What are the necessities of life? We can all agree that it takes certain things to sustain the human body: water, air, food, sleep. But what does a fully formed, happy, and fulfilling life look like?
Human beings are social animals. We’ve evolved to require connection to other humans in order to maintain an optimum level of wellbeing. I’d argue that a close, loving and supportive relationship is vital to living a good life.
Does this mean that single folks are somehow not complete? Absolutely not! There are many different types of meaningful close relationships that protect us from loneliness and provide us with support. Today I’ll focus on romantic adult partnerships, but generally, this post is about adult attachment and its role in happiness and general wellbeing.
Perhaps you’ve heard of attachment as it relates to children in infancy? There’s a whole movement in parenting named for attachment and the concept is well researched in the field of psychology. The evidence is prolific and conclusive: attachment is necessary for children to develop normally; just as important as proper nutrition and a safe place to live.
More recently, researchers have been learning about how the concept of attachment works in adulthood. The evidence also points to the importance of at least one intimate, supportive, and stable relationship for adults to be able to function properly.
Typically, our primary attachment figure in adulthood is our spouse/partner and in a perfect world, this relationship provides a base of support that gives us the strength we need to overcome life’s challenges; big or small.
Unfortunately, for many of us, our relationship is not always an anchor of support, but a source of turbulence on the waters of life.
Think back to the last time that you had a major or minor challenge. Your boss piled on some extra tasks at work that are outside of your job description; but now you have to get them done, without extra compensation. Your elderly father had a fall at home and now you’re arguing with your sibling about where the best place is for him to live. You’ve just had your first child and after a difficult birth, you’re struggling with feelings of sadness and guilt about your ambivalence with new motherhood.
What does support from your partner look like?
- Does she listen intently and provide feedback and advice in a gentle and loving way?
- Does he hold you when you break down in tears and tell you how hard it is to see you upset?
- Does she help you come up with options when you express a desire to tackle this problem actively?
Or does it look more like this:
- He rolls his eyes and says, “I don’t have time to listen to you complain if you’re not going to do anything to fix this problem”
- She blows up and texts your sibling to give them a piece of her mind, further complicating an already volatile situation
- He avoids you in the evenings hoping maybe you won’t try to talk about your feelings. He never knows what to say and your tears “freak him out”
No relationship is perfect, nor do they exist in a vacuum. Maybe you’re usually a really good listener, but the last six months at work have been especially busy and you’ve been distracted. Perhaps your partner is typically warm and compassionate, but you’ve recently exchanged some hurtful words and she just can’t muster up a hug for you right now.
But generally, secure adult attachment looks like a soft place to fall when life is kicking the crap out of you.
Fostering that strong attachment is curative and healing for all aspects of life. Parenting becomes easier when you have a partner who shares the load and a look across the room that says, “when did this kid get such an attitude?”. Work is easier to face every day when you can sit across the dinner table and practice what you’ll say to your boss to strike that right tone of assertive but not whiny, when complaining about that extra workload.
We all compartmentalize our lives to a certain extent. It’s easy to take an inventory and say, “well I’m doing alright in my job, but maybe my fitness level could be better”. Or, “I’m feeling good in my friend relationships, but my marriage feels pretty unstable this year”. I’m suggesting that all aspects of our lives are interconnected and that a supportive loving relationship is the one thing that can positively affect all other aspects.
Conversely a threat to the love in your life, is uniquely painful and unsettling. Think about it this way, while life’s stressors can challenge any relationship, a strong attachment will remain intact and help you to tackle those stressors. On the other hand, a true threat to your relationship can overwhelm your coping skills, making almost all other aspects of life very difficult to maintain.
Look, I know that break-ups, separations, and divorce aren’t uncommon, and somehow people manage to move on with their lives. But I believe an untold amount of suffering, stress related disease, and mental health concerns can be traced back to the dissolution of these attachment relationships.
As a therapist, I’d argue that the maintenance and repair of love is the most important thing that we can do to help people overcome the problems that they face.
For me, building human connection is the foundation of everything I do in the therapy room. And besides affecting societal change (more on that in a later post), I think it’s the most important aspect of my work as a psychologist. Yep, love is really big for me.
When I work with couples, I explain it like this: Our goal is to strengthen the attachment bond. That’s it. It’s not to make you have less stress, it’s not to make you feel more happiness, it’s not to make you have more sex, and it’s not even about reaching the ubiquitous goal of “better communication”. Everything stems from building a stronger, safer, and more stable bond.
You’ll be able to deal with life’s stress better if you have a non-judgemental partner at home to help you cope. You’ll feel more happiness if you’re not bogged down in mean-spirited and damaging arguments all the time. You’ll have more sex (or the just-right amount of sex?) if you feel safe enough to be vulnerable in expressing your desire to your partner. And yes, you will communicate more effectively with your partner if every interaction isn’t coloured by that really hurtful thing they did.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve begun therapy with a client to work on individual goals and what we end up talking about is their relationship. Often times, when I suggest we invite their partner into therapy, their response is, “oh no, it’s not bad enough yet for couples’ therapy”.
Your relationship does not need to be banging on the rocks to warrant couples therapy.
I’m biased of course, but I wish that every couple would do a course of maintenance therapy every 5 years or every time they faced a new life transition. Just married? Couples therapy. New baby? Couples therapy. Just retired? Couples counselling.
As I said earlier, relationships aren’t static and they don’t exist in a vacuum. As we experience life’s ups and downs, our attachment relationships are tested. Ideally, it’s the steady ship on life’s stormy seas, but the fact is, often times it’s a dinghy being thrown around and in danger of capsizing.
Okay, so how am I going to finish this all-important first post on the topic I hold most dear? I’ll make a pitch: Try your best to put some energy into the maintenance and care of your relationship like you do for your car, or your teeth, or your home.
You would feel so awful if you were standing on the side of the road, smoke spewing out of the hood of your broken-down car, realizing the problem was caused by never getting a tune-up or changing the oil.
It’s like that with love. We get out what we put in (or some other love-related cliché). Seriously though, it’s important.
Need to talk about your relationship?
Providing Individual, couples, and family counselling with offices in both Langham and Saskatoon, SK. Amber Prefontaine is registered with the Saskatchewan College of Psychologists as a full practice member (#985).