As a relationship therapist, I am often asked questions about relationships. The top two must be; ‘what does a great relationship look like?’ and ‘what is love?’. I have often wished that I had an easy answers for these questions, but they are, as you might expect, complex issues and so hard to define. When we start our relationships we often do not think of what the future will hold, and concentrate on the rather more immediate aspects of relationships, how attractive we are to each other, sex, weddings, setting up home and so on. We rarely think how we will support each other, perform and love together under the stress and pressure that a long-term relationship brings.

Dr Sue Johnson, author of The Love Secret, tells us that in relationships couples get bogged down in the minutia of events and attribute false meaning to them, which often disturbs the balance of the relationship. In fact, what really is disturbing us is the threat to our ‘safe haven of secure love’ i.e. our adult attachments.  Love and being in a great relationship she argues is about being there for our partner no matter what, and creating a safe dependable space that we can return to when the going in life gets tough. It is a ‘seeking, comforting connection’ that is innate in all of us and is the predictor of a solid relationship. It is the solid foundation that all the other great benefits of being in a relationship flow from.

I saw this modelled recently by my friends Kate and Fred. This year just after Christmas, my lovely friend, Kate, lost her 3-year battle with terminal breast cancer. We had known each other since being students, our husbands are best friends and our children grew up together. Over the last three years we all watched cancer ravaged my friend and as the disease took hold of this once Catherine Zeta Jones ‘look alike’, she physically diminished before our eyes.

However, this dreadful situation did not dampen Kate’s lust for life, love and humour, and over this period we had some sidesplitting moments as we relived our past scrapes and adventures. As Kate became weaker we were privileged to watch the incredible care and tenderness that her husband Fred demonstrated. In every action love and care glowed, whether it was carrying her when she could not walk, cleaning her when she was sick from the maintaining treatment or feeding her when she could not eat. Naturally, he did not always get it right. I vividly remember Kate complaining bitterly that she was wearing red Christmas tights in August when she could no longer dress herself. Fred, unlike Kate, has never been a fashion icon! But that aside he was there with her every step of the way providing a safe and comforting space through her journey, until she died surrounded by Fred and her children. In her actions Kate too was Fred’s safe haven, giving him a space where he could share his concerns and fears about the future without her. Together they demonstrated how unselfish and thoughtful true love and relationships can be, and how rich.

At Kate’s funeral, many stories were told and laughed at, many about her wonderful and maddening ways. I was interested to observe that the maddening ones were loved and laughed at most, perhaps because perfectionism is unreal. Perhaps the most poignant was by her son who recalled how she was not the best-packed lunch maker when he was at school and that the peanut butter would always spread over everything else in the pack, which he found exasperating. He then recalled that while on a recent skiing trip his travel has been disrupted by snow. As he settled in for the long cold night at the station in his ski bag, he felt a Tupperware box in the bottom of the bag. There was the inevitable packed lunch with peanut butter everywhere! It was, he said, like a beacon of love across the miles.

So maybe this is a reminder that it is not the small irritants that cause emotional noise in our relationships that we should attend to, it is the solid safe haven of love behind them that defines our relationships and makes them unique and so special. As Fred said to me at Kate’s funeral ‘see the irritating quirks for what they are, laugh and embrace them, they are the small detail in the wider picture of love’. What a wise man!

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