The secret to a lasting relationship | WellBeing 200

The secret to a lasting relationship

Relationships can be tricky, but what if there was a special something that could help pave the way for your happily ever after? We explore what sets lasting relationships apart.

Some might say romantic comedies have a lot to answer for. Boy meets girl, drama ensues and boy loses girl. Then boy gets girl, they have
a few laughs and live happily after.

Life doesn’t always work out like that. But what if there was a way to stack the deck, to increase the chances of finding your soulmate and that seemingly elusive happily ever after?

There is definitely a special something that sets lasting relationships apart from those that falter due to life’s stressors or other circumstances. That special something is building trust and intimacy. It’s a deep soul connection to another human, and it’s called emotional attraction.

Unlike a set of well-defined biceps or a dazzling smile that makes you weak at the knees, it is something you can’t touch. That is physical attraction, which is how someone perceives another in terms of physical beauty.

Physical attraction can also be tied to sexual attraction or desirability, but not always. Emotional and physical attraction can coexist, but one is very different from the other.

According to psychologist and psychotherapist Brendan McMahon, when you’re emotionally attracted to someone, you find them compelling and comfortable. “Part of that is they are more inclined to share your values and your world view, and you find it easier to open up about yourself and disclose with them,” he explains.

Emotional attraction is all about wanting to listen to someone instead of just hearing them. It’s being endlessly curious about the other person, it’s caring about the little things that matter to them, and for both parties, it’s feeling understood. You get each other.

With a strong emotional attraction, experts overwhelmingly agree that our relationship is more likely to go the distance. However, there is a catch. You can’t build emotional attraction if it doesn’t exist at the start. McMahon says emotional attraction is something you can’t fudge. “You can strengthen emotional attraction, but it has to be there to begin with. You can’t just fake it,” he says.

Finding comfort in the familiar

Understanding your history of early attachment plays a big role in understanding emotional attraction. Early relationships with caregivers can compel humans to be attracted to particular types of people.

Ash King, a registered psychologist and psychology researcher at the University of Sydney, says that we’re drawn to comfort and familiarity as human beings. “If your early attachments were healthy, as an adult you’ll probably seek out nourishing relationships,” she says. “If they weren’t, that may create a toxic blueprint for future relationships.”

If you find yourself caught up in a repeat pattern of unhealthy romantic relationships, do some internal work to help you understand your values, needs, wants and desires. Get to know yourself on a fundamental level. What matters to you? If you don’t truly know yourself and feel secure in your skin, it can be challenging to feel a deep emotional connection to others.

Pop psychology —what’s my style?

Taking it one step further, we all have different attachment styles, which is how we relate or respond emotionally to significant others. They can vary, but here is one example.

In Attached, authors Dr Amir Levine and Rachel SF Heller describe three types: anxious (preoccupied and worried about how their partner will love them), avoidant (equating intimacy with losing independence) and secure (warm and loving).

While understanding how the theory of attachment can help in relationships, Rachael Walden, a registered psychologist, says it’s not so much what someone’s attachment style is; it’s working with it so you both feel connected. “Working with what you have and who they are building a strong connection,” she says.

Keeping the relationship real

If you’ve had a few uninspiring dates with someone and are struggling to find an emotional attraction, it probably makes sense to cut them loose.

But if you’re in a long-term relationship, and you are just not feeling it at the moment, King says, that’s a different story. “Our emotions can be capricious, they can ebb and flow. We can’t always make ourselves feel a certain way, and that is a frustrating thing about our emotional world,” she says.

Our emotions are impacted by so many things: biology, hormones, external pressures at work and taking care of young children and older parents — the list is mind-boggling and exhausting.

Feeling detached or disconnected from your partner can happen for many reasons. Walden says disconnect can occur when someone isn’t tuning into their partner’s needs.

If you feel distant or have a sense of disconnect, that doesn’t mean the relationship is doomed. It does mean that you need to work on it. Regular date nights where you can spend time together without discussing renovation plans or how you feel about your in-laws is a good idea. Choose light topics and have fun.

Dr Sue Johnson, author of Hold Me Tight, eloquently explains that love is a process of seeking and losing emotional connection and reaching out to find it again. “The bond of love is a loving thing. If we don’t attend to it, it naturally begins to wither,” she writes.

Building emotional attraction

Celebrate vulnerability
For a long time, vulnerability has copped a questionable reputation. To be vulnerable for some is seen as weak. We’re told to suck it up and be brave.

Brené Brown, author of Daring Greatly, says nothing could be further from the truth. “Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy and creativity,” Brown says.

Yes, we take risks when we choose to be vulnerable, let our walls down and consciously choose to love someone. Love comes with risk. But the rewards can be oh so sweet.

Be authentic
There is no denying that opening up to someone and sharing your true self can feel scary, especially if you have been hurt. If you want to feel truly connected to someone, you need to feel comfortable revealing your authentic self.

King says sometimes that can mean revealing parts of ourselves we might not be particularly proud of. Yes, even the embarrassing childhood stuff that might make you cringe. “At the end of the day, we are all human, we are all messy, we have parts of ourselves we might not want to acknowledge. But being real about that can help the longevity of any type of emotional connection,” she explains.

When you are building emotional attraction, you share openly. You feel comfortable sharing your values and beliefs, wants and dreams. Your conversations have depth and sincerity beyond what you would share with others. Your secrets are safe.

It’s the little things
It’s sometimes the small intimate details we share that build emotional attraction. Knowing how your partner likes their coffee with just a splash of soy milk or being privy to the fact that they are petrified of spiders because a school friend shoved a big scary one down their shirt.

Give your partner compliments — what you love about them and why they rock your world — and be interested in their life (you might never imagine yourself parachuting out of a plane in a million years, but you support your partner anyway because that’s what love is).

There are many things you can do to build emotional attraction. Learn a language together, take up a cookery class, pick out a rescue puppy from a shelter and take it to puppy school together, plant a garden, and as you nurture your seedlings together — enjoy the bloom of your relationship.

In the bedroom
There are many types of human intimacy. The intimate touch of a mother and child; the camaraderie and backslapping when your team wins the grand final; the heartfelt hug when a friend loses a loved one. Human touch soothes, it offers comfort and it can also arouse. We all crave skin on skin, and not getting enough can lead to skin hunger.

Building and strengthening emotional attraction also happens in the bedroom. Research by Hana Yoo and colleagues, which studied 335 married couples, suggested that sexual satisfaction significantly predicted emotional intimacy, and building on emotional intimacy strengthens emotional attraction. Oxytocin — the hormone produced in the hypothalamus — is released during sex, building trust and loyalty and bonding us to our sexual partners.

I’ve got your back
In relationships where partners feel emotionally connected, you’re on the same side. This means using empathy and compassion, and listening to your partner.

For example, Walden says if your partner argues with the boss at work, you could come out playing the judgement card — “Well, you tend to overreact.” Or you could use your frame of reference, which we tend to do as humans: “That wouldn’t have bothered me; I can’t believe you got so upset.” But a more emotionally supportive response is to start with a connection and tune in to how they are feeling.

Nurturing your relationship
It’s important not to create a parent–child dynamic in your relationship where one is controlling aspects of the other. But a little bit of nurturing can go a long way towards strengthening emotional attraction and connection in a relationship.

Walden says keeping up certain aspects of a parenting role can benefit the relationship. “We are a safe place for someone to land when we are emotionally connected,” she explains. “As you would with your kids, I want you to feel as good as possible, and I also want to help you get there.”

Tuning in when it matters
American psychologist John Gottman has been studying couples for over 40 years.

He believes that it’s not the depth of intimacy in conversation or if couples agree or disagree that matters; it’s how they pay attention to each other.

Gottman calls this relationship “bids”. When couples communicate, they do one of three things: turn towards (acknowledging the bid), turn away (ignoring or missing the bid) or turn against (rejecting the bid in an argumentative or belligerent way).

For example, one partner is icing a complicated cake for a birthday. “How’s it going?” asks the other partner. A turn-towards response would reply, “A bit stressful, but thanks for checking in”; a turn-away response would be, “Don’t interrupt me”; and a turn-against response would say, “I’m sick of it, you always ask me to make difficult cakes for your family.”

Of course, turning towards one another is the most supportive response. When partners respond empathetically to each other, interesting stuff in the brain happens.

Dr Johnson says that when this occurs, specific nerve cells called mirror neurons in the prefrontal cortex of the brain are buzzing. “These neurons are one of the basic mechanisms that allow us to actually feel what someone else is experiencing,” she writes.

Be curious
As a romantic relationship grows, we reveal more of our inner selves, and over time you might feel as though you know your partner intimately. But as King points out, we are all a work in progress.

“Humans change and grow and evolve, so staying emotionally connected means staying curious about the other person,” she says.

Ask the question: How is your partner thinking and feeling? You might think you know, but do you? Be honest about your thoughts and feelings — it’s not about being perfect, it’s about being real.

Carrol Baker

Carrol Baker

Carrol Baker is an award-winning freelance journalist who is a passionate advocate of natural health and wellness. She writes for lifestyle and healthy-living magazines across Australia and internationally.

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