One of the questions I’m asked most frequently in my psychotherapy practice is: “What is a healthy relationship?” To many, this is a great mystery as they have not had adequate or sometimes even any models of a positive, loving relationship.
As with most challenges we experience, the answer is surprisingly simple. The 4 S’s of healthy attachment — Safety, Security, being Seen and Soothed — were originally used for helping parents create loving bonds with their children. These same four ideas can help any couple create a healthy relationship, even if they haven’t known one previously.
Our brains are designed to need the 4 S’s. Providing them for your partner can help you receive them as well.
We certainly need to be physically safe, but emotional safety is just as important for a healthy relationship. We can create a safe place for each other by using soft tones of voice and “I” statements to bring up difficult topics. For example, imagine if your partner said in a harsh tone, “You need to take out the garbage!”, instead of “Honey, I’m overwhelmed with housework and would appreciate help with the garbage.” To which would you respond best?
When someone feels unsafe, our brain tells us immediately to fight, flee or play dead (meaning zone out or withdraw). When someone feels safe, we want to be with them, love and nurture them.
We increase a feeling of safety through being vulnerable. “Vulnerability is a key aspect in healthy attachment,” says Bernadette Hayes, LCPC, a Chicago therapist. “Not being afraid to go to your partner to seek comfort seems like a rather simple thing to do, but many people find it difficult and even scary to let someone know they need them.” Yet by being vulnerable, we increase each other’s ability to feel safe enough to bond.
Security is a sense of safety combined with stability. We need to feel our partner is sticking with us through the natural ebbs and flows of the relationship. Secure partners don’t easily threaten to leave the relationship. They also reassure each other they’re in the relationship to stay either directly or through their actions. Security also relates to how the couple connects with each other implicitly.
“Security is an overall deeply felt state. For secure couples an argument is just a temporary blip that doesn’t threaten their bond,” says Hayes. “Couples that are securely attached seem to be willing to broach difficult topics and have conversations to arrive at some resolution and often report feeling more bonded afterward.”
We need to feel seen by our partner. This means we need to feel understood. No one will perfectly understand their partner all the time. The good news is that just trying to understand or see the world through a loved one’s eyes makes a healthy difference.
Rebecca Nichols, LCPC, a Chicago therapist who specializes in relationships and dating, tries to help partners go deep in sharing how they see each other, “Instead of a general statement such as ‘you are always there for me,’ I ask them to elaborate.” She encourages specific statements, “’You always cheer me on to try new things, even when I doubt myself’ carries much more weight.”
Being seen through the eyes of our loved ones helps build one’s sense of self. If there is a particularly fraught disagreement, partners may have a hard time trying to see their partner’s perspective. One remedy is to try to visualize the partner as the child they once were and imagine what that child is seeing and feeling. It’s always easier to empathize with a child.
If you realize you are having a hard time understanding your partner, mirroring back verbatim or paraphrasing what you just heard them say helps to clarify if you heard correctly. If you didn’t understand correctly, the speaker can clear up any misunderstanding.
A healthy relationship soothes our nervous system. Studies have shown that experimentally inflicted pain registers less when a safe and loving partner is holding our hand. The partner holding the hand of a person in an unhappy relationship, however, increases the pain response. We can ask ourselves at any given time if we are acting in a way that is soothing. If not, we can take the time to breathe through our noses to calm our own nervous system and then make a repair with our partner to help soothe them.
Making positive physical contact every day is an important way to soothe each other. For example, renowned couple researcher John Gottman talks about the importance of a daily 6-second kiss. He also notes the importance of soft tones of voice to help couple’s nervous systems stay soothed.
The benefits of a healthy relationship are many both for the couple and individual. “When my clients move from unhealthy to healthy relationships I often see growth in their own acceptance and belief of themselves” says Nichols. “Their self-confidence and self-awareness become heightened and this often translates to increased satisfaction overall and healthier relationships outside of the romantic realm.”
Hayes says that when she sees couples moving from an anxious or distant attachment to a secure connection, “They approach each other with more curiosity and less judgment. They become more playful… and a disagreement becomes just that. It doesn’t linger or threaten their bond.”
At any given time, each partner can ask themselves if they are providing the 4 S’s. If both are, that’s a healthy relationship. If not, positive change is just an S away.