- Relationships can be a source of meaning, which may include commitment, sacrifice, and personal growth.
- Criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling are key aspects of unhealthy relationships.
- Relationships require work from each partner, and it’s normal for relationships to go through hard times.
Cowritten by Arasteh Gatchpazian and Tchiki Davis, Ph.D.
In psychology, many researchers conceptualize relationship quality in terms of how satisfied each partner is in the relationship. This focuses on the hedonic dimension of the relationship (pleasure or happiness). But, of course, there is more to healthy relationships than how good you feel. For example, relationships can be a source of meaning, which may include commitment, sacrifice, and personal growth (Fincham et al., 2007; Stanley et al., 2006; Finkel et al., 2014).
To better understand your own relationship quality, you might explore the following:
- Meaning: Is the relationship a source of meaning?
- Personal growth: Is the relationship a key source of inspiration, support, and encouragement for self-development?
- Goal sharing: Do you have shared goals and also support and celebrate each other’s personal goals?
- Relational giving: Does each partner prioritize the other partner more than themself?
Although it’s important to learn how to identify when a relationship is going well, it’s just as important to look out for signals that a relationship is not going well. Researchers have identified four key aspects of interpersonal communication that can contribute to unhealthy relationships (Gottman & Levenson, 2000)
1. Criticism: When you criticize someone, you are attacking them to the core of their character. This is different from offering a helpful opinion or voicing a complaint.
2. Contempt: Contempt goes beyond criticism as it encompasses your moral superiority over the other person. This can include mocking them, ridiculing them, calling them names, mimicking their body language, or scoffing. The intention is to make them feel despised or unworthy, which is a terrible feeling to instill or receive from someone.
3. Defensiveness: It’s natural to be defensive sometimes, especially if you’re particularly stressed or tired. Sometimes you might feel that you’re not receiving the right treatment or you might play the victim so that the blame is no longer on you. But defensive responses often shift the blame onto the partner, which usually isn’t the best way to go. It tells the other person that you may not be taking them seriously and that you won’t own up to your mistakes.
4. Stonewalling: Stonewalling is often in response to contempt. This happens when the listener who is receiving sarcastic remarks or ridiculing comments ends up shutting down and no longer responds to the partner. They "stonewall" the partner and try to avoid confrontation by acting busy, disengaging from the conservation, or simply leaving their presence.
How to Build Happy Relationships
1. Develop a strong emotional connection. According to psychology research, one of the most important predictors of a healthy relationship is being emotionally responsive (Lemay et al., 2007). This involves sending cues (e.g., verbal, physical) to your partner and having them respond to them (e.g., soothing, encouraging).
2. Be vulnerable with each other. When partners open up to each other, this helps develop and strengthen mutual trust.
3. Be honest. This can go hand-in-hand with vulnerability but also encompasses other forms of communication. A healthy relationship will likely not be based on lies.
4. Have "healthy" conflicts. Conflicts are inevitable in any relationship, but how you go about dealing with them is essential.
5. Try something new. This is especially helpful if your relationship feels stale, and it can reignite the spark (e.g., going to a new restaurant for date night).
6. Solve problems as a team. This can help strengthen your identity as an “us” instead of a “me” and “you” and develop your problem-solving skills together (e.g., this can range from an escape room to asking your partner for help with a problem at work).
7. Talk about your goals and dreams. Sharing similar hopes and core values can help you reignite what attracted you to each other in the first place.
Relationships require work from each partner, and it’s normal for relationships to go through hard times. By using the strategies outlined here, you can improve your relationships and hopefully keep them going strong.
Adapted from an article published by The Berkeley Well-Being Institute.
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Fincham, F., Stanley, S., & Beach, S. (2007). Transformative processes in marriage: An analysis of emerging trends. Journal of Marriage and Family, 69, 275-292.
Finkel, E. J., Hui, C. M., Carswell, K. L., & Larson, G. M. (2014). The suffocation of marriage: Climbing Mount Maslow without enough oxygen. Psychological Inquiry, 25, 1-41.
Gottman, J. M., & Levenson, R. W. (2000). The timing of divorce: Predicting when a couple will divorce over a 14‐year period. Journal of Marriage and Family, 62(3), 737-745.
Lemay Jr, E. P., Clark, M. S., & Feeney, B. C. (2007). Projection of responsiveness to needs and the construction of satisfying communal relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(5), 834.
Stanley, S. M., Whitton, S. W., Sadberry, S. L., Clements, M. L., & Markman, H. J. (2006). Sacrifice as a predictor of marital outcomes. Family Process, 45, 289-303.