In his groundbreaking study using brain imaging studies,1 researcher Art Aron, the romantic love guru, proved that romantic love can last, for at least 5-12 percent of couples. He also showed that long-term couples (together 20 years or more) who reported the highest levels of romantic love and closeness on questionnaires had levels of brain activity similar to those newly in love! In an age with the highest divorce rates ever and a consumer culture mentality that leads us to believe “When it doesn’t work, don’t fix it—just get a new one,” what is the secret of the 5-12 percent who do find lasting love and romance?
Finding the right person is important but not as crucial an ingredient to long-lasting romance as knowing how to foster and cultivate love in our relationships. Most of us enter into relationships with poor skills for maintaining them and highly unrealistic expectations. The fairytale romances we are fed, where seemingly mystical forces bring two people together and they live happily-ever-after with little apparent effort, put our love lives in the hands of fate and leave us powerless. The real secret to lasting romance lies in learning how to navigate our relationships with skill rather than leaving them to chance or habit.
One excellent therapist who helps couples build better relational skills is Stan Tatkin, PsyD, author of Wired for Love—How Understanding your Partner’s Brain and Attachment Style Can Help You Defuse Conflict and Build a Secure Relationship. In his book, Tatkin writes about the importance of what he calls “the couple bubble.” This is the concept that holds that both members of a couple are stewards for keeping a supportive atmosphere and a safe and secure ambience between them. How does one do this?
Below is a brief synopsis of some of Stan Tatkin’s key concepts for creating a couple bubble. Keep in mind that this list is easier read than done! It is important to be patient with our partners and ourselves as we learn to develop these new relational skills. Guidance in the form of reading the book and counseling is also recommended, as this list is purely for informational purposes and does not provide the “how to” steps.
Ingredients Needed for the Couple Bubble:
An attitude of true mutuality – A couple can only be as happy as both members are happy. No movement happens without both people agreeing. The needs of the couple are prioritized over individual needs. As Tatkin says, “This means that both partners agree that the relationship comes first, and that the safety and security of the relationship comes first. And the reason it comes first is that without this agreement, neither can really thrive.”
Partners protect each other – Each member of the couple knows that they have each other’s back. There is no “throwing each other under the bus” to look good in front of friends and family, at your partner’s expense. This attitude of mutual protection is an essential ingredient of the couple bubble because it creates the safety and security needed to feel that your relationship is a safe haven and a place you can turn to for comfort and care. It is a basic building block for a secure and happy relationship.
Handling thirds properly – “Thirds” are anyone or anything outside of the primary couple dyad, such as children, pets, in-laws and, for poly relationships, other lovers. Don’t let your couple bubble get punctured by a third! How a couple handles these intrusions by thirds can really determine how well a couple does.
Quick repairs of fights and disagreements – Don’t let ruptures or disagreements linger and fester. The sooner they are handled and resolved the better. You don’t want injuries to go into long-term memory where they are much harder to heal.
Installation of happy memories – You want good memories to go into long-term memory and stay there. You can do this by actively creating playful, happy and bonding moments with each other. When couples are able to mutually amplify positive states, this creates a dopamine surge. Dopamine is one of those feel-good bio-chemicals that our body creates when we’re in love. It is highly pleasurable. What better ingredient to put into your couple bubble than a regular injection of dopamine?
Learn the “owner’s manual” on your partner and visa versa – In other words, you know what will make your partner sad or happy, what will soothe or aggravate them, what will turn them on, what will calm them down when they’re upset, what will reassure them, etc. Partners must learn the skill of being able to shift each other’s state so they can please and soothe each other under any circumstance. Partners must become experts on each other.
What Stan Tatkin is advocating with his concept of the couple bubble is the ability to create and foster a strong and secure attachment. Couples who enjoy the benefits of secure attachment know that they can handle any conflict without fear of disregulation. They always wave the flag of friendliness, admiration and appreciation in order to avoid war. They use attraction and invitations, not fear or threats, to navigate needs. They maintain daily behaviors that evoke loving feelings. They have an increased ability to play. They get their energy and courage to face the world from each other. Isn’t this what you want for your relationship, too?
Below are some fun exercises you can try with your partner to start to co-create that couple bubble!
Love-Building Exercises from Robert Epstein2
These fun exercises, inspired by scientific studies, are designed to deliberately increase emotional intimacy.
1) Getting in Synch – While embracing your partner, begin to sense your partner’s breathing and gradually try to synchronize your breathing with his or hers.
2) Soul Gazing – Standing or sitting about two feet away from each other, look deeply into each other’s eyes, trying to look into the very core of your beings. Do this for about two minutes and then talk about your experiences. Research has shown that mutual eye gazing can produce rapid increases in liking and loving, even in total strangers! Gazing is different than staring, which for most mammals is perceived as a threat. The difference with gazing is that you are giving your partner permission to stare, which is a vulnerable thing to do. Vulnerability is a key ingredient of emotional bonding.
3) Falling in Love – This is a trust exercise for increasing mutual feelings of vulnerability and boosting levels of oxytocin, another feel-good chemical you will want in your couple bubble. You can stimulate oxytocin by consciously building trust with this exercise. From a standing position, allow yourself to fall backwards into the arms of your partner; then trade places. Repeat this several times then share your experiences.
4) Let Me Inside – Stand about four feet away from your partner, facing each other. Every ten seconds or so, move incrementally closer until after several shifts you are well within each other’s personal space. The goal is to get as close as you can without touching—although this exercise often ends in kissing, which is fine, too! When two people deliberately allow each other to encroach on their personal space, feelings of intimacy can grow quickly.
5) Do something new together – Novelty, thrill and danger heighten the sense and feelings of vulnerability. People grow closer when they try something new together. This exercise will boost your endorphins, serotonin, and even dopamine levels, all excellent couple bubble ingredients.
Other key ingredients for successful relationships:
Laughter and humor – Marriage counselors and researchers Jeanette and Robert Lauer proved (1986) that in long-term, happy relationships, partners make each other laugh a lot. Laughter triggers endorphins, and that is definitely a feel-good chemical you want in your couple bubble.
Touch – Loving touch stimulates oxytocin, the neurochemical foundation of trust and connection, love and affection. As Dan Goleman says in Social Intelligence, "Repeated exposures to the people with whom we feel the closest social bonds can condition the release of oxytocin, so that merely being in their presence, or even just thinking about them, may trigger in us a pleasant dose of the good feelings that this molecule bestows.”3 The fastest way to release oxytocin is through safe touch in a soothing relationship. This includes hugs, snuggling, holding hands and dancing with your partner as well as cuddling with your pet or getting a massage.
Positivity – Couples need to consciously create joyful moments. This is a building block for happy pairing. Studies show that it is more important for relationship health when partners express support about positive news than it is for them to express sympathy about negative news.4 Although of course, if partners can do both that is preferable. Find time each day to share something positive that has happened to you.
Expressing gratitude – Rather than taking things your partner does for granted, try thanking them. Highlighting even those little moments when your partner is thoughtful or kind by thanking them can go a long way towards making sure you are getting more of the good stuff, by boosting serotonin and oxytocin levels. Studies show gratitude benefits both the person expressing it and the one receiving it.5
Commitment – Psychologist Ximena Arriaga of Purdue University showed that commitment is an essential element in building love. Furthermore, when commitment is shaky, partners are more likely to interpret each other’s behavior negatively.
The list could go on!
Take a moment to reflect on what you consider essential for your couple bubble. What have you learned about how to create a strong, secure and happy relationship? Please share!
Comments or questions are very welcome. You can post them on my blog here:
1 Groundbreaking study by Aron and his colleagues from Stony Brook University, published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 2011.
2 Robert Epstein is a contributing editor for Scientific American Mind and former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today. He holds a Ph.D. in psychology from Harvard University and is a long-time researcher and professor. He is currently working on a book called Making Love: How People Learn to Love and How You Can Too.
3 Goleman, D. (2006) Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships. Bantam Dell.
4 Frederickson, B. (2009) Positivity. Crown.
5 Frederickson, Positivity.