Why Love is Not Enough for a Satisfying, Long Lasting Marriage

We hear all of the time that “Love is the answer”.

I used to think this too… until I had more real world experience in my own marriage and experience as a couple therapist.

I still love romance and want my spouse to love and accept me for who I am. My spouse also wants me to love and accept him for who he is (& his version of romance has changed throughout the years into something more authentic than flowers and chocolate).

I have also come to realize something even more valuable than my experiences in the initial infatuation or harmony stage of my relationship, which is-

Love is not enough for a satisfying, long-lasting marriage.

This lesson was solidified when I read my first book, Wired for love by relationship expert, Stan Tatkin (creator of PACT- the Psychobiological Approach to Couples Therapy model), reflected on my professional experience as a couples therapist, and honestly looked at my personal experience (close to 18 years of marriage!). ​

​Tatkin’s revolutionary work explains how emotional safety and security are even MORE important than love in supporting long-term satisfying intimate relationships.

His view is also evolutionary given its emphasis on the importance of safety and security (above love), which mirrors Maslow’s hierarchy of needs pyramid. Below is Tatkin’s description of an emotionally safe and secure relationship, which he calls a “secure functioning” relationship: 

“Our relationship is grounded in true mutuality- whatever we do is good for me and you. We are tethered to one another. We depend on each other. We tell each other everything. We’re the first to know. We watch each other’s back. We protect each other from other people and ourselves. We’re good caregivers of each other. We have each other’s “owner’s manual”. We know exactly what our partner is doing and why. We know what hurts our partner or knocks them to their knees, and what we can do to pick them up. We know what to say to make our partner feel absolutely loved and secure.  We get each other in and out of distress very quickly. We only use attraction, not fear or threat, to get what we want. We do whatever it takes to help our partner feel safe, secure, and loved.” – Stan Tatkin, MFT, PhD

When some individuals first hear the description (above) of a secure functioning relationship, they ask, “Isn’t that a codependent relationship?”. Tatkin explains the difference, “Codependent partners live through or for each other, while ignoring their own needs and wants, thus leading to resentment and other emotional distress”.  Secure functioning relationships, on the other hand, are based in true mutuality, which allows both partners’ needs and wants to be honored.

Also, if you take out the word “love” from the description above, this can easily fit the relationship dynamic of military and paramilitary (fire fighters / police officers) personnel. Thus, emotionally safe and secure relationships happen all of the time in certain professions, and are possible to create with our long-term partner if we want this type of relationship.

I encourage my couple clients to read Tatkin’s Wired for love since it provides the “manual” that so many couples are looking for!

Of course there are other highly regarded couples therapy models that I have studied, which also have excellent books written for couples and several overlapping ideas that I incorporate into my work. Similar to finding the right partner in life, after a lengthy process of research, practice, and reflection, I realized that I connected to Tatkin’s PACT model on a gut level and felt that it offered the most wisdom and practical skills to guide my clients (& myself) in developing long-lasting, satisfying intimate relationships.

For couples who desire the emotional safety and security that secure functioning relationships provide, the first step Tatkin recommends is the idea of creating a “couple bubble”.

The couple bubble is an agreement to put the relationship before anything and everything else. It means putting your partner’s well-being, self-esteem, and distress relief first. And it means your partner does the same for you. You both agree to do it for each other. Therefore, you say to each other, ‘We come first‘. In this way, you cement your relationship. It is like making a pact or taking a vow, or like reinforcing a vow you already took with one another” (Tatkin, 2012).

So, what does emotional safety and security (“the couple bubble”) look like in real time? 

Example #1– If a spouse grew up with a parent who frightened him with his explosive anger, the other partner will be extra sensitive about how they express their anger toward their spouse and in general in order to create a level of emotional safety that their partner needs to heal from his past and to be able to form a more trusting, secure bond with one another.

Example #2 – If a partner came from a home in which she was shamed or not given unconditional love unless she behaved (or performed at school, home, or in the community) perfectly, the other partner will be extra careful about how they share constructive feedback with her and will demonstrate unconditional love and appreciation as much as possible.

And what is an example of partners jeopardizing their relationship’s level of emotional safety and security or “popping the couple bubble”?

Example: If a spouse experienced inconsistent emotional care by one of her parents due to that parent having a drinking problem, she will naturally feel anxiety when her spouse drinks or drugs to excess or demonstrates emotional unavailability at any point.

If you’re wondering, “Why can’t these adults just get over their childhood and stop being so needy?”, you have a point in that even Tatkin would agree that we need to take responsibility for our behavior. If we behave in a hurtful or irresponsible way, it’s not excusable to just chalk it up to our childhood, and expect our partner to accept us unconditionally.  It is our job to be aware of our behavior, sensitive to other’s needs, and take some responsibility for any unfinished business we have with our family of origin or other past relationships. It is also a choice for us to break the cycle of pain and not hurt others as we were hurt ourselves and change our family legacy by treating others as we would have liked to have been treated.

AND… according to attachment theory, which is included in Tatkin’s model, our need  for parenting (comforting, calming, soothing = emotional safety and security) never ends, and we can help our partner heal from his/her past by providing a corrective experience.

Some couples will try instead to outsource all of their partner’s healing to an individual therapist (or tell their partner to “just get over it”), but why not help our partner out just as they can help us heal from any pain we experience in life? Isn’t that what love is about?
If you would like to create a more secure, safe, and loving relationship with your partner, Contact Lana Isaacson, LCSW, CAC III, Certificate in Marriage and Family Therapy: 720.432.5262 , [email protected], or schedule your free consultation or session online.