Formula for a Perfect Marriage

For the past 30 years, we have searched for the formula for the perfect marriage. Our subjects were hundreds of couples in our workshops and therapy sessions whom we asked to describe their dream marriage. "If your relationship was 'just right,'" we asked, "what behaviors would you engage in and what adjectives would you use to describe it?" Through a analysis of thousands of answers we arrived at an implicit formula embedded in every couple's dream. Translated into explicit language, it consists of just three words: safety, connection, and joy. To verify and recheck our findings, we regularly feed these words back into our workshops and ask couples if the formula mirrors their dream. So far we get 100% concurrence.

So what do these words mean?

Safety: Being emotionally and physically safe, and being able to count on that, is every couple's dream, but few have it. Here are some glimpses of what it would look like if they had it. Negatively stated, they say: "I am not anxious in your presence and do not become anxious and tense when I anticipate we will be together." Simple! Positively stated, they say: "I can let my defenses down, take my armor off and relax without having to be on guard." Consistent and reliable safety seems to be every couple's dream.

Other positive descriptions include "it's like being with your best friend," "hanging out together," "experiencing lots of laughter," "frequent sweet pillow talk," "being spontaneous," "opening up." An important aspect of feeling safe is "being vulnerable without ever fearing a put-down," and "knowing someone has your back."

Couples also tend to connect safety with knowing they are THE priority in their partner's life, that when a priority decision has to be made, they are at the top of the list.

Finally, safety is connected with the confidence that whenever they are in their partner's presence they can trust, without a doubt, that their partner will be emotionally available, listen accurately and deeply and withhold judgment.

According to new brain studies, when anyone feels this sort of safety their glandular system secrets chemicals into the bloodstream called endorphins, which produce a sense of wellbeing and strengthen the immune system. Safety appears to be an emotional state experienced in the body! And, according to

Connection: Safety is also the precondition for connection. Not every couple uses the word "connection" when they describe their dream relationship, but we see it as a container that can hold all their words and phrases. The most common phrases include "we feel like we belong together," "we experience a sort of oneness as well as separateness," and "our oneness with each other extends to a feeling that we are connected to something outside of ourselves, something larger, like other people, like the universe!"

This paradox of oneness and separateness, and their feeling that their personal connection connects them to the cosmos is a frequent theme. Indeed, two people can be conduits of universal Love, which resides in the space between.

Interestingly, connection seems similar to "relating," another word often used by couples to describe their experience, but relating refers to interactions without the feeling of connection. This undesirable but common state is expressed as "being together and doing things but not feeling safe." We call these "transactional" rather than "connectional" behaviors.

Transactional behaviors tend to be civil, even affectionate and kind, but they are ritualistic rather than spontaneous. For instance, couples may agree to go to dinner together, or take a vacation, or even have sex, but they harbor a low sense of wariness. They never fully relax around each other and seldom experience happiness and joy. Neither knows when the other may find something wrong and respond with a mild put down or intense escalation. Not being able to trust completely, their brains constantly secrete cortisol (the fear chemical) into their blood stream. On the other hand, when couples engage in connectional behaviors, the fear center in their brains (called the amygdala) goes to sleep in an endorphin glow! All behaviors then tend to be spontaneous and enjoyable. Talk about a dream marriage!

Joy: This is what couples want to feel all the time. Joy seems to be the other side of connection. By joy, they tend to mean a low grade and generalized sense of pleasure rather than an ecstatic high. It is like the plateau of relaxation and pleasure that comes after an orgasm. We think this is the primary and natural human emotion felt when we are not anxious. While passion often seems limited to sexual feelings, it also includes a sense of ecstasy that can happen when couples have a "felt sense" of connection in any context. Feeling one with each other while playing and laughing together can be as passionate as sex. In fact, some couples say they "make love all the time and sometimes have sex!"

According to contemporary brain sciences, these two states have a physical basis in the two branches of the central nervous system. One is called the sympathetic (connected to arousal) and the parasympathetic (connected to relaxation). When couples feel connected they also experience a sense of oneness in their bodies.

Zero Negativity: So, we have concluded that what couples want and have in a great marriage: safety, a "felt sense" of connection and the experience of joyful aliveness requires the elimination of negativity about everything all the time. This state of "zero negativity" is the context in which all positive things happen. While it is the outcome of successful therapy, it also seems to be the human dream. Nothing good happens when negativity is present. Negativity stimulates fear and anxiety and destroys the safety that is the pre-requisite for connection and joy. In the anxious state, cortisol is secreted into the blood stream, awakening the sleeping amygdala who commands the troops to find and destroy the enemy of peace, the very person towards whom we carry the deepest desire to be close. The longed for dream marriage becomes a nightmare.

This normal paradox suggests to us that a dream marriage requires unconditional acceptance, or its counterpart, the absence of negativity about everything all the time. This is the pre-requisite for a "felt" sense of connection which we think is the heart of desire. We desire it because connection is our essence and the joy that attends it is our primary emotion. None of this can be experienced without safety which is achieved only by the achievement of "zero negativity."

This leads us to propose that the formula for perfect marriage is DM=ZN+(C+J) or (Dream Marriage equals Zero Negativity plus Connection plus Joy).

We wish one for all our readers.

Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt are the creators of Imago Relationship Therapy, practiced by more than 2,200 therapists around the world. Partners in life and work, they have together and separately authored 10 books, including the bestseller Getting the Love You Want. Their latest book is Making Marriage Simple: 10 Truths for Changing the Relationship You Have into the One You Want. Harville and Helen have been married more than 30 years, and have six children and five grandchildren.