How Relationally Healthy Are You?

Young couple are arguing on the couch in their home and having difficulty and problems in a relationship and marriage sitting back to back ignoring and not talking to each other, relationship problems

In my last blog I invited readers to learn about John Gottman’s research on relationships, specifically what he calls The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. He described the qualities that make a relationship unhealthy: contempt, criticism, defensiveness and stonewalling. If one or more of these are prevalent in a relationship, that relationship usually is unhealthy and when it is between couples, their marriages are greatly at risk.

Let’s talk about pervading stress for a moment. We’ve deal with the pandemic, the various Covid variants, now monkeypox, stress and unrest politically and financially, racial injustice, and the impact of climate change to name a few. Not only does all this stress strain our personal physical, mental and emotional health, it can deeply impact the health of our relationships. Relationships that were already in danger can intensify as a result of our increasingly stressful lives. Stress can lower our abilities to be kind, considerate, compassionate and empathetic. As the health of relationships deteriorates, we can feel lonely, sad, helpless and powerless.

We need our relationships to survive and to experience some of the positives that life has to offer: unconditional love, emotional security, joy, excitement, fun, happiness, security, peace and contentment. Even as we try to decrease and hopefully eliminate stress in our important relationships, Gottman gives us the two essential qualities of healthy relationships that can inspire us to become intentional in the ways we interact with those who are important to us.

The first quality of healthy relationships Gottman discovered is the amount of affirmations regularly offered by each person, acknowledging positive behaviors and attributes. His research suggests that the ratio of affirmations to criticisms is a minimum of five to one, meaning for everyone critical statement there needs to be at least five affirmations.

The other quality of healthy relationships is predictable and healthy conflict resolution. When there are struggles, issues, disagreements or frustrations between people, their resolutions involve compromise and caring for the needs and rights of the other person with each one making their perspectives, expectations and needs clear. It is in times of conflict that the worst can come out in us. When relationships are healthier, each person practices self-control and puts the health of the relationship over the need to be right, to dominate the other person, put that person down, or push that person away.

Once we recognize the critical components of an unhealthy relationship and how we contribute those behaviors in our relationships, we can actively reduce and eventually eliminate tendencies to be contemptuous, critical, defensive or stonewall. We can intentionally take a deep breath and step away from the relationship to regroup and recognize just how important it is to be calm enough to engage in constructive conflict resolution. This allows us to appreciate the other person’s perspectives and needs, and to be vulnerable in sharing ours. Then we can compromise and sincerely affirm the other person for who they and specifically what they do that is loving, helpful, caring and supportive.

Daniel Goleman’s includes research on the importance of each person’s emotional intelligence to promote health and their relationship. He concludes that to be emotionally intelligent each person needs to be highly self-aware, able to manage their emotions, able to be empathetic, socially appropriate and able to creatively respond to problems and conflicts. A powerful list of essential skills!

All this can be overwhelming and seem like a lot of work just to build and maintain health in a relationship. But healthy relationships do take work. Depending on our own personal histories, or what negative habits we have gotten into, it can take a great deal of effort to avoid the negatives that allow unhealth in a relationship and rather do those things that promote the positives that nurture relationships. All this takes intentionality based on a deep desire to share the many joys and benefits of experiencing healthy relationships.

Invitation for Reflection

  1.  When I consider relationships that are important to me, how frequently are affirmations a part of the language I regularly use with them? Is it somewhere around the 5 to 1 ratio Gottman’s research suggests is necessary for health in a relationship?
  2. In my important relationships do we share predictable processes of conflict resolution that protect the emotional health of each of us? Are we open to compromise in order to care for the needs of the other person even as we maintain our own integrity?
  3. What do I need to work on in relationships that will decrease tendencies for either one of us to show contempt, be critical, defensive or to stonewall while promoting interactions that include regular, sincere affirmations and consistent use of healthy problem-solving processes?

Diane Wagenhals, Director, Lakeside Global Institute