PACT Level 2 Therapist, PACT Ambassador
Some people want chocolates and roses for Valentine's Day, but it's not the small (or big) romantic gestures on special occasions that lead to relationship success. To go from an initial date to a long-term relationship you need to look for qualities in a potential mate that make you feel safe and open with that other person. What you may not know is that these traits can lead you in the direction of developing a secure-functioning relationship.
What is a secure-functioning relationship?
A term coined by PACT co-founder Dr. Stan Tatkin, a secure-functioning relationship is an interpersonal system based on principles of true mutuality, collaboration, justice, fairness, and sensitivity. You and your partner are taking on the world together. You protect each other from the threats of the external, the outside world, and from the internal, each other. A secure functioning relationship acknowledges and celebrates that you and your partner each have a different mind, history, drive, and interests. It’s a relationship built on interdependence, where you both accept the burden and care of the other equally.
Why the emphasis on secure-functioning?
Couples reap many benefits from being secure-functioning, as Stan explains. When you are in a secure-functioning relationship, you have the inherent knowledge of always having support from your partner. The deep intimacy of genuinely knowing your partner also ensures that you are truly seen and understood by the person with whom you chose to navigate life. When moments of misunderstanding occur, those hurts are addressed and healed right away, for the sake of both partners.
Since you did both choose each other, you have a survival teammate, someone who always has your back and will protect you when you need it. You know this person has a shared interest in getting through life with you.
A secure-functioning relationship has clearly defined boundaries that are understood by you and your partner. You have set things that you do and set things that you don't do. You both inherently honor that because these things were communicated, agreed-upon, and respected.
A secure-functioning relationship offers you safety, security, interdependence, support, and happiness. These factors create a healthy relationship foundation that allows a connection to thrive long-term.
How do you create a safe and secure relationship?
You and your partner must consistently put effort and energy into the essentials that create and maintain the structure of your relationship. To have a thriving relationship, you need a strong foundation. These relationship essentials are a blueprint for the foundation of a successful relationship.
No matter what individual rules, boundaries, habits, or practices you build into your relationship as a reflection of yourself and your partner, these behaviors should guide you in a way that ensures you both are always taking care of the foundation of your relationship.
Practiced in healthy relationships, here are some of the PACT principles that aid in the security and happiness of secure-functioning couples:
In today’s busy world - with so many demands, distractions, and pressures - it’s easy to slip into a parallel relationship where you and your partner start to drift apart. Perhaps you can relate to the experience of feeling more like a life manager, taxi driver, or event coordinator than an intimate, loving partner. Your communication revolves around what time you’ll be home, what you need to get to the store, when the kids need to be at sport practice, or what bills have or haven’t been paid.
The practice of being present with your partner and in your relationship is a wonderful antidote to all of life’s busyness. It’s vital that you set aside time to spend together, focusing on just each other. No distractions, no technology.
Gaze lovingly into each other's eyes at least once a day for 30 seconds and be mentally and emotionally in the moment together – and longer is even better. This also has a profound neurobiological effect in that you can calm each other’s nervous system as you look through the window of your partner’s nervous system.
Another wonderful effect of gazing lovingly at your partner is you can also amplify positive feelings toward each other, reminiscent of the courtship phase where you probably did this frequently and without prompting.
Research into couples has shown that even the strongest couples fight and have occasional disagreements, but what sets them apart is they make amends promptly. When you prioritize repairing after a fight, you resolve the hurt, let go of any resentment, and get back to enjoying life.
From a neurobiological standpoint, it’s essential to quickly repair after a fight so that painful feelings and experiences don’t get coded into your long-term memory systems where it can then make it harder to recover from subsequent conflicts and disagreements.
So, how do you begin to repair effectively?
When making amends, face your partner directly. Lovingly gaze into their eyes, soften your facial expressions, and use a song-like prosody in your voice. When you attend to these factors in the delivery of your apology, it will help to prevent your partner from getting agitated or physiologically aroused and will help them to accept your repair.
If you want to create a secure-functioning relationship, you need to be available and respond when your partner indicates they need you.
You’re wired to be connected to others. So, if your partner is not able to connect with you – the person they love and care for – they may experience pain and distress.
Shutting down, withdrawing, and cutting off communication will often be harmful to your relationship. These can happen in small and big ways. For example, your partner wants to talk to you about their day, but you’re engrossed in your mobile device and not really listening to what they’re saying. Your partner will probably feel irritated that they don’t have your full attention and may give up in their attempt to connect with you.
If you’re hurt in an argument, you may be tempted to shut down in an attempt to protect your own vulnerable feelings and punish your partner. However, this strategy will often backfire because you’re undermining the safety and security of the relationship by going to war with the one person who has your back.
It’s your role to protect each other. This includes protecting your partner from yourself.
When you’re apart from each other, make sure you’re available for contact where possible. This doesn’t mean you drop everything to answer your partner’s call, but it does mean they can trust you to reach out when you are free to speak. Regular check-ins throughout the day are helpful for maintaining a sense of safety and security.
In all essential matters, you need to be each other’s go-to person. Make sure that other areas of your life don’t take over from your partner and relationship.
A final thought
No question a night of celebration can be fun and romantic. More powerful, however, are the relationship essentials that go beyond a day of fleeting symbols and gestures. PACT principles are the buds that, when practiced and maintained, bloom into the safety and security of a secure-functioning relationship. They continually contribute to long-term relationship happiness. Given the strong foundation they build, these behaviors are significantly more lasting than the dinner or flowers.