“Anybody who tells you they lived happily ever after is either on drugs or in denial.” Mary Giuffra says this with a laugh. In her decades as a licensed marriage and family therapist, psychiatric clinical specialist, and registered nurse, she’s seen the same problems emerge again and again between couples and their families.

As a Brooklyn native, Giuffra first learned about relationship counseling and guidance from her mother’s subscription to the popular domestic magazine Ladies’ Home Journal. But it wasn’t until later, when she had finished nursing school and was working as a labor and delivery nurse, that she realized how dysfunctional couples could be in the midst of growing their families. So Giuffra, who has four grown children of her own, went back to school, eventually earning a doctorate from New York University with a focus on research and a dissertation on mother-child dynamics. 

Her first book, 2 x 2 On the Ark, was conceived over a decade ago, but it was the pandemic that finally spurred her to get it finished and published. Having contributed research and articles to numerous conferences and academic journals on topics such as “The Therapist and Burnout” and “Culture, Family Values, and the Individual,” Giuffra was yearning for a way to convey her ideas beyond the rigidity of academic writing. 

Her book lays out a five-point approach for improving relationships between committed couples, using the acronym LOVER: “Leave space for love,” “Operate brains for love,” “View conditioning with love,” “Emerge free to love,” and “Route and navigate life’s storms.” But the most important part, she stresses, is accepting the role and power of space. 

“I see the basic principles that underlie a couple’s relationships. They look complex when you’re in the middle of them, and they feel complex,” she says. “But if you can just pull away and see the underlying structure and not react—just allow [yourself] some space to see—you [can] breathe into your own skin, get out of your reactivity. As the issues come up, they’re nature’s opportunity to grow.” This intentional space, she says, allows couples to meet each other “in the present, not worried about what might happen in the future or what happened in the past.” 

While the title nods to a biblical story, 2 x 2 On the Ark is not founded on religious teachings and could serve couples of any faith or background who feel things are not quite right. Noah and his wife, in this case, are a metaphor for establishing boundaries: They are confined to the limited space of the ark and must overcome the lingering tensions within their relationship to survive. With a strong health science and nursing background, Giuffra says she has refined her approach to center on the research of stress responses, trust, and interpersonal bonding.

Appreciating animals and their perception of the world is also crucial for how couples approach the rough patches. Giuffra credits the works of neuroscientist Paul D. MacLean and his model of the triune brain for shaping how she approaches improving relationships, namely by identifying the needs and priorities of our three brains. Beyond our human “executive” brain, in this framework we also possess “reptilian” and “mammalian” brains, which guide our senses for fight-or-flight survival and emotional connection, respectively. Despite our humans’ hubris that we have evolved beyond animal instincts and developed into rational beings, these other brains flare up in moments of conflict, vulnerability, and trauma.

“We think we’re being very rational, but these other brains are influencing all our behavior and we don’t even know it. It’s emotionally colored thinking; it’s not really clear. So the idea is to get more conscious,” says Giuffra. “One way to have a really intimate relationship is to take full responsibility. Nobody’s perfect,” and that’s a good thing. “We need to grow and change.”

Giuffra’s work is peppered with her own findings and anecdotes from couples she has counseled as well as the research of others, such as trauma expert Peter A. Levine, Ph.D. Possible conflicts can vary, from repressed childhood trauma to prioritizing hobbies over intimacy to waning sexual chemistry. All should be understood within the parameters of a relationship of mutual respect and investment. Abuse is not to be tolerated, and Giuffra knows space won’t fix intentional manipulation. But it’s clear from the first page, redolent in Giuffra’s ardent prose, that she believes, fervently, in love. 

“Rather than viewing relationships as enchanting or dreadful,” Giuffra writes toward the end of the book, “see that true intimacy motivates us to touch the depths of our souls. Romantic love can be a delusion that blinds us to reality. Anytime you think another human is all perfect or all loving, stop, look, and listen….Each time you dig into the depths of your shadow self, whether kicking and screaming or willingly diving into the murky, unknown waters, you emerge more fully human, more capable of loving and being loved.”

Kirkus Reviews praises the book for its authority and accessibility, calling it “meticulously researched but easy to follow” and “pragmatic but never preachy,” with advice that “will likely be effective for those who are currently in the dating world or simply looking to improve communication in platonic or familial relationships” beyond the marriage bubble. While the majority of the couples cited appear to be heterosexual spouses, Giuffra says the same principles apply to same-sex couples or those who are exploring relationship dynamics beyond monogamy.

With all her children out of the house and raising children of their own, Giuffra now lives in the quieter suburb of Bronxville, New York, where she established her private psychotherapy practice in 1972. Between counseling appointments, another book is in the works, The Two Career Family, that will apply her concept of cultivating space for parents and families to finding balance among spouses, children, and the workplace. It’s a tall order, she admits, but one that pays off.

“You need to give [people] space to change and give yourself space to deal with changes and talk about them. That’s really what love and acceptance is—to say ‘I accept you.’ It’s letting a person evolve and be who they’re becoming.” 

Amelia Williams is a writer living in Brooklyn with bylines in the San Francisco Chronicle, Bay City News, and Leafly.