen to be a huge liability, and a primary ingredient of unhealthy love.
Love 2.0 — Independence
By the mid-1960’s, how society thought about love and marriage was rapidly changing. Divorce became more acceptable. Birth control was freely available. Sexual freedom was celebrated. People more fluidly moved into and out of relationships.
As the divorce rate quickly soared to 50%, traditional values of settling down and getting married were displaced by an emphasis on the self. The motto of the 60’s was “I do my thing, you do your thing.” Personal growth and self-actualization were cultural themes of the “me” generation.
In a move to free people from codependent relationships, advice from therapists, spiritual teachers, and workshop leaders encouraged everyone to discover their true inner selves, overcome negative beliefs, and heal their own childhood-based emotional triggers. This was promoted in platitudes that continue to be heard today like, “we’re all responsible for our own feelings,” “you have to love yourself first before you can truly love another,” and “you shouldn’t base your happiness on someone else.”
Attachment to another person was seen to be a measure of insecurity or codependency. The path to healthy love was seen as being differentiated as an individual and taking care of your own “inner child.” Solutions to relationship rifts were sayings like “you have your feelings, and I have mine” or “we can agree to disagree.”
As a result of an emphasis on personal growth and therapy, people became more able to discuss their feelings. But despite this, the Love 2.0 model did little to promote emotional attunement or secure connection. If someone was unhappy about something, or if they couldn’t feel their emotional needs were met, that was their own individual problem. The solution was often to see their own counselor for individual help or to meet with their gender-based support group to be heard and understood.
Usually, such therapy and support would encourage the individual to differentiate and overcome codependency. And more often than not, if things just continued to get worse, to leave that “toxic” relationship.
And even when therapists would see a couple, little was offered in the way of tools for communication beyond making “I”-statements. Nothing was presented about the basis of constructing a secure emotional home as a couple. Instead, each person was usually seen as an individual in need of more differentiation.
In the lore of Love 2.0, each person needed to learn to take better care of their own individual needs. Given the zeal to overcome anything that even resembled being codependent, this model focussed on autonomy, self-sufficiency, and becoming emotionally independent.
Though it was theorized this individual work would ultimately enable partners to engage in more healthy relating, there is little data in support of this. Over the last 60 years that Love 2.0 has been the socially dominant model, the divorce rate has remained high, and there has been no evident increase in the abundance of lasting relational happiness.
Ironically, while this model viewed “attachment” as an overly-dependent to overcome, the 1960’s was also when attachment theory started to be developed.
Love 3.0 — Interdependence
In a word, Love 3.0 is about being interdependent. Not codependent or independent. But interdependent. This is an emerging model for a healthy marriage based on the application of research in neuroscience and attachment theory.
For its first few decades, attachment theory was ridiculed. Yet, given its solid scientific basis, it gained traction in the 1990’s. Initial research studied how attachment operates in childhood but eventually expanded to study how adult couples emotionally pair-bond.
Attachment research examines what promotes relationship security vs insecurity. With adults, this translates into some of the crucial keys to long-lasting satisfaction in their emotional home together.
The Love 3.0 model views a couple not merely as a pair of individuals. A couple is seen to be an interactive system-of-two, a dyadic unit with its own functionality. Instead of looking at a pair of “me’s” Love 3.0 views the “we” two people dyadically form together.
Again, the “we” of a relationship functions in one of two ways: securely or insecurely. Thousands of studies over the last few decades have provided clear understanding about what promotes secure functioning (where happiness thrives) vs insecure functioning (where positive feelings erode as upset mounts over time).
The Love 3.0 model is pro-attachment. It holds partners to be in each other’s care. Expanding beyond the self-sufficiency motto of Love 2.0 (“it’s all about me”), in Love 3.0 partners collaborate to ensure that all outcomes and decisions are mutually beneficial (“it’s all about us”).
In Love 3.0, partners put each other (and their happiness as a couple) to be their highest priority. Therefore they pay close attention to each other’s emotional states and if they see distress they act to quickly relieve it. This model values fairness, sensitivity, justice, and equality.
Many ideas today about relationship health continue to echo the shift from co-dependence to independence that started 60 years ago. But current thinking coming out of scientific research on attachment and relationship satisfaction supports a health model founded in interdependence.
In my work with couples over the last three decades, I have shifted to this viewpoint, which I call the Love 3.0 model. It is gratifying to see how easily understood this model is by couples and, despite years of suffering huge distress in their marriages, how quickly they adopt it.
Over the last decade and a half, I have developed practical tools that enable partners to implement Love 3.0 into their relationship. This has dramatically increased how effectively I help partners overcome reactive patterns that eroded their loving feelings. It has helped couples heal past wounds, reconnect emotionally, and move forward together and thrive.
The results I now get every day with couples in my intensive retreats seem miraculous compared to what I was able to achieve in the distant past when I operated from the Love 2.0 model.
Once grasped, Love 3.0 has intuitive appeal to just about every person I have presented it to. It just feels better. One wonders, why didn’t we see it before? It seems to have been hiding in plain sight. Yet unless you know what to look for, you cannot see it.
Love. Set. Match.
When I present this model to couples, I sometimes relate it to playing tennis. Communication is like hitting a conversational ball back and forth across the net. The question is: what do partners do when they encounter differences or rifts in their relationship?
One reactive pattern is to start hitting the ball with more force. Then the conversation becomes increasingly competitive as each person tries to score a point and be right. Conflict escalates and each gets more desparate to win. The other reactive pattern is to give up and walk off the court.
In the extreme, these reactive patterns lead partners to blow up or shut down. Clearly neither pattern works well, and, repeated over time, either will seriously erode shared happiness and satisfaction.
How does this relate to the three models for love? If you are operating from Love 1.0 in the mode of a codependent, you will give up what you need to preserve the attachment relationship. You will tend to do whatever necessary to prevent your partner from getting upset. Thus the codependent gives up and loses the point.
On the other hand, if you operate from Love 2.0, then the premise is that everyone is responsible for their own needs. Everybody should “stay on their side of the net” and you are not responsible for your partner’s happiness. So you should go for winning the point, even if it is at your partner’s emotional expense.
Both of these models only result in win-lose outcomes. Partners will try with all their skills to hit the ball back and forth in a way the other person will miss and not be able to hit it back. Or they may throw down their own racquet and take the miss. Ultimately, someone will win and someone will lose.
The Math of Love 3.0
But thriving love is not a zero-sum game. You may have one person doing a victory dance on their side of the net. But on the other side, you will find someone who is unhappy. As a total picture, this does not look like a happy couple.
The math of Love 3.0 is that a happy couple is composed of two happy partners. The formula for mutual happiness is happy plus happy. If either is unhappy, it adds up to an unhappy couple. And the central question is: do you want to be a part of a happy couple? It can be difficult to see this if you tend to automatically fall into a competitive mode trying to win, or if you are used to giving up. That is because your survival-oriented primitive brain takes over the conversation.
What you need to operate from Love 3.0 is a part of your higher brain that engages in more complex thinking. This is called “two-party thinking.” You can think both for yourself and for your partner. And your partner does the same. Both of your brains become engaged in the complex process of collaboration, seeking solutions that make both of you happy.
In Love 3.0 you operate not as competitors but as a collaborative team. You are both responsible for both sides of the net, because that is the only way you can ensure being in a mutually satisfying relationship. You share joint responsibility for mutual happiness. Nobody can be the loser in this approach.
The dynamics of communication are quite different in this model. Instead of using your skill to spike the ball and win the point, or giving up, you will employ your talents to get the ball over to your partner in just the best way that helps your partner easily hit it back to you. The conversational ball keeps going back and forth. It is less a competition and more of an ongoing volley. It is in both of your self-interests to operate this way if you want to experience your lives together in a loving and happy relationship.
In the competitive approach, you can win one point. But since it will be at your partner’s expense, you will lose the overall game. By taking the collaborative approach, you will each get a point every time the ball goes back and forth without dropping. And there will be no limit to the number of points you can rack up together. In this approach, you do not operate as competitors, but as a team.
A Hole in Your Boat
Let’s describe Love 3.0 with a boating metaphor. You and your partner form a relation-“ship”. This love boat is your joint creation. During good times, it’s smooth sailing. But what if the water gets choppy and your boat starts to rock? What if a storm hits?
To the point, how do you handle distress in your relationship? Distress could arise from external events like a storm. Or it could come from a rift within the relationship that triggers upset. All couples encounter distress. What do you do? What if your boat hits something hard and gets punctured?
Insecure couples argue over whose side of the boat the hole is on. They argue about who to blame for the distress. But if you were in an actual boat in the ocean, and it suddenly was punctured and water was gushing in, how much time would you want to spend debating about whose side of the boat the hole was on?
Obviously, trying to assign blame would be self-destructive. The boat just keeps sinking as you argue over whose side the hole is on. Exactly the same thing is true when there is distress in your relationship. As you debate over who is to blame for the upset, you just keep sinking further.
Operating from Love 3.0, you are in each other’s care. Hence when it comes to handling distress in the relationship, you have a very different viewpoint. You would operate from the following maritime principles:
- “We sail together, or sink together.”
- “If you tip over, so do I.”
- “If our boat flips, we both go down.”
- “So we keep each other upright.”
- “We relieve each other’s distress.”
- “We have and use an S.O.S. signal.”
- “We quickly repair everything.”
- “If there’s a leak, we both grab the buckets.”
Pause here and get a feel for this way of thinking. Take a moment and imagine hearing your significant other (or imaginary one if you are single) say the above sentences to you, one at a time. Then imagine saying the same things to him or her. Sense deep inside what feels good about these declarations.
In the Foxhole Together
Another metaphor for describing the attitudes of Love 3.0 comes from military and similar organizations that train pairs of people form a dyadic buddy-system. The dyad operates as a survival unit in the face of danger, threat, or adversity.
Many trainees were likely steeped in the values of rugged individualism, self-sufficiency, and competition. They probably did not have childhoods that modeled how to deal with distress cooperatively. But despite these deficits, most are successfully trained to operate as a team. They learn to be in each other’s care and form a secure emotional bond which, in many cases, will be the strongest connection in their lives.
In a way, couples in love are also a survival system. At the very least, they are an emotional survival system. Consider the following statements such partners could declare:
- “We are in the foxhole together.”
- “We are in it together.”
- “We have each other’s backs.”
- “We make each other feel safe and secure.”
- “We help each other if there is any distress.”
- “We help resolve distress, even when we cause it.”
- “We are in each other’s care.”
Think about how it would feel to truly be in each other’s care. This is not part of the normative social contract out in the world. But it can be in the emotional home you create with a loving partner.
The Quality of Your Emotional Home
Partners in Love 3.0 are in each other’s care. This includes not just the basics of shelter, food, clothing, or financial security. It means being in each other’s emotional care.
Beyond all the various transactional matters involved in relating to a partner, there is this one singularly crucial factor: how it feels to be in the relationship. On the transactional level, you and your partner may interact around chores, finances, children, social activities, and much more. But how it feels to interact with each other in these matters is what constitutes the quality of emotional home you will share.
In Love 3.0 partners recognize that they co-create an emotional home together. They are each other’s emotional home! Such partners want to create a home that feels safe and secure for both of them, where positive shared feelings thrive and distress is minimized.
Let me repeat. You want to maximize shared happiness and minimize distress. That is all about how your emotional home feels. Think about it. If you could vote on it (and you can), exactly how would you vote for your emotional home to feel like?
Wouldn’t you want to be able to feel all of the following things?
- “You are accepted and loved exactly as you are.”
- “You can just be yourself.”
- “You feel connected with your partner.”
- “The two of you operate like a team.”
- “You matter more than anything else.”
- “All of your feelings and needs matter.”
- “You can get support if you are in distress.”
- “Everything feels fair and equal.”
For your emotional home to feel like a secure place to live, you have to feel all of these things. Read through each one again. Imagine hearing your (real or ideal) partner sincerely say each to you. How would that feel?
Now imagine you could provide that quality of emotional home for each other. Can you also imagine saying each of these things to a partner you choose to share life with? For many of us, it may take a conscious moment to realize that all of those things can and must be felt in the shared emotional home a couple constructs together. It may take a real discussion with each other to set a clear intention that this is what you want to emotionally co-create.
Having a clear shared vision of how you want each other to feel is a vital step in claiming what you want and developing the ability to manifest it together. It does not mean that you will be able to deliver this 100% of the time. No couple can. Every relationship hits bumps in the road and suffers occasional rifts and ruptures.
The point is to consciously state the optimal emotional qualities you intend to share together. These are conscious agreements—or vows—that state how you both deserve to feel in your emotional home.
Core Needs in Your Emotional Home
Drilling down a bit more, we can list a number of other feelings you would feel in a secure functioning emotional home:
- You feel accepted by your partner.
- You feel connected with your partner.
- You feel needed by your partner.
- You feel important to your partner.
- You feel appreciated by your partner.
- You feel respected by your partner.
- You feel understood by your partner.
- You feel your feelings matter to your partner.
- You feel things are fair with your partner.
- You feel valued by your partner.
- You feel trusted by your partner.
- You feel equal to your partner.
- You feel you can reach out to your partner.
- You feel you can count on your partner.
Here’s the thing to realize. Any time either you or your partner are unable to feel something on that list, that will be a rupture to your ability to feel secure. At that moment, a smoke alarm will start ringing in your emotional home.
The smoke alarm is actually a subcortical part of the brain called the amygdala. It is in charge of physical survival. The inability to feel one of the feelings on the list can trigger distress and upset.
This list is a not merely a diagnostic set of feelings that indicate secure functioning. Each item on the list is essential for safety. It lists the “air, food and water” of your emotional home. If you cannot feel one item on the list, your survival alarm will ring.
To feel like you are in a secure emotional home, you need to feel each and every one of those feelings. Love 3.0 is built on the principle that these needs are at the core of whether a couple’s love thrives over time or gets eroded by a series of ruptures. These are core needs for maintaining love and happiness in a marriage.
All too many couples do not realize the underlying emotional needs of a healthy marriage. Most of us were not trained to talk about feelings growing up, nor did we witness adults who did this particularly well. Love 2.0 platitudes continue to echo throughout our society, including in therapy, that the solution to relationship issues is to overcome codependence and be responsible for your own feelings.
Love 3.0 is a more proactive and effective model for building a healthy marriage and a happy emotional home. It offers ideas and tools that are in alignment with the psychobiological facts of interdependence. And the outcomes for couples seeking help are dramatically superior to the typical results found in traditional couples therapy.
Thus what I have personally found has been that it is not merely the intensive retreat format that is effective in my couples work. It is the underlying model of Love 3.0 in the work itself that gives it power to truly help couples transform their marriages.
The intensive format enables couples to learn and integrate this model and its practical tools and have felt experiences of emotional repair that, in turn, change how they feel about each other, their shared emotional home, and the future of their marriage.