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Bonding & Marriage Success


Bonding is central to marriage success. That's not very surprising. The vast majority of couples planning for or contemplating marriage start off very bonded.


What is surprising for many couples, though, is the unexpected vulnerability of their initial powerful attachment. The biggest mistake that couples make is to take their bond for granted by assuming that their connection will stay strong because they love each other or with 'hard work.' But they don't have an intentional strategy to maintain the strength of their union.


Without a specific plan, most couples' attachment may grow weaker over time, whether or not they want this to happen, placing their marriage at risk. The first years of marriage are the riskiest for divorce and affairs. Couples report that "the spark is gone," or that while they still love each other, they are no longer "in love" or have "grown apart."


Some couples think that starting a family together will reinforce their bond. For many, it is the opposite. They may stay together because of their kids, but their tie to each other is actually diluted as their attachment to their children displaces their connection to each other.


What disrupts their bond, so unexpectedly?


The fact is that nature never intended for the exhilarating feelings that you experience when falling in love to endure with the same intensity over time. The brain chemistry (based on elevated levels of dopamine and norepinephrine) that underlies romantic attraction can't remain in this state very long. Nature doesn't want us to burn out. That special chemistry that drives courtship is destined to fade.


This phase of intense bond formation used to last through the wedding. But now that couples postpone marriage and often live together, it is common for passion to subside--often well before the wedding or soon thereafter.


Nature intends our initial, temporary falling-in-love bonding period to be replaced by a longer-term attachment between partners--with a totally different underlying brain chemistry (based on oxytocin and vasopressin). [Fisher, et al, 2002]


But, some of us find it easier to form and maintain these long-term bonds. According to researchers, different attachment styles rooted in early experiences with parents play an important role in bonding: Most of us have what the experts call a secure attachment style based on a comfortable balance of closeness and independence in their intimate relationships. They tend to be relatively self-confident, accepting and supportive in relationships.


Many people with colder and/or rejecting early attachment experiences continue to have some degree of difficulty with romantic bonding during adult life. They may be less comfortable with closeness and trust, find it difficult to depend on others or be depended upon. On average their relationships last about half as long as those with the more secure style.


Those whose early attachments were particularly unreliable tend to be preoccupied and obsessive in relationships, needy and vulnerable, and experience difficulty getting as close to others as they would like. They bond easily, but their relationships are the least durable.


All of these attachment styles are considered normal. But both of these less secure styles are prone to experiences of jealousy and loneliness. They also tend toward defensiveness and blame and have difficulty getting their needs met.


In addition to any bonding challenges posed by these attachment patterns from childhood, there are many realities of modern life that disrupt our longer-term attachments (even though they interfere less with the earlier phases of our relationships):


Every couple has 5 - 7 unresolvable differences, so there's a lot to disagree about once you start thinking about getting married. If you don't have good approaches to managing your differences, your disagreements will take a toll over time. Conflict can raise your level of negativity and undermine mutuality.


Then there are just the day-to-day pressures that tend to pull couples apart--jobs and careers, finances, kids, not enough time in your day. Lot's of couples don't understand that if you try to put your relationship 'on hold' while you give more attention to a new job or to children, it will be much more difficult than you imagine restoring the closeness between you.


The different approaches of the genders to many aspects of relationships, including communication and bonding, are another factor that can stress couples' feeling of closeness over time. The pursue--withdraw pattern, where one partner keeps after the other to resolve an important issue or for more closeness, while the other feels overloaded and keeps withdrawing or picking a fight to get away, is especially dangerous. This pattern is what's primarily behind the stereotypes of the 'nagging' wife and the husband who 'doesn't talk.'


The changes in sex that challenge couples over the long term, as partner novelty declines and differences in approach to sexuality get in the way, can also contribute to diminished bonding.


All of these factors can chip away at the strength of your bond, in part by disrupting the brain chemistry that underlies it. Many couples count on the strength of their initial bond to get them through these challenges and can't imagine that it might fade.


So what can couples do to avoid the seemingly inevitable slide toward greater disengagement? Well, fortunately, there's plenty. But for most couples, it doesn't happen on its own. You have to plan and strategize to keep your bond strong. And it's best to start early, just when you can't believe that you'll ever need it.


Here are some approaches that marriage success research has shown will help to keep your bond vital: 


·       Build positivity in your relationship. No one can avoid some negativity, but limit it. Marriage research has revealed that happy couples have at least five positive interactions for every negative one. Couples who slip below five-to-one have a hard time restoring the balance. Repair after your fights. Don't allow prolonged periods of resentment to persist. 


·       Make time for your relationship--no matter what.


·       Daily, non-stressful communication--continuing to keep up with each other's lives--is another bonding activity. And it's one that tends to go by the way when lives become busy. Remember how curious you were to learn the details of each other's lives when you were getting to know one another?


·       Approach life as a team. Don't become adversaries, even when you disagree. Your disagreements are something that both of you must take an active role in managing. Planning and dreaming together are bonding for both genders.


·       Appreciate the male need to bond through shared activities. Make time for the intimate talking that women usually prefer for bonding--but make it easier for him by scheduling it at a good time, setting a time limit on these discussions, and limiting any negativity.


·       Keep your sex life active. Schedule a regular date night, especially if things are slowing down. You'll be surprised how the anticipation will whet your appetite--just like it did when you were dating. Introduce new forms of novelty to compensate for the inevitable diminishing partner novelty. Overcome any disagreements about initiating and active/passive roles by taking turns. The brain chemistry stimulated by sex is critical to renewing your bond.


·       Celebrate your relationship. Develop rituals to commemorate your anniversaries and other memorable relationship milestones. Build a relationship mythology by telling your stories, such as that of how you met.


Adopting these strategies builds a bonding immunization for couples. These approaches help couples to build up a reserve of attachment that will help maintain their relationship through the inevitable stresses and challenges of contemporary married life and prevent disruption of their connection. Couples who are already experiencing tension or disengagement can revitalize their link by embracing these approaches.


Plan to keep your bond strong by learning more about practical bonding strategies that fit your relationship style and are comfortable for both genders. Enhance your intimacy, communication and conflict management skills at a Marriage Success Training seminar.


Click here for related reading and references list.


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MST helps couples learn more about practical bonding strategies that fit their relationship style and are comfortable for both genders. Click here to learn about the benefits of MST.


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Copyright 2003-2005, Patricia S. & Gregory A. Kuhlman. You may copy this article for non-commercial use provided that no changes are made and this copyright notice, author credit and source citation are included.




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