The Science Of A Successful Marriage

By: Ted Harro

Why do some couples thrive while others struggle? Why do even thriving couples have rough patches? 

Social scientists have discovered some curious things about humans. Those discoveries have led them to develop Attachment Theory. This theory attempts to explain why humans have a deep longing for connection, what can thwart attempts at connection, and why some people figure out how to make connection happen in their relationships. Originally described by John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, Attachment Theory has been extensively applied to marriage relationships most famously by Sue Johnson. 

You probably don’t have time right now to read 26 books or go to weeks of seminars so I’m going to boil it down for you in less than 750 words. You’re welcome.

Bowlby and Ainsworth started by noticing that humans, like all bonding mammals, have an innate drive to connect with others. They theorize that this provided humans with a survival benefit of living in a pack. 

This drive for connection creates a very predictable pattern in everyday life. Something happens to you that creates stress. In that moment, you look to others in the pack and immediately assess whether they have your back. You ask yourself:

  • Do they have my back promptly? Or are they pokey?
  • Do they have my back in an appropriate way? Or are their actions a little off for the situation?
  • Do they have my back consistently? Or are they flaky?

When these split-second questions are answered positively, you feel stable and secure. You’re free to explore, trust, and play because it’s all good. It makes it easy to care, to be sociable, and to be confident. You know you matter to the pack and that they see you as good enough to fit in.

When those questions are answered negatively, it freaks you out. No, this is not the social scientist’s preferred term. But I’m not a social scientist. When you’re freaked out, you start to watch your back. That often looks like looking for attention. It can also look like pulling back. You start to wonder if you matter and if the other people think you’re good enough to fit in. Attachment theorists hypothesize that this triggers a kind of survival panic because living outside the pack is scary.

You’ll recognize these reactions in kids. Let’s say a big, scary dog races toward a child, barking fiercely.

That child instinctively looks to a parent or caregiver. If that adult scoops up the child and shields it from the dog, both speaking words of comfort to the child and stern words of warning to the dog, it’s all good. If that parent or caregiver does this every time, it’s very good. They’ve answered the Three Big Questions positively in their behavior. The child will soon be running and playing and laughing again.

If the adult fails to do these things consistently – if they’re distracted or dismissive or they run away from the dog themselves, get ready for some drama from that child. They may act out or they may pull back. But it’s not good.

These reactions carry on to adulthood and to our committed relationships. Married couples ask the Three Big Questions  about each other all the time. And not just the distressed couples. Even successful couples spend a lot of subconscious time wondering about each other.

In fact, researchers like Sue Johnson and John Gottman have found that the amount you fight doesn’t predict divorce. Lack of connection and the inability to repair disconnection when it happens predicts divorce. Conversely, even decent levels of connection and the ability to repair predicts marital success.

That’s right. It’s not about how much you fight. It’s about how well you connect and repair. 

Really successful couples become skilled at recognizing when they’re disconnected. They don’t usually notice it in their rational brains. They notice it in their *gasp* feelings, because your rational brain is out to lunch when you’re freaked out by disconnection. You can wish it was home, but it’s gone. 

That’s why Attachment Theorists are big on feelings. That and the fact that they love making people like me squirm. But what their research says is pretty compelling: when you can recognize your feelings as signals about potential disconnection and learn about the predictable patterns couples get into when they’re freaked out, you can be an active partner in making things better in your relationship. 

And that should make us all feel hopeful, even expectant.

 

3 Comments

  • Tiffany Clark Posted February 23, 2020 5:38 am

    This explanation is so very helpful and accessible. Thank you. It helps me understand the conditions that set a couple up for success or struggle in their attachment to each other. Now I’m left wondering how you would help an adult who didn’t develop secure attachments in childhood be able to develop them as an adult. I suppose I’ll have to keep following to get my answers!

    • Ted Posted February 24, 2020 8:23 am

      I love that question, Tiffany. Luckily, I’m married to an expert. I’ll ask her to comment. But I hope that if you stay tuned, you ‘ll get more answers over time too:)

      My firm belief is that, while one’s childhood attachments (or lack thereof) have a big impact on us, we are not doomed to insecure attachment. Or as a mutual friend says, “It doesn’t have to be this way.”

  • Gretchen Harro Posted February 24, 2020 10:03 pm

    Hi Tiffany, you’re asking about “earned secure attachment,” and yes, it’s a thing. One of the primary tasks of Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) is creating what we call “corrective emotional experiences.” When working with couples, we assist them in having conversations with each other to create security, demonstrating that such a thing is possible, even when they didn’t experience it as children. Sometimes that’s why therapy takes a while, people are learning to interact in ways that no one ever taught them before.

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