Every Successful Marriage is Built on the Same Foundation

David Olsen, Ph.D, LCSW

The late psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut described three relationship necessities, which are rooted in our early years. First, we need “mirroring” from our primary caregivers. Mirroring is best illustrated in the wonderful eye-to-eye gaze between a parent and infant, where their faces literally mirror each other: the infant smiles and mom or dad smile back. Without feeling seen, known, and mirrored, the infant becomes anxious. Mirroring is a type of empathy that allows us to feel both known and seen. This is a type of oxygen for the soul. As children develop, they enjoy their mini-achievements being celebrated by their parents. (The neuroscience research on mirror neurons in our brains actually lends biological support to Kohut’s theory.)

The second relationship necessity, Kohut suggests, is that of “twinship.” This means that we need to feel like we have significant things in common in our important relationships. As a child develops, they learn that they share important characteristics with their parents, which helps them develop a sense of belonging. As they grow, they begin to find those dynamics in other important relationships as well.

Finally, Kohut talks about the need for “idealization” or admiration. Early in life, a child feels safe if they can admire their parent’s strength, protection, and sense of “all knowing”. They learn to count on their parents for a sense of safety and security, which increases their confidence. But when a parent is impaired by alcoholism, addiction, or mental illness, a child’s anxiety increases as they are left feeling unprotected and insecure in the world.

Ironically, most couples believe these qualities are present in the beginning of their relationships, but later find that they easily fade or get lost, creating distance and marital dissatisfaction. When people say, “You’re not the person I thought you were”, they are often referring to the diminishment of one or all of these elements. But successful couples build and enhance these qualities throughout their marriage and, as a result, they continue to grow.

How to build and nurture these relational necessities:

  1. Successful couples continue to build empathy and increase mirroring so they feel increasingly known throughout their marriage. I recently saw a cartoon in which the husband states, “My wife just said, ‘You didn’t hear a word I just said’ and I thought, ‘What a weird way to start a conversation!’” Effective listening is a prerequisite for building connection, but simply listening doesn’t go far enough. Mirroring, or empathic listening, is where the person tries to fully engage with the feelings and experience of the other, and understand where they are. The difficult part, especially if you’ve been together for more than a couple of years, is that this begins with the assumption that we really don’t know our partners as much as we think we do. Therefore, we must be willing to surrender our “pictures” (described in our book: Renewing Your Relationship: 5 Necessary Steps), and try to continue to deepen our understanding of each other by allowing ourselves to see all of each other. Some of the saddest conversations I have involve hearing people complain that their partner does not really understand them or know them. Being lonely in the midst of a relationship is intensely painful. At our core, all of us long to be known, especially by our partners.
  2. Successful couples continue to find “twinship” with each other. This means that they build and develop more things in common as their relationship develops. Most couples at the beginning of a relationship think that this will be easy, and of course they are wrong. Building commonality takes experimenting and commitment but is well worth the energy. Couples who build this enjoy their life together. Couples who, for example, workout together, run together, or bike together enhance their relationship. The good news is that there are a number of ways to build common interests: pursuing the arts, reading books in common, pursuing spirituality, hiking, or committing to a cause like Habitat for Humanity or other social outreach organization. One warning: just focusing on your children as your major connection will be problematic and leave you empty when the children leave.
  3. Successful couples are still able to “idealize” each other. Of course this one is tricky - In the early days of a relationship, couples have a somewhat idealized view of each other and can’t get enough of each other. Over time, this idealization fades and they begin to see flaws and problems they didn’t see in the early stages of infatuation. At this point, some couples grow more distant and disillusioned, while other couples develop a far more mature relationship. Healthy couples can accept the imperfections of their partner, without trying to change them. At the same time they are able to build a deeper and abiding level of respect. They never lose sight of strengths, and the qualities that initially attracted them to their partner. Over time, their respect continues to grow as they find themselves watching their partner with “new eyes” and seeing more and more that they admire and respect. Obviously, without building on mirroring and empathy this cannot happen. Building rigid pictures impairs vision and relationship.

Successful marriage is always a work in progress. Using these three elements as building blocks will help grow a more satisfying relationship that will continue to evolve over a lifetime. If you want to get started, try first doing an assessment of your relationship with your partner about how these three areas are developing, and then begin making a plan together. If you find yourselves getting stuck, give us a call to begin working with one of our relationship experts.