10 Principles for Secure Functioning Relationships
Are you interested in improving the quality of your relationship? Or maybe you feel comfortable and secure and want to continue on your journey of lasting love and could use some helpful tips. The 10 Principles for Secure Functioning Relationships is based on Wired for Love by Stan Tatkin, the creator of PACT (the Psycho-biological Approach to Couple Therapy). These principles integrate recent brain research, attachment theory, and lessons learned from couples therapy and are immensely helpful in keeping your relationship healthy and happy.
1. Safety and Security: The Couple Bubble
The “couple bubble” is the safety and security system of the relationship that the couple creates and maintains. Imagine the partnership as a place in which both individuals can relax and feel accepted, safe, and loved rather than worrying about defending against attack and criticism. It is a place where each partner can ask for help, receive support, and share vulnerabilities without risk of harm. Both partners have the responsibility to take care of this safety and security system, if not, both partners will suffer.
The care of the relationship and your partner is at the top of the list… it comes before friends, in-laws, work and co-workers, TV, drugs/alcohol, and computer time. It is based on mutuality and consideration rather than autonomy and the “what’s in it for me” mindset. It does not mean we have to spend every moment together or give up on our interests and passions… it means that we keep each other in mind when making decisions and adjust to keep the partnership secure and safe.
**Try this to focus on your couple bubble: Ask your partner what helps them to feel safe and secure in the relationship. It may be different than what you thought and very different than what works for you.
2. Calming the brain: Partners can make love and avoid war when the security-seeking parts of the brain are put at ease.
Threatening words, tone of voice, and facial expressions are immediately scanned by our partner’s brain (limbic system), registered as safe or unsafe, and reacted to before the slower, rational part of the brain is able to analyze, assess, and think through the situation. This means that, even though we think we are being considerate of our partner and using a logical argument to voice our concerns, if we are also using words that blame or threaten, a harsh or demeaning tone of voice, or threatening facial expressions, our partner will react to this before they have time to focus on what our words are saying.
**The next time your partner is upset or irritated, try taking a soothing tone of voice, soft eyes, and soothing touch and see how your partner responds.
3. Early attachment affects how partners relate: Partners relate to one another primarily as anchors (securely attached), islands (insecurely avoidant), or waves (insecurely ambivalent).
Our blueprint for relationship was developed in early childhood and affects how we view and respond to our world as adults. Whether we felt safe, secure, and valued sets the stage for our later interactions because our brain develops based on the experiences we have early in life. However, many of us did not grow up in secure environments. Some of us were raised in high-conflict environments with harsh and punitive or absent parents. These differences affect how we manage our emotions and impulses.
**Get curious, or if it feels welcomed, invite a loving talk about early childhood memories. Who did your partner go to when scared and how did this person respond to them. Who did they go to for warmth, comfort, and safety? What are some early memories (did you or your partner tend to play alone? Was the environment one of “children should be seen but not heard”?)
4. Know what works for your partner: Partners who are experts on one another know how to please and soothe each other.
Do you know what works for your partner? What helps them to feel soothed and nurtured… what irritates or upsets them… and can you accurately pick up on how they are feeling and know how to make them feel better? Partners are in each other’s care and need to become experts on the other to enhance the feelings of safety and security rather than provoking feelings of threat and misattunement.
What is your partner’s attachment style and how does this influence their irritations and preferences (I will write more about this in a future blog)? Avoidant (islands), anxious-ambivalent (waves), and secure (anchors) partners all respond differently and have different preferences, needs, and vulnerabilities.
**Explore you and your partner’s Love Languages: Do they prefer words of affirmation, gifts, acts of service, quality time, physical touch.
5. Creating daily routine and rituals to stay connected: Partners with busy lives should create and use bedtime and morning rituals, as well as reunion rituals, to stay connected.
Beginning and ending the day with positive contact with your partner will have enormous benefit for you throughout the day and throughout your relationship. For bedtime, this could be as simple as going to bed at the same time, a good night hug or kiss, a backrub, or, if you are traveling, a phone call before bed to reconnect and say goodnight. Morning rituals could include breakfast or coffee together, saying goodbye with a hug or kiss before leaving for the day, or a phone call or text to say” good morning, I love you” if you are away. Often, we get busy and forget these simple, meaningful ways to stay connected to our significant other.
**Talk with your partner about morning and bedtime rituals you have or want to create and then practice them and see what happens (better sleep, better mood, better day?). You can get creative with ideas. Try them out and see what each prefers.
6. Have each other’s back: Partners should serve as the primary go-to people for one another. “Everything we do is good for me and good for you” and finding win-win situations. Partnerships such as these allow each individual to feel held in a protective environment even when they are away from their partner- they know that they can count on the other in times of stress. They feel secure and connected to someone who is interested and cares about them. Are you committed to being available for your partner 24/7 in times of need?
**Create go-to signals for you and your partner- something that would signal to the other they are needed. This is especially helpful for islands (avoidants) who tend to have more difficulty switching gears- it is helpful for them to be signaled in a way that allows them time to shift from what they are doing rather than having to drop what they are doing suddenly. Examples of signals: words “I know you are in the middle of something, but I need a minute or two to talk about…” Taking the other’s hands in yours and looking them in the eyes. A text or phone call to schedule time together.
7. Stay connected: Partners should prevent each other from being a third wheel when relating to outsiders.
This goes back to the importance of the couple bubble… when including people or things from outside the relationship (children, in-laws, friends, drugs/alcohol, work, etc) it is important to know that you two are in this together and that you choose each other. This decreases feelings of threat that may otherwise be experienced when the relationship takes on the influence of something from the outside. This includes coming to an agreement with your partner about what is and is not considered “private” in the relationship and honoring and respecting this agreement. It is tempting to take our private disagreements to friends or family to gain support and assistance, however this threatens the security of the relationship when your partner’s privacy is violated.
**What are small and big ways you can show your partner that he/she is not threatened by something or someone outside the relationship? Small ways could include touching your partner’s back when you are talking to a friend at a party and including him/her in the conversation. Smiling at your partner from across the room when you are both at a gathering but are with separate groups of people. Big ways could include declaring to your in-laws that you are not interested in negative words about your partner and ending the conversation when this happens; not intervening or taking over when your partner is having a “parenting moment” (a.k.a. argument/discussion) with one of your children.
8. Learn to fight so that neither partner loses: Partners who want to stay together must learn to fight well.
When arguing or “fighting” couples can never, ever, threaten the relationship. When we feel threatened we react unskillfully and make assumptions and mistakes. And, we often feel threatened when our partner uses a sharp or loud tone of voice or does not make eye contact in times of disagreement. Know your partner’s signs of distress and overwhelm and adjust so as not to make matters worse- become good at co-regulating each other’s emotions (not allowing you or your partner to boil over). Go for a win in the relationship, not the argument, which means you will have to adjust how you manage conflict. Going for the jugular or attacking your partner to win the argument will only be a lose in the relationship. Winning through making your partner lose will actually be a loss in terms of your partnership.
Go eye-to-eye and face-to-face (not positioned side to side, so hold your disagreements until you are out of the car!). We need each other’s eyes in order to regulate our nervous system… this helps us to not use visual memory during a disagreement- if we use visual memory it is often a negative visual image (like the angriest and most threatening face your partner has shown you or that you can imagine) rather than the one that is actually in front of you.
**The next time you have a disagreement, turn to each other, talk while maintaining eye contact and begin the disagreement with a statement of wanting to resolve the conflict rather than words of attack or blame.
9. Partners can rekindle their love at any time through eye contact.
Coming back to the spark of connection, like when you first met and/or fell in love. When we first truly notice the other it is usually through up-close contact… really taking in their features, smell, touch. This is available to you now too, to rekindle and come back into connection.
**When you are both receptive and calm and willing to try something new, sit face-to-face and knee-to-knee and look into each other’s eyes with a relaxed gaze. Hold this eye contact for several minutes. It may take a minute or so to relax and release any nervousness or giggles you have. As you gaze at your partner, you may see waves of emotion, memory, shifts in the face, and experience the other in a way that is connected and heartfelt. Allow yourself to really take in the experience, fully and honestly, with positive intentions. “See” what happens…
10. Looking out and caring for one another helps you physically, emotionally, and mentally: Partners can minimize each other’s stress and optimize each other’s health.
By applying these principles, you decrease your, and your partner’s, stress which has incredible health benefits. These principles not only teach you how to decrease the stress in your relationship, they also teach you how to care for yourself and your partner which will influence your health, fitness, and longevity.
As Stan Tatkin writes, “…by loving one another fully, learning how to defuse conflict and make choices that are pro-relationship rather than pro-self, and wiring yourself for love, you stand the best chance of enjoying a happy, healthy, and ultimately satisfying union”.
To learn more:
Wired for Love by Stan Tatkin:
Attached by Amir Levine and Rachel Heller: