All couple therapies emphasize that trust is a key element of building positive relationships, but what is the key to trust? In our new book, Positive Couple Therapy (Singer and Skerrett: Routledge; www.we-stories.com), we argue that couples can build trust by shifting their focus away from thinking about what each partner takes from and gives to the other and instead turn their attention to what each can do for the third entity in the room – the relationship – the “We.” Deep trusting relationships are not simply about equitable transactions in which each partner seeks a fair accounting of their own and their partner’s needs. They are perhaps equally importantly about something that both partners are building together – something that is synergistic and more than the sum of two partners and their individual concerns.
What then is this “We” that partners might cultivate as the basis of their trust in each other? We argue that it consists of 7 elements and use the acronym, SERAPHS, as a helpful mnemonic. SERAPHS stands for:
Shared Meaning and Vision
Security entails a willingness on both partners’ parts to acknowledge the primacy of their relationship in their lives. Each partner needs to know that the other one is “all in.” We like to tell couples about one husband who worked in construction and taped the following sign to his dashboard, so he would be sure to remember his commitment as he drove to work each morning and drove back home each night,
Empathy is the capacity to step out of one’s own head and heart and connect to a partner’s pain or joy. It is also having the patience and wisdom to see hurt behind a partner’s anger. Lasting empathy takes hold when each partner also feels that his or her own feelings are being acknowledged and respected as well. Empathy and concern for the other need to come in the context of self-care and self-respect. True “We-ness” means that two “I”’s live inside the “We,” and that there must be Respect for each of these separate individuals to grow independently and together.
At the same time, living inside a true “We” is living with a reciprocal Acceptance of the fragility of each partner and the recognition of how much caring such awareness requires. It is a willingness to stand naked in front of the other person and say, “Here I am, flaws and all” and know that this is good enough for both of you.
Yet what is all this hard work for if it does not yield some happiness and Pleasure in the relationship? A strong “We” is one that continues to build on shared activities, sexual intimacy, and excitement about being together. One of the strongest diagnostic signs that a couple can benefit from therapy and build a stronger relationship is that they can still share Humor and laugh with each other.
Finally, the “We” is an edifice built on Shared Meaning and Vision. Whether this vision is to start a family, create a beautiful home, and/or work together on the part of a larger cause, this common purpose helps to cement the partners’ connection and trusting commitment.
To achieve these seven elements of SERAPHS (the better angels of our nature) and build a powerful “We” is an aspiration and not a fixed reality, even for the healthiest of couples. Yet it is the knowledge that both partners are committed with full hearts to this aspiration that allows deep and abiding trust to take hold. In future blogs, we shall share some of the techniques that we use to help couples to cultivate their own unique versions of the “We.”