The Couple Bubble:How You Can Keep Each Other Safe and Secure
Who among us doesn’t want to feel loved? Finally to be able to be ourselves just as we are, to feel cherished, cared for, and protected—this has been the pursuit of humans since the beginning of recorded time. We are social animals. We depend on other people. We need other people.
Some of us have parents or siblings or cousins or other family members to give us respite. Some of us turn to friends or colleagues. Some of us turn to drugs and alcohol or other substances or activities that make us feel alive, wanted, satisfied, relieved, or calmed. Some of us turn to personal growth seminars, or even seek psychological treatment. Some of us turn to our work or focus on hobbies. One way or another—through wholesome, healthy means or less-than-savory means—we seek our safe zone.
This longing for a safe zone is one reason we pair up. However, partners—whether in a romantic relationship or committed friendship—often fail to use each other as advocates and allies against all hostile forces. They don’t see the opportunities to make a home for one another; to create a safe place in which to relax and feel accepted, wanted, protected, and cared for. I see this frequently in couples who seek therapy. Often it is the very reason they seek professional help.
Jenny and Bradley were on the brink of break-up. Neither wanted to end the relationship, but bad things kept happening, and each blamed the other. They had started dating as freshmen, and they were now about to graduate from college. Both wanted to get married and have a family.
Jenny’s family resided on the East Coast near the college. She enjoyed close ties with them, particularly her mother, with whom she spoke daily. Bradley hailed from the West Coast, where his family lived. Because of the distance, he made only one trip annually, each time inviting Jenny. She often felt neglected during these trips, despite the fact that she adored Bradley’s father. Bradley liked to attend parties and engage with his friends in a way that left Jenny to fend alone against advances from other men and what she considered dull conversations with their dates. Bradley never seemed to notice Jenny’s discontent during these events, but certainly felt the sting of her angry withdrawal afterward.
Their conversations would go something like this:
“You always do this!” she says. “You bring me to these things and then leave me standing there as if I don’t exist. I don’t know why you bother to invite me!”
Bradley’s response is defensive. “I’m sick and tired of having this conversation. You’re being ridiculous. I didn’t do anything wrong!”
To make her case, Jenny brings up Bradley’s friend, Tommy, who she says has been inappropriate with her. “He gets drunk and comes on to me, and you don’t even notice. I don’t feel protected by you at all.”Bradley’s response, again, is dismissive. “He’s just playing around.”
These conversations usually ended with Jenny going off to sulk and Bradley feeling punished. Nor did things go better when the situation was reversed. Jenny often visited her family, and expected Bradley to join her. He complained she disappeared with her mother and sisters, forcing him to “hang” with her father, with whom he had little in common. When the couple were alone, their conversations about this sounded similar in many ways to the previous one:
“I can’t stand coming here,” Bradley complains.
“Why?” Jenny sounds surprised.
“You keep sticking me with your father. I feel like a worm because he thinks I’m not good enough for you, and at dinner you act like you agree with him!” Bradley’s voice rises in anger.
“Shhh,” Jenny replies. “Don’t yell.”
Bradley stops himself, pursing his lips and dropping his head. “I don’t get it,” he says in a lowered voice.
“Why you invite me. I just feel bad here,” he says, without raising his head to look at her.
Jenny softens and moves toward him with a loving gesture. “My family loves you,” she says. “I hear that all the time from Mom and my sisters. Dad likes you, too, he’s just…like that.”
Bradley’s face snaps into view, reddened, with tears in his eyes. “That’s baloney! If your family ‘loves me,’” he says with finger quotations, “why don’t I hear it from them? If your dad is so loving, why don’t you sit with him, and let me hang with your mom?”
“Now you’re being ridiculous,” Jenny replies as she heads for the door. “Just forget it!”
“And you know what else?” Bradley continues in hopes of her hearing. “You’re just like your dad. You put me down right in front of everyone.”
Jenny leaves the room, slamming the door behind her.
When we enter into a relationship, we want to matter to our partner, to be visible and important. As in the case of Jenny and Bradley, we may not know how to achieve this, but we want it so much that it shapes much of what we do and say to one another. We want to know our efforts are noticed and appreciated. We want to know our relationship is regarded as important by our partner and will not be relegated to second or third place because of a competing person, task, or thing.
It hasn’t always been this way. If we compare today’s love relationships with the relationships of old, we might be gravely disappointed. In centuries past, rarely did couples get together simply because they loved one another. Marriages were arranged for political, religious, and economic purposes. Husbands and wives stayed together to provide security for their family. At the same time, duty and obligation—for both partners—served a male-advantaged social contract. Safety and security came at an emotional price. Yet no one complained, because nobody expected anything different.
In our modern Western culture, marriage for love tends to be the norm. We expect to be swept off our feet or to feel whole and completed or to believe we’ve met our soul mate. And we expect this profound connection to sustain our relationship. Nothing seems more important. However, these feelings and ideals often exact a price if we as partners are unable to provide one another with a satisfying level of security. The truth is, even if a couple does experience a profound connection, this represents only the beginning of their relationship. What ultimately counts in the life of the couple is what happens after their courtship, love affair, or infatuation phase. What counts is their ability to be there for one another, no matter what.
Consider another couple, Greta and Bram, both thirty. When they married a year ago, they rented an apartment in the city, where Greta was securely employed as a school teacher. Bram’s family lived in a nearby rural town, and he commuted to work in the family agricultural business.Each year, Greta was required to attend a gala fundraiser for her school. It was not the type of event that ordinarily suited Bram, who preferred dungarees to dress shirts, ties, and jackets. He also tended to feel shy and even a bit tongue tied, especially in gatherings with folks he didn’t know. Greta, on the other hand, moved well in large circles of strangers. Despite their differences, however, Bram prepared himself for an evening with Greta on his arm.
Their conversation as they dressed went something like this:
“It’s not you, you know,” Bram says with a concerned look on his face, while on his third attempt to make a proper tie. “I just don’t like being with all these people I don’t know.”
“I know,” Greta replies, staring straight ahead as she applies her eyeliner. “I appreciate your willingness to come anyway. The moment you want to leave, we’ll go. Okay?”
“Okay,” says Bram, as he finally gets the tie right.
After she parks their car, Greta turns to Bram and switches on the over-head light. “How do I look?” she asks, puckering her lips.
“Beautiful as usual,” Bram replies with a lingering gaze into her eyes.
She scans his eyes in return, and a moment passes as they enjoy a mutual gale of excitement. “Let’s make a plan,” she says softly. “You’ll keep me on your arm when we go in, and I’ll probably see some people I know. Don’t leave me, okay? I want to introduce you.”
“Okay,” Bram responds with an anxious smile. “What if I have to go to the bathroom?” he quips.
“You may go without me,” Greta quickly responds in kind, “but after that, I expect you to get your handsome butt back to your beautiful wife.”
They share a smile and kiss. “This job is important,” Greta says as they get out of the car, “but not as important as you are to me.”
As you can see, Jenny and Bradley and Greta and Bram have very different ways of handling situations as a couple. It’s probably obvious which relationship works better, feels better, and deserves to be held up as exemplary. But let’s look at both couples in greater detail and see if we can understand why they function as they do, and how they came to be as they are.
Autonomy versus Mutuality
Implicit in Jenny’s and Bradley’s narrative is a belief that each should stand independent of the other and should not expect to be looked after. We could say their model is one of autonomy. That is, they see themselves as individuals first, and as a couple second. When push comes to shove, they prioritize their personal needs over their needs as a couple. If you questioned them about this, they might reply that they value their independence, or that they are “their own person” and don’t let the other one boss them around.
However, it’s not quite that simple. Yes, each expects the other to behave in an autonomous fashion, but in reality, this is the case only when it suits his or her own purpose. When either finds that the proverbial shoe is now on the other foot, he or she feels dismissed, dropped, and unimportant. This couple’s sense of independence works especially poorly in situations in which they depend on one another to feel important and protected. They are unaware of this problem when they think they’re maintaining their so-called autonomy, but painfully aware when they feel they are the victim of neglect.
I think it’s fair to say the autonomy implied by Jenny’s and Bradley’s behavior is not really autonomy at all. Rather, they are living according to an “If it’s good for me, you should be all right with it” type of agreement. As a result, they continually play out situations wherein they each fail to remember the other person. Their underlying message is “You do your thing and I’ll do my thing.” Sounds mutual, doesn’t it? Yet it is anything but mutual because it requires that the other partner be okay or else, and it condones the partners readily throwing one another under the bus. This brand of autonomy doesn’t reflect true independence, but rather a fear of dependency. Instead of representing strength, it can represent weakness.
In contrast, Bram and Greta each appear to know something about how the other thinks and feels, and each cares about that. We can say their model is one of mutuality. It is based on sharing and mutual respect. Neither expects the other to be different from who he or she is, and both use this shared knowledge as a way to protect one another in private as well as public settings. For example, Greta anticipates Bram’s discomfort and addresses it in a way that protects his dignity. She acts as if she needs him, though she knows he is the needier one in this situation. Neither Bram nor Greta is poised to throw the other under the bus. It is as if they maintain a protective bubble around themselves.
The couple bubble is a term I like to use to describe the mutually constructed membrane, cocoon, or womb that holds a couple together and protects each partner from outside elements. A couple bubble is an intimate environment that the partners create and sustain together and that implicitly guarantees such things as:
♥ “I will never leave you.”
♥ “I will never frighten you purposely.”
♥ “When you are in distress, I will relieve you, even if I’m the one who is causing the distress.”
♥ “Our relationship is more important than my need to be right, your performance, your appearance, what other people think or want, or any other competing value.”
♥ “You will be the first to hear about anything and not the second, third, or fourth person I tell.”
I say “implicitly,” but couples can and often do make explicit agreements around any or all of the elements that constitute the couple bubble.
Exercise:How Close Are You?
The feeling of closeness is subjective; that is, how close you feel to your part-ner and how safe you feel both take place within you. You may feel very close to your partner, but he or she isn’t likely to know how you feel unless you say so. And the same goes for how your partner feels about you.
Now, discover some of the ways you offer closeness to your partner.
- In the previous section, I listed some guarantees couples give one another—for example, saying, “I will never leave you.” What such guaran-tees have you given to your partner?
- What guarantees would you like to give?
- What guarantees would you like to receive?
- You don’t need to receive a guarantee from your partner before you offer one. Look for moments when you can express your feelings of closeness and promise safety
WIRED FOR LOVE
June 11–14, 2020
Excerpted from Wired for Love: How Understanding Your Partner’s Brain and Attachment Style Can Help You Defuse Conflict and Build a Secure Relationship, by Stan Tatkin, PsyD; reprinted with permission.