The Big Idea: a successful and long-lasting marriage requires acquiring skills such as: knowing how to communicate, knowing how to fight, knowing how to build a couple bubble, and knowing how to manage thirds
Introduction: Why Should You “We Do?”
42 percent of first marriages end in divorce.
If you want to beat the odds, what’s the best way? Prevention!
Research tells us that both our psychology and biology are major factors for predicting long-term relationship success.
The primary purpose of this book is early prevention.
In two-person psychological systems, both individuals need to understand and accept the same principles or complications will arise.
- THE SECRET TO A SUCCESSFUL MARRIAGE
All successful long-term relationships are what I call secure-functioning relationships.
Think of it this way: the mark of a good couple is how much load bearing the partnership can take without crumbling.
You’re now a two-person system with interdependent nervous systems, wiring together like entangled ivy.
Partners who don’t collaborate often live separate lives, engage in a dictatorship, or live codependently.
If we did an autopsy on all failed relationships, the number of couples where at least one of the partners was ambivalent — either not all in or waiting for their partner to change — would be very high.
Nobody signs up for marriage because they want to be changed by their partner. It doesn’t work. Ever. Go all in or go home. Marriage and commitment can only work if we accept each other wholeheartedly.
Proper management of thirds means partners protect each other. Thirds can be people, pets, or things, including work, hobbies, or substances.
Your personal growth depends on your relationship remaining safe and secure at all times.
Both you and your partner must be clear on priorities and you must agree, otherwise there will be trouble.
I suggest that your highest priority should be the relationship.
The most important reason to marry is to become a thriving survival unit.
- HOW STRONG IS YOUR COUPLE BUBBLE?
A couple bubble is a self-generating energy system that provides resources and protection to the couple.
In your couple bubble, you accept each other as is.
There’s a difference between letting your partner in on how your mind works and making him/her responsible for every negative thought that crosses your mind.
Internal mayhem creates an enormous disturbance in the couple bubble.
Massive sign of immaturity and a definite sign of a one-person psychological system.
Partners who focus solely on their individual needs aren’t collaborative.
Constant vigilance as to who is doing what, getting what, and losing what will strain any relationship.
Since you’re a two-person psychological system, being unnecessarily difficult will only blow back on you.
If you plan to become husband and wife, keep in mind that you must continue to be girlfriend and boyfriend.
A secure-functioning couple is made up of partners who are unafraid of each other; they don’t feel fear, apprehension, or intimidation around each other, and they don’t walk on eggshells.
Without a sense of humor the couple system can become rigid, overly serious, and brittle.
You also understand that in order for the two of you to move together, it can’t be at one person’s cost.
In a one-person model, a partner will put their individual needs before the relationship’s needs (and before their partner’s needs).
Secure-functioning relationships are two-person psychological systems where both parties feel respected, heard, and safe.
I prefer the word bargaining instead of compromising. In a bargain, both may need to give something to get something.
The use of fear, threat, guilt, or shame will only breed acrimony between you.
When you’re sick and your partner isn’t attentive, you tend to remember.
If you can’t show up for your partner who is in the hospital, getting bad news from a doctor, or going through a tough procedure or surgery, then what good are you?
Not good if you don’t accompany your partner to a close friend’s or family member’s funeral.
If you’re not there to witness and participate in your partner’s successes and celebrations, the reason had better be that you’re either trapped under heavy furniture or just simply dead.
In Stephen Covey’s marvelous audiobook How to Develop Your Family Mission Statement, he describes the importance of a family mission statement as vital to developing a shared notion of what the family should be.
- MANAGING YOUR NEGATIVE BRAIN
We’re memory-driven, automatic, and reflexive creatures who act and react at whirlwind speeds and therefore without thought.
Imagine the brain is divided into two sections: primitives and ambassadors. As human beings, we need both our primitives and ambassadors to function properly to help us determine what’s true and false.
Partners who are right-leaning tend to see the world through a lens of emotion and meaning and not with the same calculated precision of those who are left-leaning.
Our brain has a negativity bias.
Once partners begin to perceive the relationship as long term, they depend (nonconsciously) on each other for nervous system regulation, which means balancing each other’s nervous system.
One of the best ways to engender exciting love is to make direct eye contact in close proximity (eye gazing).
A softer, more stable love experience is called quiet love.
Quiet love is closely related to gratitude, happiness, and contentment.
It’s important to quickly and effectively co-manage distress.
If you’re in distress too much of the time, the bad feelings you accrue begin to mitigate the good ones.
- THE TROUBLESOME TRIAD
There are three main areas that cause conflict in relationships. I call them the troublesome triad — memory, perception, and communication.
Our memory isn’t what we think it is, and both people in a partnership need to own this truth.
Perception is like a funhouse mirror. It isn’t at all what you think.
Words mean different things to different people.
So many times I see partners arguing about two different things without even knowing it. That’s how easy it is for communication to go off the rails.
When a baby signals and the response takes too long, the baby’s level of distress increases and becomes part of the calculus for future signaling.
Insecure avoidant individuals tend to be low signalers and poor responders.
Some insecures tend to oversignal both verbally and nonverbally.
The best way to error-correct is to remain curious, friendly, flexible, humble, and open to being wrong. Your relationship’s integrity is what keeps you safe and secure, not your adherence to fact, righteousness, performance, or perfection.
- WHAT ARE YOUR STYLES OF RELATING?
Attachment styles determine how we connect, how we fight, and whether we value our self or our relationships first.
Attachment begins with our earliest caregiver, often referred to as the primary attachment figure.
Secure attachment means that the infant or child is confident that their primary caregiver(s) will appropriately respond to their needs.
An insecure attachment means the child is either unsure or is certain that their primary caregiver(s) will either be unresponsive, inappropriately responsive, or perhaps punitive in response to the child’s attempt to signal distress.
A secure infant, child, teenager, and adult feels confident in their connection to loved ones without fear of abandonment or engulfment.
Secure attachment is the result of a deeply relationship-centered value system in which relationship integrity is of central importance, whereas insecure attachment is the result of a self-centered value system where an individual’s need is of greater importance.
The anchor is the most secure.
In contrast, you have the island and the wave, both relatively insecure when in close, committed love relationships.
Islands and waves operate as one-person psychological systems of “me first.”
Think of islands as more distancing and waves as more clinging.
Islands pride themselves in being independent and self-reliant.
The wave’s ambivalence about dependency can bring about rapid shifts between clinging and distancing.
Unlike islands who need alone time to process, waves need to talk through their problems in order to calm their nervous systems.
Waves have a need to depend on someone or something outside for nearly constant contact and reassurance.
Waves expect to be disappointed, rejected, punished, and abandoned, which leaves them feeling needy and too much of a burden.
Waves fervently seek proximity and love long periods of contact with their partner,
Waves will often calm themselves down by talking to another person.
Waves tend to be negativistic. Think of negativism as evidence of a strong desire for something and an equally strong fear that those hopes will be dashed.
Waves, in general, automatically predict loss.
Waves see things in black and white, which makes it hard for them to make important decisions.
Self-regulation is the ability to manage your emotional and physiological states and regulate your responses to your environment.
Waves tend to have difficulty with self-regulation.
Waves tend to overexpress their emotions and will resort to hyperbole to make their point.
Waves tend to think in a nonlinear and emotion-based manner.
Waves are the most likely to be considered “high maintenance” by their partners.
Nonetheless, waves can often appear to seek conflict and be unable to let things go.
Waves are very relational, often quite warm, affectionate, loving, and exciting.
Secure individuals tend to come from families that value relationships over everything else.
Anchors tend to be happy, resilient people who are good at going with the flow.
Good self-regulation and apt engagement in mutual regulation are hallmark features of the anchor.
Anchors aren’t perfect. After all, they’re people. They can be quite wave-ish or island-ish.
Anchors have problems too. All people are annoying, and all relationships are burdensome.
Unresolved trauma or loss affects how someone feels and behaves.
The child (with a child’s brain) is left to their own devices to adapt to the intensity of the experience. That’s what causes the unresolved part.
Disorganized individuals may have been the recipients of frightening parenting or frightening experiences when they were young.
We’re hurt by people and we’re healed by people. It’s important that individuals who have experienced early trauma or loss seek help with someone knowledgeable in these areas.
As children, we don’t get to choose the family we’re born into. We simply must adapt in order to survive. That’s nature.
Teens’ uneven brain development is at the root of most adolescent behavioral and emotional tumult.
Keep in mind that attachment changes throughout the lifespan.
- HOW WELL DO YOU KNOW EACH OTHER?
The two of you are in each other’s care; therefore it’s incumbent upon both of you to know each other as well as you know yourselves, perhaps better.
Get to know your partner really well. Study them. Pay attention.
While physical looks, wealth and ambition, religion, and personality may be important to you, none of these features guarantee a truly happy long-term relationship.
Talk rigorously about what love means to you. Do this face to face and eye to eye.
Explain to your partner why you love them and be specific. Don’t hedge, take shortcuts, generalize, or say what you think your partner wants to hear.
Couples must have a reason to be together beyond common interests, eroticism, love, kids, or just plain convenience. Couples who stay together for the long term have something much bigger that unites and binds them.
Take turns explaining to each other what you think you have in common.
Lust and passion, or sex alone, aren’t ingredients that can sustain a long-term thriving marriage. While there are ways to cultivate passion and novelty in your partnership, it’s the connection, not the passion, that’s most important.
Have a serious, in-depth conversation about bringing children into your relationship.
Have an honest conversation or debate as to what is and will be your highest priority. Is it (or will it be) the child or children? Will it be your partner relationship?
Here’s my take on the reason to get married: Think survival unit. To thrive together you must first survive together.
You both get to be more than you would otherwise be on your own because you’re potentially more powerful and effective in the world together than you would be alone.
In a secure-functioning relationship, maintaining your couple bubble is paramount.
We seek proximity with our parents, partners, or children by making eye contact, beckoning, calling out, and wanting to talk. These are called bids for attention.
Waves tend to do a lot of proximity seeking and can maintain physical contact for long periods.
When two people are this physically close with eye contact involved, partners will experience something called resonance.
In order to build your owner’s manual, you must learn your partner’s cues moment to moment.
As is often attributed to Shakespeare, the eyes are the windows to the soul. Modern neuroscientists might say the eyes are the windows to the autonomic nervous system.
Eye contact is a powerful connector. It’s also one of the ways in which we can read others. Eye contact is highly stimulating and can be very difficult for some people.
For now, I want you to start paying attention to your partner’s face. Really look closely.
Your partner can’t be all-knowing; therefore, your job of paying attention, being present, and being curious is never done. Secure-functioning partners make it a career of getting to know each other.
- DEAL BREAKERS
A deal breaker is any matter that would disqualify a partner from a committed relationship despite other wonderful conditions.
Common deal breakers involve having children, monogamy, religion, money, sex, drugs and alcohol, child-rearing, place of residence (city versus countryside), and management of thirds.
Of all the big deal breakers, differences between partners about having or not having children is perhaps the biggest.
Differences in desires for family are often difficult to resolve, which is why, when you’re considering long-term partnership, it’s so important to dig deep into this topic before marriage.
One thing is for sure, you will never feel the same about yourself or your relationship, and that isn’t meant to be negative.
Having a child is a game changer to be sure. And…it’s forever.
DO seek professional help as you would in premarital counseling to prepare for being a stepfamily.
If partners start off as secure functioning, managing a blended family should work out just fine.
Money can be a deal breaker.
The question of sexual compatibility is a common issue in my clinic among married couples.
The couple debated these and other issues around sex for a long time after they married. Their sexual appetites changed and their attitudes around lovemaking matured into something deeper and more meaningful than their previously held ideas about sex. Their intense focus on sex drove them to greater understanding about themselves. In other words, they resolved what could have been a deal breaker as they came to a sexual congress with each other.
Many couples have disagreements about the use of drugs and alcohol. When a couple finds themselves at a crossroads on these matters, they tend to sweep these issues under the rug, believing that one or the other will come around to their position. But this rarely happens.
Acts of violence are commonly perpetrated by an alcohol-drenched brain. That alone should be a deal breaker.
Still, even a stoned, drunk, or tripping partner is a drag if the other partner is sober, not interested, and unhappy with their altered lover.
Secure-functioning relationships start with partners accepting each other as is and end with absolute protection of the couple’s safety and security system. Mutual trust is part of that foundation.
Misinformation, falsehoods, omissions, frequent use of deception, or lying will destroy trust in an interdependent relationship where the primary reason for existing is based on trust.
The longer information is withheld or misrepresented, the greater the risk that the partner who had been in the dark will feel betrayed.
It’s never a good idea to withhold, conceal, or misrepresent information vital to the other partner’s interests, and it never ends well.
A few deal breakers have to do with the management of thirds. Thirds are in-laws, children, stepchildren, ex-spouses, drugs and alcohol, hobbies, porn.
Deal breakers often lie hidden because partners refuse to address, acknowledge, and solve them prior to getting married.
Sex is probably the most common problem area of all.
But I do want to briefly examine our definition of the word sex since there doesn’t appear to be just one meaning.
I broadly define sex as having any erotic physical contact with another person.
We’ve established that lovemaking is much more than coitus. It’s about affection, friendship, and deepening our knowledge of each other. It’s also about healing.
Sexual intimacy benefits both partners in many ways. One well-known benefit is the production of oxytocin and vasopressin, particularly in the female when reaching orgasm.
Sex is perhaps best when it’s about making, generating, and sustaining feelings of love and affection.
Fertility issues are complex and can greatly stress a couple.
Sexual issues involved in making babies can lead to many problems, especially for insecure-functioning couples.
DO become a secure-functioning couple before adding a third (baby).
DO plan responsibly before conceiving a child. Make certain that finances, employment, and other resources are in place.
Many couples think that having a baby will fix their marital problems. This is rarely the case.
DO respond quickly to your partner’s concerns, wishes, or sensitivities.
DON’T disrespect, dismiss, or devalue your partner’s concerns, wishes, or sensitivities.
DON’T withhold information about what you’re doing, thinking, feeling, or planning.
Most of the problems in the bedroom are fixable!
Proximity seeking and contact maintenance have little to do with love and a lot to do with safety and security.
There’s no couple activity as exposing as sex, nothing that requires as much proximity seeking and contact maintenance.
For the avoidant, oral sex can resolve the interpersonal stress problem, as can sex with the lights off and sexual positions whereby one partner’s back is to the other or one partner’s face is hidden.
Go in for a full body hug and hold it like statues. Make sure your chests and stomachs are touching.
Anxiety around performance is a real joy killer.
Sexual drive and interest will change throughout the lifespan for various reasons. If you expect to maintain the same libidinal energy throughout your time together you will likely be greatly disappointed. Besides, nothing kills libido like high expectations and performance pressure.
Resist scheduling sex.
Fears of contamination are a constant preoccupation for individuals suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder; such individuals can experience disgust almost continuously.
Sex, pornography, body fluids, and body parts can elicit disgust in a great many people.
Disgust includes a typical human revulsion to the notion that humans are animals. Many people view sex as beastly, especially when engaged for purposes other than procreation.
Studies have shown that male and female individuals who masturbate have a greater understanding of how their body works.
Early interpersonal stimulation, experienced as frequent and sustained face-to-face, eye-to-eye, and skin-to-skin contact with another human being, is an essential condition for social-emotional development and vitality.
Conversely, many hypersexual adults often have histories of sexual abuse, molestation, or overstimulation early in childhood.
Other low-stimulation families yield offspring that are hyposexual.
Males with high levels of oxytocin tend to be more relational but less sexual than other males.
DO talk with each other about sexual drive and expectation — be honest.
DON’T ignore a deal breaker if one of you feels that frequent sex or sexual variety is a “must-have” feature and the other doesn’t.
DON’T assume that libido will remain the same for either or both of you.
All experimentation in the bedroom can support long-term marriage and commitment as long as both partners agree completely to what’s happening and no one is hiding something from the other.
Try saying your partner’s first name while making love.
The key throughout this and other chapters is secure functioning, which means that whatever you’re doing together, you do so with full transparency, playfulness, and in a manner that’s fair and sensitive.
Playful (and humorous) couples tend to be the happiest.
- HOW WELL DO YOU FIGHT?
All couples have conflict and will cause each other distress from time to time.
Since conflict and distress are the norm, it’s essential that you learn to fight well and repair quickly.
Stick to one topic and one topic only.
Keep conversations short and to the point.
Don’t make your partner sit too long.
Be friendly as much as you can.
Take care of your own fears and interests while taking care of your partner’s fears and interests.
Now here’s the formula: you’re more likely to be heard when you take care of yourself and your partner at the same time.
DO offer amends, accolades, appreciation, and anything that directly responds to your partner’s complaint(s).
It’s vital that during distress the two of you move as quickly as possible toward mutual relief.
Stick to one issue only until it’s taken off the table.
If you run out of time, reassure each other that the matter will be taken up again soon and that it will work out for both of you.
At the start of a conflict, remain face to face and eye to eye.
Never fight by email, text, or phone.
Stick to one thing, and one thing only. Never move on to another topic or issue before taking the current issue off the table completely. One issue at a time.
Tensing and relaxing, tightening and loosening, or holding on and letting go are all phrases used to describe how we go into and get out of difficult moments.
Both of you should maintain awareness of taking too long to process or talk about anything that’s stressful. Think, go in and get out, hold on and let go, tense and then relax, and drop everything so when you do come back to any stressful discussion, you’ll be refreshed and ready to tackle it together.
YOU CAN BE RIGHT OR YOU CAN BE IN A RELATIONSHIP.
Putting the relationship first, above being right, means having to swallow one’s own pride.
The art of lowering oneself isn’t just a survival technique. It’s also a skill intended to show a partner, through physicality, they intend no harm.
Lead with relief.
Make sure your partner knows precisely what you know about their wants, needs, fears, and worries. Put yourself in your partner’s shoes.
Be loving and friendly.
Be respectful, admiring, appreciative.
Track your partner’s face, voice, and movements for signs of distress or relief.
Consider giving up the need to be absolutely right.
Practice tensing and letting go.
- WHAT DOES THE FUTURE HOLD?
Alternative forms of partnership, such as open marriages and polyamorous arrangements, can be successful or catastrophic.
The world favors couples — always has.
Mentor couples can serve as real-life examples of successful relationships.
Futurize, travel in time, and imagine what the relationship could be as you journey through life together.
Holding in mind the possibility you could lose your partner tomorrow makes you value them today.
While we’re at it, gratitude is a key to happiness.
Strong couples are made up of strong partners willing to throw down if a boundary is crossed. If neither of you are willing to respond appropriately to a crossed line, you’re screwed.
Make no mistake, secure functioning is conditional love. Unconditional love is reserved for children and pets. Step out of line and your partner must lower the hammer — and vice versa. We all need to know our limits, and the two of you must hold each other to the same limits and act if those limits are violated.
Reassess your relationship as you move forward. Consider re-upping your commitment to each other, maybe every year.
Go easy on each other. Take care of each other. Remember that the two of you are a survival unit. Your lives as well as your happiness depend on each other as competent caregivers. It’s the two of you against the world.