Thoughts from the Therapy Chair with Joe Martino: Making Relationships Work

Sometimes, when I go out to eat, I embarrass my family. Well, mostly, I embarrass my kids. I love to ask one of two questions. And now, I would like to ask you one of those questions. Your answer to this question will impact how you treat other people in your life. Your answer is probably the number one driving force in how you treat your spouse or treat those you love.

Even if you are bad at relationships and seem to have one bad relationship after another, you have an answer to this question, and it affects your life. Your life is shaped more by your answer to this question than any other force in your life. Are you ready for it? Will you do me a favor? I’d like you to write the answer to my question down. If you get more than one answer, I would love for you to write as many down as you can.

Whatever comes to mind, write it down.

What do you think is the single one more important thing to making a relationship work? What went through your head? Did something immediately spring to mind? Sometimes, people look at me and say that there is not just one thing but many things, so I ask them to throw two or three at me. In your case, what came to mind? II have compiled an official list of answers I have received from various people over the years. I’ve listed a few of them for you below.

◆        Communication

◆        Trust

◆        Common goals/interests

◆        Common spiritual beliefs

◆        Trust

◆        Love

◆        Similar ethnic backgrounds

◆        Passion

◆        Romance

◆        Hard work

I think that all these things are great. A strong relationship will have all of these elements in it. The healthier the relationship, the more these things will be in the relationship. But—you knew there was one coming, didn’t you—these things are not the essential thing in my mind. They are important. But there are marriages that all have these things that end up in divorce. What was your answer? Do you know anyone who has had that “thing” in their relationship and is still divorced? I know someone who had had at least one of those and sometimes more than one characteristic in their marriage, and the marriage still ended in divorce.

All of these things lead to one thing, and I think that one thing is the most important. I wonder why we take something as emotional as relationships and take emotion out of it.

My answer to the question is emotional security. If you have emotional security, you will have a relationship that will last and thrive. Some people call this emotional attachment, but I think that is one step away from the home run. Emotional attachment comes after I am emotionally secure. Look back at the list I gave you. They all lead to emotional security. If the relationship is to last, it will move past those things and end in emotional security. Relationships that do not end up with a high level of emotional security will not last. The reason is simple. Things like romance, love, and passion are constant. They ebb and flow throughout a lifetime. Sometimes, they will flow hot and heavy. Sometimes, they will decline slowly and trickle along. In these times, emotional security will act as the glue that keeps the relationship together.

The answers to three core questions directly determine our level of emotional security. The first question is, am I being heard? Hearing is more than just hearing the words. It involves active listening, working to understand what’s going on behind the words. Are you attending to the words and examining my body language? Are you trying to understand what I am saying so that you can figure out what I am not saying? If you want to convince me that you are not hearing me, interrupt me and tell me how to fix the problem before I am done talking. There is something cathartic and healing in being truly heard.

The second question we seek to have answered is Am I valued? Not just for what I do but for who I am. Is there intrinsic worth to you in me? Do you find time to be with me? Am I high on your priority list? Am I more important than Sunday afternoon football? Am I more important than shopping with the girls? Where do I fit on your priority list? Am I more important to you than the feeling you get when you are angry with me, so you avoid saying hurtful things? If you want to convince me that I am not valued, ignore me. Don’t find time to talk to me. Of course, don’t find time to hear me, and you can give me two no’s at one time. How much of our various youth culture movements are in an attempt to be heard and valued? When a young man pulls up next to you and his stereo system is loud that it reverberates through your car, I cannot help but wonder if he is asking to be heard—I wonder if he is asking if you and I will value him. When someone covers their body in various tattoos or piercings, I wonder if they aren’t simply trying to be heard and valued. How much of our attempts to stand out (usually by fitting in) are merely attempts at being valued so we can feel loved?

The last question we ask is perhaps the most important. We all want to know if I can be safe to share with you emotionally. If you hear me and you even seem to place some value in me, but I cannot trust you to keep what I share with you, I will not be emotionally secure with you. If you trust me and I judge you or use what you share with me in moments of anger (think of couples fighting), you will not be emotionally secure with our relationship. And like a tree that needs space, sunshine, and water to grow, our relationship needs all three of these elements to grow. Take one away, and the tree may grow a little bit, but it will not grow to its true potential. Many times, it will wither and die. Emotional safety is the glue that keeps being heard and valued together.

Joe Martino is a counselor with Joe Martino Counseling Network.  He has locations in Lowell, Grand Rapids, Greenville, and Grandville.  For more information about Joe and his business, check their website or Facebook page.  He and the rest of the counselors and staff are eager to help those in need.

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