Saturday, November 3, 2012

How Do You Know If a Relationship is Healthy?

Dear Jocelyn,
What are the traits of a healthy relationship vs. an unhealthy one? If one of your patients were talking to you about a spouse or boyfriend/girlfriend, what do you look out for to assess whether the relationship has problems?

Dear Curious,
That is an excellent question! A healthy relationship is as unique as the people in it. The couple might be quiet, or loud, or teasing, or respectful. It is difficult sometimes to judge what a healthy relationship can look like since everybody has their own preconceived notions of what a happy couple should do - therefore, if two people do not fit that mold, they might be perceived as incompatible.

It is also difficult to predict which couples will succeed, and which will fail, considering the myriad of factors that go into a divorce or a lifelong marriage. However, one researcher I greatly respect has made that his life's work. Dr. John Gottman has conducted several studies, in one of which he was able to predict whether a couple stayed married or got divorced with a 93.6% accuracy rate.

His book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work explains how successful couples interact. These principles are explained briefly here. They include turning towards each other, nurturing fondness and admiration, and letting your partner influence you.

Dr. Gottman's research also showed what negative characteristics couples had that pointed them towards divorce. Those were criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.

These guidelines might seem pretty commonsense, but they can be revolutionary for some couples. It boils down to whether the behaviors and feelings in a relationship are usually positive or negative. So, if you are trying to tell if a couple is healthy or not, look for the little things. Do they compliment each other? Affectionately touch each other? Seem to respect the other person? Or instead, do they create distance, nitpick, and seem to have disdain for the other person? While obvious milestones may seem to define a relationship (marriage, children, etc.), it is the little, day-to-day actions that determine whether they will last.

I hope this helps!

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