Relational Dynamics - Tips to a Healthy Relationship

a group of friends wearing masks

What is the key to maintaining healthy relationships? Counseling and Health Psychology faculty member Sylvie Shuttleworth takes a look at research and has some tips for achieving healthier, stronger relationships. 

Styles of Communication

Research done by John Gottman has shown that in healthy relationships, the Magic Ratio of positive feelings or interactions to negative is 5:1. That is, in healthy relationships, for every one negative feeling or interaction that a couple had, they had five positive feelings or interactions. Gottman's research also found that an unhappy relationship can increase your chances of getting sick by roughly 35% and even shorten your life by an average of four years. People who are happy in their relationships live longer, healthier lives!   Communication is many times a cornerstone in trying to figure out why there may be a discrepancy between what we would like to have happen in our relationships and what actually occurs. Maintaining a quality relationship requires effective communication. Partners need to express positive feelings, negative feelings, complaints, needs, and above all, affection.

Dr. Gottman has been studying couples for over 30 years and he discovered four negative communication behaviors and failed repair attempts. These factors predict with over 96% accuracy whether a relationship will continue or end (Gottman, 1994). He calls these The Four Horsemen: Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling.

  • Stonewalling: or shutting down communication by leaving, ignoring, giving the silent treatment, etc.

  • Contempt: using sarcasm or eye-rolling, sneering, mockery, or hostile humor to demean the partner or his or her concerns. The amount of contempt found in stable, happy relationships was essentially zero.

  • Defensiveness: using excuses, blaming, counterattacking or other ways to avoid taking responsibility for a problem (e.g., “You do it too!”). This fuels the flames of conflict because it says that the other party is the guilty party.

  • Criticism: verbally accusing or putting down your partner. This includes yelling, name-calling (e.g., “What’s wrong with you?”, “you always”, and “you never”)

Repair attempts can be almost anything: a smile, use of humor, a comment on the communication itself, or some way that the couples find to support and smooth one another. Couples who were consistently unsuccessful at repair attempts were more likely to end the relationship.   


Conflict Resolution

If you or your partner notices the Four Horseman in your conversations, consider these tips:

  • Calming Down: When you are feeling overwhelmed with anger, or extremely upset with your partner, you are more likely to say things that you will later regret. Learning to calm yourself down at those times is a crucial skill. For most people calming down takes about 20 minutes, so take a time out. Get away from each other and do something that you find soothing. Some examples may include deep breathing, sitting quietly, listening to music, calling a friend, exercising, etc.

Listening and Responding

  • Be intentionally both verbal and non-verbal…listening requires effort.

  • Show understanding and empathy by putting yourself in your partner’s shoes and imagining how they feel, and not trying to talk your partner out of those feelings.

  • Be fully present, don’t plan your responses while the other person is talking

  • Avoid interrupting, ask open-ended questions, and use “I” statements

  • Reflect and clarify content and feelings

  • This includes taking responsibility for your own behavior, apologizing for mistakes, and complimenting your partner on handling a situation well. 

Grow in Self-Awareness: What does self-awareness mean?

  • Being open to learning more about yourself

  • Acknowledging both your strengths and limitations

  • Realizing how your actions affect others

  • Challenging yourself to grow


Practice Self Care: 

  • Love yourself unconditionally without being self-righteous or arrogant

  • Let go of blame if you have been hurt in the past; become empowered

  • Tend to your physical health through exercise, decent nutrition, and rest

  • Not abusing yourself with tobacco, coffee, drugs, alcohol, or other substances which could hurt yourself or others, or impair your judgment

  • Replace negative thoughts and judgments with positive supportive ones

  • Treat yourself (and others) with respect, kindness, and compassion

  • Acknowledge that all human beings are fallible (that includes you), but capable of improvement and growth

  • Challenge unhealthy perceptions of yourself, step out of your box and consider new ways of looking at yourself, others, and your relationships.

Maintaining healthy relationships can be a challenge! It takes work on both sides to ensure that the other person feels heard, respected and understood. For more information on relationship dynamics, or how to improve your communication, schedule a $25 counseling appointment at Bastyr University Clinic or Bastyr Center for Natural Health today.