3 Steps to Sustaining a Loving Relationship

A good relationship is all about connection, not just the one we feel when we first fall for someone, but the one we shape over time as we learn to share our lives with another person. For most couples, struggles tend to exist in the spaces where partners have either drifted apart or become fused to each other. Maintaining a strong sense of self while being able to get emotionally close to a romantic partner is one of the most effective ways to keep love alive.

Each of us has our own unique qualities and identity that we bring to a relationship. These are the very things that draw our partner to us in the first place. Yet, as we come together, the question becomes, “how well are we able to connect?” Do we invite the other person into our emotional world or do we keep a safe distance? Do we open ourselves up to new experiences or do we lose ourselves entirely in the relationship?

My colleague Dan Siegel, with whom I recently created the eCourse “Love and Connection,” often talks about the importance of differentiation and linkage, two skills necessary for a good relationship. We need to be able to join with our partner, and at the same time, we need to have a sense of our unique and separate self. To do this, we must be willing to get close to the other person but not lose core aspects of who we are by attempting to merge our identity with theirs. As Dan puts it, couples should aim to become a “fruit salad” rather than a “smoothie.”

Unfortunately, most of us struggle in either our ability to link or our ability to differentiate. Some of us are very good at linking but not that good at keeping our sense of self. Others are very good at staying autonomous but struggle to be close to a partner. So, how can we use the concept of differentiation and linkage to create stronger connections?

  1. Look at your attachment history.

The first thing we can consider is our attachment history. As children, we all form attachments to our early caretakers that serve as models for how we expect relationships to work throughout our lives. While a secure attachment can allow us to feel confident and satisfied in relationships, an insecure attachment pattern can leave us feeling uncomfortable with either “too much” closeness or “too little.” The attachment pattern we formed as kids goes on to impact the patterns we form in adulthood.

For example, if we developed an avoidant attachment in childhood, as adults, we are likely to have a dismissive attachment pattern. We may misperceive our partner as needy, demanding, or controlling, and have a fear about being consumed or overtaken by emotional closeness in a relationship. If we had an anxious attachment pattern as a child, we are likely to have a preoccupied attachment pattern as an adult. We will then be more inclined to feel clingy, insecure, possessive, or fearful of rejection. In both cases, we struggle with differentiation and linkage. A dismissively attached person may find themselves withdrawing and resistant to meeting their partner’s needs. A preoccupied person may find themselves overly focused, scanning for rejection, and demanding reassurance from their partner.

No matter what attachment pattern we identify with, there are methods for developing earned secure attachment and inner security within ourselves. By identifying our attachment pattern, we can start to recognize the beliefs and behaviors we engage in that are based on our past and not serving us in our current relationships. We can then start to challenge both these beliefs and the stubborn behaviors that result. As we do this, we can allow more closeness to naturally flow between us and our partner.

  1. Pay attention to your critical inner voice.

The ideas that swirl around in our heads about relationships tend to pop up in the form of a “critical inner voice.” This “voice” sends us a lot of messages and directions about ourselves, our partner, and our relationships. “Be careful,” it warns. “She’s probably going to leave you. “You don’t need anyone,” it announces. “Just keep your distance.” “He’s too clingy.” “Is this a sign she’s rejecting you?”

This voice is not a conscience and typically doesn’t serve our best interest. Instead, it gives us advice to engage in behaviors that cause friction in our relationship, either by encouraging us to cling and give up our own identity, or by telling us to back away and stay on guard. The more we can challenge this inner critic and connect with our authentic feelings, the better able we’ll be to express our loving feelings, while staying in touch with who we are.

  1. Explore your defenses.

It’s interesting that we often meet people when we’re developing ourselves or exploring something new. People feel more interested in us when we’re open and expanding our lives. This is something we do naturally when we first fall in love. We’re open-minded, we take a serious interest in the other person, and we’re excited to try new things and expand our world. We appreciate our partner’s unique qualities and allow them to value ours.

However, as we get closer and perhaps feel more vulnerable, we may start to turn back to old defenses and act on our critical inner voices. We may start to exert more control over our partner or give up interests and aspects of ourselves. We may become more anxious or retreat into our shell. These behaviors start to creep in and disrupt the balance between differentiation and linkage, often tilting us more toward one or the other.

When we identify our defenses, we can more actively go against them. Our goal should be to feel confident in who we are independent of our partner, while still allowing ourselves to feel the full value and vitality of connecting to them. We can lean on each other and share life, yet still be able to step away as two whole people. The more we can strive for this balance, the stronger we, our partner, and the relationship will be.

About the Author

Lisa Firestone, Ph.D. Dr. Lisa Firestone is the Director of Research and Education at The Glendon Association. An accomplished and much requested lecturer, Dr. Firestone speaks at national and international conferences in the areas of couple relations, parenting, and suicide and violence prevention. Dr. Firestone has published numerous professional articles, and most recently was the co-author of Sex and Love in Intimate Relationships (APA Books, 2006), Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice (New Harbinger, 2002), Creating a Life of Meaning and Compassion: The Wisdom of Psychotherapy (APA Books, 2003) and The Self Under Siege (Routledge, 2012). Follow Dr. Firestone on Twitter or Google.

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