Couples who I see in my office tell me about seemingly insignificant events that cause them great distress. In a moment, when their partner does or says something, they feel hurt or afraid and then instantly become angry. At that moment, they were left feeling alone in the relationship. They felt their feelings were not important and they did not matter to their partner.
Consider Janet and Mike. When they go to parties, Mike is often the centre of attention, telling great stories and making others laugh. Janet enjoys his outgoing nature. She tends to prefer one on one conversations when out. At a recent social function for his work, when Mike got talking to a group of his co-workers, Janet went to mingle with others on her own. She did her best to make small talk with his colleagues and their spouses she did not really know. After a couple of hours, she became tired and was ready to go home. She went over to Mike and tried to get his attention, but he ignored her. Mike was in full flight of a story that the crowd around him were enjoying with laughter. Eventually, as many of the guests were leaving, and there was an appropriate moment, Janet tried Mike again, “I would like to go home now.” Mike replied somewhat defiantly. “Well I am not ready to leave yet. Why don’t you just get another glass of wine?” In reaction to this, Janet turned and made a quick exit from the party. She called a cab on her cell. Mike went after her and Janet said to him in anger. “Why do you bring me to these work events and ignore me!” “Keep your voice down!’ Mike cautioned, “You are making a scene! Why do have to be so dramatic.” Mike was really miffed and embarrassed. “Am I supposed hold your hand the whole time? Why can’t you just have a good time like I do?” Janet reacted, “How dare you condescend to me! Don’t bother inviting me the next time, I won’t be coming!” ” Don’t worry I won’t, you ruin things every time!” said Mike, as the cab arrived and Janet got in.
When Mike and Janet are very upset, they both end up sounding very self-centred. Mike’s response to Janet’s request to go home, demonstrates his belief in the autonomy of each of them. He thinks they should each operate independently, each enjoying the gathering without requiring the other’s attention or protection of the other. That is to say, he sees them as individuals first and as a couple second. He would say “I am my own person and so should you be.” This is a commonly held belief. Unfortunately, this belief does not work so well for Mike when the shoe is on the other foot. When Mike is at Janet’s work event or her family functions, he has much more difficulty being independent.
Autonomy or Mutuality?
What would it be like if, instead of this situation unfolding the way it did, Janet and Mike put their relationship first? What if each took the perspective that if I make sure that my partner has a good time, I will have a good time, and we will head home happy after the party? How different it would be if they worked out an understanding before the party that each would check in with the other every hour or so to make sure that each was enjoying themselves. If not, they find a way to help the other enjoy themselves. An interest in mutuality rather than autonomy would put their relationship first.
A Relationship Guarantee
In his book Wired for Love, Stan Tatkin reminds us that we are social animals who depend on other people. We pair due to an instinctive need to satisfy a longing for creating a safe zone, where we can relax, feel accepted, wanted, protected and cared for. He encourages people in committed relationships to create what he calls a ‘Couple Bubble’. This refers to a mutually created cocoon that holds a couple together and protects them from the outside elements. It is an intimate environment that partners create to sustain together and implicitly guarantees things such as:
- “I will never leave you.”
- “I will never frighten you purposefully”
- “If you are in distress, I will relieve you even if I am the one causing you the distress.”
- “Our relationship is more important than my need to be right, your performance, your appearance, what other people think or want, or any other completing value.”
- “You will be the first to hear about anything, not the second, third or fourth person I tell.”
How Close Are You to Your Partner?
A feeling of being close and feeling safe with you partner is a subjective experience. It is important to be aware of it and attend to it. One of you may feel very close, while the other does not. Here are a few questions Stan Tatkin came up with to help you discover ways you offer closeness and safety to your partner:
- Review the list of guarantees above. What guarantees have you given your partner?
- What guarantees would you like to give?
- What guarantees would you like to receive?
- You don’t need to receive a guarantee from your partner before you offer one. Look for moments when you can express your feelings of closeness and promise safety.
‘Putting your relationship first’ means knowing what matters to your partner and making them feel safe and secure. It also means having confidence in your partner to jointly maintain and protect the relationship as a priority. When couples can count on the strength of the relationship as a primary means of support and protection, then it helps them feel more confident in themselves. Each can be more secure and assertive with others when they are away from each other.