Counseling Keys

How counseling and its mental health focus aids in faster healing, recovery, adaptation, and overall satisfaction in career, family, and other relationships in one’s life.

The Formula for Staying Together

Confirm your compatibility, then avoid the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

Divorce has always scared me. Perhaps it started by witnessing my mom’s grief and the deep scars that remained from her parents’ divorce. Her desire to stay in contact with her father was taken as an act of defiance and disloyalty by her mother and she was essentially cut off from her and her four siblings. (Today people are far more aware about not doing do this to a child.) In the end, she ended up marrying very young and remained married until her death. She taught me divorce was not an option. So, when I divorced, twice, I felt the pain of shame and have sought to nurse my wounds by investigating why some relationships last a lifetime while others break apart. I am not alone in this endeavor—we have a treasure trove of research illuminating the hallmarks of healthy—and enduring—relationships.

One of my favorite researchers, Dr. John Gottman, has spent decades delivering empirical data that provide mathematical formulas of what works—and what doesn’t. When I first learned he could predict divorce with 94 percent accuracy, I was skeptical and intrigued. Did he have some deep psychoanalytic assessment that the rest of us couldn't understand, or a convoluted, culturally-biased point of view? No. His results are so simple that they seem like down-home common sense. I’m sure my great-grandma shared such wisdom with me at the kitchen table. She just didn’t have the statistical analysis to back her up.

Here's Gottman's formula—1:5.

It means that for every negative interaction a couple has (eye roll, dismissive body language, actual negative utterance, etc.), there need to be at least five positive interactions (a kiss, a genuine loving look, genuinely positive comments).

Note the word genuine was repeated twice above. While a popular dictum in cognitive behavioral therapy says to "fake it until you make it," our nonverbal cues often betray how we really feel. If you’re saying flattering words and doing a lot of nice things but don’t really feel it or believe it, chances are you're piling up a lot of negative nonverbal interactions. One fake nice thing you do can be coupled with a dozen negative nonverbal truths.

This is a huge takeaway. How many of us bemoan at the end of a relationship, “I tried so hard"? Was it genuine or was it based on some mixture of fear, guilt, trying to fit in, obeying authority, possessiveness, control, security, or sex? Just something to consider and while you’re pondering that, here are a few of the dangerous interactions Gottman warns present the harbinger of break-ups. Other supporting research reveals the following combative characteristics are toxic for our health and can lead to increases in heart disease, cancers, and other deadly illnesses. They are so corrosive that Gottman refers to them as the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” 

These four deadly interactions in relationships are like concentrated negatives with each one making up an even more lethal explosion. 

  1. Criticism. Yup, that’s bad. Ladies, when we try to help our partner dress better, offer it as a suggestion—not a criticism. And in order to not betray how you really feel about their outfit or manners in public, there’s probably some lesson in here about accepting them as they are and not worrying what other’s think. Unfortunately, I’ve been guilty of this one—and from the very beginning of a relationship. Yikes. However, criticism can get uglier than commenting about a mismatched outfit and public belching. It can get mean. When vicious enough it grows into the next stage of disaster. 
  2. Contempt. In a fight, disgust and contemptuous remarks hurt. They are more than words and they not only destroy relationships, they tear apart the surrounding family members and everyone’s health. Oftentimes, contempt comes in when a couple is having the same old fight. It is so chronic that a script could be written. The trigger may differ but the battle remains the same. Underneath the battle lies a fundamental difference in personalities or some unmet basic needs, which leads us to the next reaction.
  3. Defensiveness. I’m not getting what I really want or need out of this relationship and I no longer feel safe, loved and secure, so I am already planning my response to you before you even say or do anything. Interestingly, research shows that men rehearse distress-maintaining thoughts more than women. Such situations lead to the worst of all interactions that literally scorch love like an untended plant in the middle of a Texas summer drought.
  4. Stonewalling. The couple is fighting and one walks away. A bit of a time-out is okay, but if there is no repair and each person refuses to fully listen to the other person’s feelings and perspective, a literal wall is built. Soon the couple is disengaged and grown so far apart that they cannot connect at all.

How can all of this apply to your relationship? Well, we know that we need five positive interactions to every one negative. We also know that we can’t fake positive interactions because our truth will be revealed by our body language and nonverbal cues and when we do fight, we will probably go to the extreme and produce a few (or all) of the communication bombs just listed. Here are some solutions I see.

Know Thyself

Before you can truly relate to another partner, try getting to know yourself and your beliefs and basic needs. Sometimes focusing on you can alleviate the demands placed on your partner. You discover that you can fill the unmet needs yourself and with family, friends, activities, and Spiritual growth. Other times, learning about you and your values reveals a fundamental difference with your partner.

Check Compatibility

Too often we fall in a relationship and hold on for far too long. A major sign of incompatibility is an addictive relationship, where there are a cluster of really good things that each person clings to in spite of chronic conflict and the break-up and get back together cycle. Sometimes when such a relationship is not working, the couple goes deeper in denial of their incompatibility and fight it by delving into their relationship even more—via moving in together, getting engaged, getting married, having a baby, building a house, moving and starting over, etc. Other incompatible couples are tolerably comfortable with each other, afraid of being alone and/or afraid of losing security, so they hold on like lifeless statues.

Signs of Compatibility

  • Mutual trust.
  • Allowing each person’s point of view to be heard and considered (mutual influence).
  • Respect for each other’s growth, differences, and boundaries.
  • Healthy time together and individually.
  • Emotional connection.
  • Genuine happiness together.
  • Five or more positives to one negative. (Even better: 25:1.)
  • Spiritual connection and respect for each other’s beliefs.
  • Meaningful relationship.
  • Truly understanding each other and how each other thinks and feels.
  • Fighting fair and having similar fighting and repairing styles.
  • Willingness to learn from each other.
  • Compatible values and goals in life.
  • That magical ingredient called chemistry.
  • Commitment.

What do you think about these compatibilities? Does the research reflect your experience? What do you think makes up a healthy and long lasting relationship? (By the way, my parents actually seemed to have all of these ingredients. . .)

Kimberly Key is past division president of the American Counseling Association and author of Ten Keys to Staying Empowered in a Power Struggle.

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