I work with a lot of married couples as a Marriage and Family Therapist. As I witness my clients seeking to work through conflict, mend the breaches in their relationships, and remain emotionally connected, I am constantly on the lookout for what spouses find most meaningful in helping them to overcome their difficulties and strengthen their relationships.
Core Needs in a Marriage
When I break down much of what I hear married couples saying in a counselling session, it becomes apparent that what they are seeking in their relationship is to feel loved, cherished, valued and understood. They need to know that they are a priority to their spouse. During our work together, we learn that it is often these core needs that drive the painful conflicts that couples have. However, the spouses are all-too-often unable to express these core needs, and are therefore unable to address these underlying concerns effectively.
A major reason why these core needs cannot be addressed is because couples get caught in debate cycles that ultimately leave each partner feeling hurt, angry and misunderstood. By arguing over who did what, when, where and how, these debate cycles just serve to drive couples further apart emotionally. Ironically, the very conversations that these couples are having to help them come closer together only end up leaving them more upset, hurt and emotionally distant. Why is this?
When Marital Connection is Lost
It often seems as if spouses forget that they are married to another human being who also has a nervous system and who experiences deep emotion. Your spouse is still human, even if their actions make you think otherwise. As such, when they sense that the emotional bond that connects them to their partner is breaking down, they will seek to resolve the anxiety as quickly as they can. But when married couples don’t know how to restore this sense of connection in their communication with each other, the process quickly breaks down. As a result, the anxiety experienced by each partner will continue and they will probably continue in an unhealthy cycle of negative engagement.
Dr. Susan Johnson, founder of the empirically validated approach to therapy called Emotionally Focused Therapy, explains that couples often seek to resolve their underlying sense of anxiety by either becoming demanding and clinging in an effort to draw comfort and reassurance from their partner, or else they withdraw and detach in an attempt to soothe and protect themselves. However, while these responses are aimed at reestablishing a sense of safe connection in the relationship, she argues that they lead to vicious spirals of insecurity that only push couples further apart.
The Need for Clear Messages in a Marriage
Married couples who frequently find themselves caught in such destructive spirals have not yet learned how to effectively understand, identify and resonate with each other’s underlying emotions and responses. Dr. Johnson describes this process well when she writes:
If we love our partners, why do we not just hear each other’s calls for attention and connection and respond with caring? Because much of the time we are not tuned in to our partners. We are distracted or caught up in our own agendas. We do not know how to speak the language of attachment, we do not give clear messages about what we need or how much we care. (2008)
Statements like this teach us how important it is for spouses to express clearly what they are really going through. Instead of attacking, blaming, hiding or withdrawing from their significant other, spouses need to be able to express what they feel. They need to express their need to feel important and loved, the anxiety they experience as a result of the loss of emotional connection in the relationship, their desire to feel cherished and to know that they are a priority for their spouse.
We can also see how important it is for spouses to respond to these attempts at connection in a loving, affectionate, kind and caring manner. In this, they validate or affirm what the other partner is experiencing. It is this type of response that helps to soothe the other spouse’s underlying sense of panic or anxiety in the relationship, and draws both individuals closer together, helping to restore the emotional bond between them.
The Power of Our Response in Marriage
We can summarize what we’ve discussed so far as follows:
Considering our innate human desire for connectedness with others, and what it is that helps us to experience the sense of being loved, cherished, valued and made to feel like a priority to others, how we respond to each other is of the utmost importance.
When married couples understand and appreciate the powerful drive which we have as human beings for connection with others, and the emotional pain experienced when that connection is lost, even if only for a few moments, they can begin to resonate with the powerful responses of their spouse. They can begin to offer their spouses the soothing, caring, and nurturing response that they need to provide the sense of security and love that they are seeking.
Christian Counseling Can Help You to Connect with Your Spouse
This article has discussed how important it is to connect with your spouse, and how important your responses are in enabling such connection. However, it can sometimes help to have outside input and a trained Christian counselor can assist both you and your spouse to address problems in your communication if your marital connection is encountering difficulties. Christian Counseling can provide a safe and unique context in which to address your marital concerns from a sound clinical and biblical perspective.
Johnson, S. (2008). Hold me tight. Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love. New York: Little, Brown and Company.
*Photos are the sole property of Eric Gomez, MS LMFT MHP.