The strength and resilience of every marriage lies in the quality of connection that exists between a husband and wife. Connection is experiencing the safety to show up and let your feelings and needs be seen by your spouse, knowing they won’t try to change you, judge you or punish you, trusting that they care about meeting your needs and letting them meet those needs.
If that describes what you and your spouse experience in your marriage, then congratulations! You have a great connection, and you have undoubtedly done a lot of work to establish, strengthen and maintain it.
The rest of you are having a different experience. Most likely, you’re either living in the frustrating, stressful place of trying to repair connection following regular disconnects, or you’re camping out in disconnection.
We know the scary land of disconnection all too well. For the first decade of our marriage, we essentially lived disconnected, with temporary connections. Whenever we did connect, even minor issues seemed to have the power to get us to move away from each other again. Those years were filled with pain, anxiety and diminishing hope that we could successfully build the marriage we both wanted.
The problem was that we really didn’t know what a healthy connection was, much less how to create it. Thankfully, we began to learn and practice a set of commitments that completely transformed who we are and the relationship we have together. We became people who know how to manage ourselves and our half of a healthy, resilient connection. For the last 20-plus years of our marriage, we have lived in ongoing connection, with rare disconnections that we have quickly repaired.
If you want to build a connection that doesn’t just last, but flourishes, we encourage you to establish the following commitments in your marriage.
Commitment 1: The goal of this relationship is a safe, loving connection.
No couple enters marriage with a goal of disconnection. However, the moment things get scary or painful in a relationship, human instinct is to protect ourselves and put distance between us and those things. If we’re not committed to holding on to the goal of connection in the midst of fear and pain, we will actually change our goal from connection to disconnection.
There’s a common pattern in unhealthy relationships that we call “the downward spiral of disconnection.” When one person gets hurt in some way, he or she reacts by pulling away and withholding love from the other person. Soon, the other person reacts in the same way. Before they know it, both people are racing each other to the bottom, competing to see who can go from “I’m going to love you less” to “I don’t love you at all.”
When you’re committed to the goal of connection, however, you refuse to budge when the other person starts to pull away. You move toward the other person and challenge them to get their courage back and connect. You say, “I’ll race you to the top—the greatest level of connection—100 percent of the time.”
It’s important to establish habits in your marriage that reinforce the goal of connection. For example, some friends of ours instituted something in their marriage called “Kiss me quick.” They agreed that anytime one of them said, “Kiss me quick,” the other person would stop what they were doing and kiss them. They purposely said “Kiss me quick” whenever they landed in an argument. It was their way to call on one another’s courage to practice their commitment to pursue connection, especially in the midst of discomfort. Every time, it chased away fear and created a stronger platform for them to communicate about the issue they were trying to resolve.
Commitment 2: Meeting needs strengthens connection.
Most of us come into marriage with hang ups around the idea of meeting one another’s needs. As social beings made in the image of a relational God, we were designed to have our needs met in the context of safe, loving connections with Him and others. The marriage covenant is specifically designed to be a lifelong partnership in which we fulfill this design. Unfortunately, as citizens of this broken world, we all experience varying degrees of lack in getting our needs met, which leaves us with some level of “orphan” thinking in this area. An orphan mentality basically says: I can’t trust others to meet my needs. Therefore, I must meet my own needs or manipulate others to meet them or I can’t afford to meet the needs of others unless it immediately meets my needs in some way.
It’s essential that we overcome every shred of this belief system in our lives because it is the enemy of connection. It views the commitment to freely and lovingly meet one another’s needs in marriage as a loss of control rather than as a powerful gift that nourishes you as much as the other person.
A healthy person with mature love comes to marriage with a readiness to meet the needs of their spouse. They know that meeting needs is the high-octane fuel of connection.
Commitment 3: Listening, telling the truth and adjusting are essential to meeting needs.
Things really started to shift in our marriage when we learned that meeting one another’s needs could not happen without exchanging information in a courageous, vulnerable, respectful and truthful way. For years we had entertained that unfair, unhelpful and cowardly delusion: “If you loved me, you would know what I need without me needing to tell you!” When we finally threw that out and started making room for two totally different people to show up in the relationship, we began to experience safety and love like never before.
Intimacy is cultivated as we show one another the truth of what’s happening inside us. Equally important to the exchange of truth is the art of listening well—specifically, listening to find the need. In our experience, the listener in the conversation is going to be the first to identify the need the other person is trying to communicate, and when it comes to repairing and strengthening connection, the first person to find and meet the need wins.
Meeting one another’s needs usually requires us to adjust our behavior in some way. Adjusting behavior does not mean that we stop being ourselves or become like our spouse. It simply means that we do what we can do to create the experience they need to be having. Adjusting is where the rubber meets the road in serving our spouse.
Marriages take a lot of shots—especially in our covenant-breaking culture. Embracing the commitments to pursue connection, meet one another’s needs and practice need-meeting skills is like wrapping your marriage in bulletproof Kevlar body armor. It’s worth it to fight for your connection. Don’t give up!