A healthy marriage is one in which both members of the couple feel safe. It is only when there is a foundation of safety that the individuals as well as the couple can grow and mature. With it comes the intimacy that is only possible when people feel secure enough to be vulnerable. Without it, any conflict threatens the entire relationship.
It’s true that the marriages of some of the couples I see in therapy should end. Some probably never should have taken place at all. These are the couples who have not been able to establish and maintain safety in their relationship. Some married for all the wrong reasons: to get out of a parent’s home, for financial gain, or just because everyone else expected them to. Some struggle with verbal, physical, or emotional abuse. In such cases, it’s important to first ensure individual safety. Only when that is established should a couple think about trying again.
But most of the couples I’ve seen in practice are not struggling with the consequences of marrying without love or with issues of abuse. They’ve come for counseling because they long for the connection they once had or their efforts at connection aren’t working. “We can’t communicate” really means “we’re not connecting.” Often enough, one or the other (or both) doesn’t feel safe enough to be 100 percent in the relationship.
Love alone is not enough. Safety depends on attitudes and behaviors that support emotional connection and deep respect for each other. If one or the other feels insecure, distrustful or emotionally threatened, the marriage simply won’t work over the long term. It may last — people stay in unsatisfying relationships for many reasons. But it won’t be an intimate one.
A marriage should be a safe haven for each partner where they feel loved, cherished, and seen; where they can take their togetherness for granted in a positive way. A good marriage is one in which each partner consistently works on the following elements of safety:
Safety depends on each being sure that the other person is committed to the promise of commitment and will do whatever they can to live up to that promise. All marriages have rough patches. Every marriage has times when the partners feel out of sync with each other. Commitment to the commitment means that both partners work on the problems. They don’t disengage or bail. They don’t indulge in laying blame. Each takes responsibility for their part in the growing distance between them and works hard to fix it.
Trust is a gift we give someone we love. In a healthy marriage, it is a given. Each knows the other would never do anything to break their heart. They treat it as the precious commodity it is because they understand that once broken, trust is very difficult to reclaim. Couples that last are couples where neither betrays that trust. Because trust is so necessary for safety and because it’s possible to misread situations, neither jumps to conclusions about betrayal. Rather, when one of the partners feels betrayed, they talk it through.
In order to trust, both partners must be honest with themselves and each other. Because neither has anything to hide, passwords to the phones and computers are shared. They are honest about their finances, their activities and their relationships. They understand that a couple is a team of two and each needs to be able to count on the other’s integrity for it to work.
- Mutual respect.
In healthy marriages, the partners appreciate and love the other person for who she or he is — and regularly says so. They respect each other’s opinions, goals, thoughts and feelings. They listen closely and are willing to learn from each other. Neither talks down to the other nor makes contemptuous gestures or comments that invalidate the other’s ideas or feelings.
Fidelity means different things to different people. It’s not useful to assume that of course you both have the same thing in mind when you talk about it. A healthy couple has talked clearly and honestly about how they define “cheating” and their expectations of themselves and each other. They make a mutual pact that they promise to keep.
- Platinum Rule.
We’ve all heard about the Golden Rule: “Treat others as you would like to be treated.” It’s a fine rule but the Platinum Rule takes things one step further: “Treat others as they would like to be treated.” That means taking the time to understand what most supports and delights your partner and doing it, even if you would not want the same thing.
- Emotional availability.
In successful marriages, the partners are emotionally engaged with each other. Both express affection regularly. Both are invested in sharing their thoughts and feelings and are receptive to their partner’s. Neither person shuts down emotionally when there is conflict. Instead they reach for each other and support each other while they work through whatever is troubling.
- Clean fighting.
Yes. Everyone loses it sometimes. But one can be angry without diminishing the other person. Name-calling, insulting, intimidating, threatening to leave or to kick the other person out are elements of dirty fighting. Those who handle a conflict by verbal aggression or emotional blackmail rarely solve it. Usually it makes the problem far worse than it needed to be.
Healthy couples know how to fight respectfully. They don’t indulge in blame. Instead, they speak from their own experience and feelings. They greet their partner’s behavior, frustrations or negative perceptions with curiosity, not anger. (See: https://psychcentral.com/lib/10-rules-for-friendly-fighting-for-couples/.) The result is usually new understanding.
Marriages that last are built on safety. Without it, neither member of the couple can relax into the relationship. With it, each person becomes a better version of themselves and the marriage grows in strength and intimacy.