Bond through life passages — 18 January 2007
Enhancing couples’ connection throughout each others’ lives

Committed couples who stay together for a lifetime experience many transitions. The nature and depth of their connection changes with life’s phases and can be enhanced by combining all the emotional and behavioral elements toward greater closeness and health.

Bonding styles of thriving couples can be divided into: ‘The Enmeshment’, ‘The Partnership’ and ‘The Interdependent’ phases.

The Enmeshment phase begins when new couples form an illusionary ‘oneness’. Meeting the good match that understands and loves me and will become an extension of me, is a reassuring myth. Initially many couples are captivated by the similarities they share in preferences, experiences, values and tastes. The thrill of being alike brings them closer and helps them feel secure in their choice. Many wedding ceremonies talk of the two becoming one. Younger pairs touch often, look in each other’s eyes, choose to spend most available time together, languish in long and delicious hours of sexual and sensual pleasures and feel satisfied with each other’s company as their main source of love connection.

The Partnership stage occurs as life expands, the family grows and many demands require their separate attention to jobs, children, home and family. In healthy relationship the transition to the teamwork is welcomed as an expansion of the bond to encompass more people and responsibilities. Satisfied couples see this period as calling for greater cooperation, mutual problem solving, and deeper mutual practical and emotional support. Many also recall with yearning the time they used to have only with each other and make attempts to recreate this connection at couple getaways and at preplanned cherished times at home.

Once the children leave home couples can then reactivate the first stage of more intimate connection and closer, undistracted attention to each other. Stress occurs for long term couples with the advent of midlife. The realization that the road ahead is shorter than the road already traveled brings individual goals, life dreams and unmet aspirations to focus. Retirement options may spark new changes, adventure, and search for greater inner serenity and peace.

It is only with advanced age and the onset of limitations and illness that bonded couples move to The Interdependence stage. In this level of connection the pairs often exhibit many caring patterns. He does not hear as well and she facilitates conversations with others, she sees poorly after dark so he reads to her nightly. They hold hands as they walk to stabilize each other. The loving partners become a one system that function well in tandem. Each person’s weakness is accommodated by the other’s strength. Those who share the same limitations often modify their lives to accommodate their new needs. This tender and attentive connection is touching to the observer and parlays many lessons.

In the play, The Women, by Clare Boothe Luce, a mother responds to her daughter’s complaints about the difficulty of marriage by saying: “Remember, dear, it’s being together at the end that matters.” Some old spouses die shortly after their mate had expired. Their physical and emotional unity can only be sustained through their togetherness.

Dr. Nina Rovinelli Heller, professor of the University of Connecticut, is compiling results of a massive longitudinal research of couples who have been married 50 years or more to understand “the developmental dynamics that foster satisfying, stable marriages in older people” and whether “secure attachment to one spouse and less negative emotional expression in marital discussions will be linked to better physical health”. These findings are widely anticipated this coming year.

• For the time being, it seems that as difficult as later years are, couples who muster their joint resources to facilitate each other’s comfort seem to fair better and are more satisfied than others. This can serve as a great lesson to couples of all ages.
• Viewing each other’s welfare as imperative and worth supporting enhances the health and wellbeing of both.
• Dr. C. Sue Carter and other neurophysiologists documented that skin touch produces healthy body changes through the release of oxytocin, a stress reduction hormone, and that emotionally interdependent people do impact each other’s physiology.

• Commitment to a life partnership, harmonious relationship that is other-centered is healthy for body and soul.

• Combining the awe of The Enmeshment phase with the co-operation and teamwork of The Partnership stage and the supportive unity of The Interdependence period throughout the years is likely to create life long intimacy and a healthy and satisfying relationship.

January 7, 2007

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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