Relationships experience varying degrees of health. The survival of the relationship is totally dependent upon the willingness and ability of the two people involved to nurture, grow, develop and protect it. Many relationships seem to blossom fully and then die. Others wither on the vine and never come to fruition.
Most people believe that relationships end because people grow apart or ‘fall out of love’. However, many relationship educators suggest the erosion theory is the real issue. The erosion theory states that over time love and positive feelings can be crowded out by negative interactions, unresolved conflicts and poorly handled disagreements. In essence, the relationship dies of neglect.
What Makes a Relationship Healthy?
1. Keep it safe. Relationships are built on a foundation of trust, mutual respect and safety. According to the authors of Fighting for Your Marriage and the Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program (PREP), there are three types of safety that underlie all healthy relationships. These include: physical safety – freedom from harm or threat of harm; emotional safety – freedom to express your thoughts, opinions and feelings without fear of being humiliated, criticized or ridiculed; and commitment safety – a commitment to the relationship without fear of being left or abandoned during times of disagreement, conflict or other difficulties.
2. Find ways to create more positive than negative interactions. John Gottman’s research findings suggest that successful couples have 5-20 times more positive interactions than negative. You can make this happen by creating positive interactions – doing little things for each other, providing positive feedback, offering to help and others. Consider ways to do something positive for your spouse or partner every day to build up your ‘emotional currency’ in the relationship bank account.
3. Talk to each other daily. Gottman also found that successful couples spend time talking each morning and reconnect by talking again in the evening. The morning discussion may only be five minutes to talk about what you have coming up that day. In the evening, couples take a few minutes to sit down together without distractions and talk about their day. By taking these two brief moments to connect, couples have an opportunity to keep communication open.
Gottman and others also recommend date night every week or so. Date night/day can be as informal or formal as you choose. It should be a time for the two of you to talk, enjoy each other’s company and rekindle the spark that brought you together initially. Remember how you talked about things – anything and nothing – when you first met? Those who have been together for many years may think they know everything there is to know about their partner or spouse. Get creative – talk about a book you are reading, something you heard on the radio, current events, family matters – anything that you both enjoy or have an interest in.
4. Use active listening to discuss the important things. Active listening is a process that allows you, the listener, to fully attend to the speaker. It lets the speaker know that nothing is more important than hearing and understanding what s/he has to say. The technique involves paraphrasing what you hear (repeating it back to them in your own words) so the speaker can confirm that you got the message. If you misunderstand, the speaker has an opportunity to clarify it to avoid miscommunication. This alone may decrease the number of arguments and conflict you experience exponentially!
5. Use I-messages to ask for what you want/need without being aggressive or passive. I-messages offer the speaker a way to say what they mean in a way that decreases the risk of defensiveness and takes responsibility for the speaker’s feelings. I-messages follow this format: I feel ______ when (describe the behavior or concern). Would you please (request for change). For example, “I feel irritated when there are dirty dishes in the sink when I go in the kitchen to cook breakfast. Would you please put your dishes in the dishwasher instead of the sink?”
Notice in my statement that I did not say ‘when you leave dirty dishes in the sink…’. Using the word ‘you’ puts people on the defensive, which often results in an argument or negative interaction. By describing the problem rather than pointing out the obvious (who created the problem), I may avoid an argument. This is the difference between stating a complaint and stating a criticism. Complaints describe the problem without personalizing it. Criticism occurs when we take a complaint and make it about the person instead of the problem. Defensiveness is usually the end result.
In the example above, I stated how I feel when this happens (irritated) and asked for the change I would like to see (dishes in the dishwasher). Communicating in this way is asking directly for what I want, rather than demanding. I may not get what I asked for, but I have been honest about my feelings and clear about the change I want.
It is up to you to nurture and grow the relationship. If you implement only these five suggestions in your relationship, you will begin to see it grow and develop. If you want to learn more about building and keeping your relationship healthy, you might also like 5 More Ways to Grow and Develop Your Relationship.
Gottman, J. (1994). Why marriages succeed or fail. New York: Fireside Books.
Gottman, J. & Schwartz — Gottman, J. (2001). The art and science of love: A workshop for couples. Washington: The Gottman Institute.
Markman, H., Stanley, S. & Blumberg, S. (2001). Fighting for your marriage. California: Jossey-Bass-John Wiley & Sons.
Markman, H., Stanley, S. & Jenkins, N. (2006). Prevention and relationship enhancement program.
Colorado: PREP cational Produc