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Although healthy romantic relationships are clearly imperative for the well-being of individuals, families, and communities, there are relatively few studies specific to the topic.

The lack of literature may be due in part to the difficulty in defining the subjective term, “healthy relationship”.  Components of a healthy relationship that are agreed upon by most researchers include commitment of the couple, emotional and sexual fidelity, intimacy, and effective communication skills.

A healthy relationship in San Francisco

Four common communication woes for couples

Esteemed marriage researcher John Gottman asserted, “A lasting marriage results from a couple’s ability to resolve the conflicts that are inevitable in any relationship”.  In his groundbreaking research in the area of successful and failed marriages, Gottman has devised methods with which to predict the survival or dissolution of a marriage with up to 90% accuracy, and his empirical approach helps to pinpoint the interactional styles and skills that define a healthy relationship.

Gottman determined four harmful ways of communicating (“The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”) that significantly contribute to unhealthy partnerships and relationship dissolution: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.

  • CRITICISM is defined as the attack of a partner’s personality or character traits, rather than simply disapproving of one’s behavior.
  • CONTEMPT can be distinguished from criticism in that it is the “intention to insult and psychologically abuse your partner”.  Displays of contempt may include insults, name-calling, antagonistic humor, mockery, and non-verbal acts such as sneering or the rolling of one’s eyes.
  • When people employ DEFENSIVENESS during an interaction, they tend to deny responsibility, make excuses for their behavior, or meet a partner’s complaint with their own complaint, rather than attempt to understand their partner’s concerns.
  • Sometimes, rather than argue, criticize, and complain, partners will remain cold, distant, aloof, or even silent; this behavior is referred to as STONEWALLING.

You can be mindful even during a fight or argumentA chronic cycle of negativity and dissonance

Gottman proposed that the “Four Horsemen” are destructive to a relationship because they contribute to the formation of a chronic cycle of negativity and dissonance within a couple’s interactions.  Effective communication and conflict resolution contribute to a positive interactional cycle, which has a major impact on marital stability and success.

Additionally, Gottman identified three styles of conflict resolution that predict a happy marriage.

  • VALIDATING couples verbalize respect for each other’s emotions during arguments, and engage in problem-solving discussions, rather than belligerent screaming matches.
  • VOLATILE couples have habitual and passionate fights, but are open and honest with each other about their feelings, and ultimately perceive each other as equals.
  • AVOIDANT couples don’t necessarily resolve their issues, but their marriages remain stable because they emphasize the strengths of their marriage, and accept, avoid, or minimize the negative qualities of their relationship.

Gottman discovered that regardless of the conflict style a couple adapted, a 5:1 ratio of positive to negative interactions in their relationship was imperative for marital stability and success.

If you would like to learn more about Gottman’s research findings, check out his bestselling books, “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work”, “What Makes Love Last”, “Why Marriages Succeed or Fail”, and “The Relationship Cure”.

A happy couple in San Francisco

About the Author

Kira Hoffman, PsyD, is a Clinical Psychologist at Well Clinic in San Francisco. Her specialties include individual therapy, couples counseling and premarital counseling.


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