Relationship Quality on a Continuum of 5 Cs

A straightforward way to think about long-term relationship quality.

Posted Nov 14, 2013

Simple guides to thinking about long-term relationships can be useful in helping map the terrain. Robert Sternberg’s “triangular” theory of love as consisting of three key ingredients (intimacy, passion and commitment) is one such example.

On the flip side of the relationship continuum, John Gottman’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (criticism, stonewalling, defensiveness, and contempt) is another good, easy to recall description of relationship processes. I describe here what I have found to be another useful guide to relationship quality, although it is one that does not have the same psychological pedigree as Gottman or Sternberg. Rather it is an idea my father (a history professor, not a psychologist) shared with me several years ago. Nevertheless, I have found myself returning to it more than once as a good descriptive way for couples to think about clearly about relationship quality. The idea is to think about your long term relationship quality as being on a continuum that ranges from conflicted to civil to cordial to close to connected. Each category label is a description of the basic tenor of the relationship over an extended period of time. Thus, all couples have ‘conflict’, but that is different than being in a chronically conflicted state, which is the meaning of the term here.

The descriptions of each category allow couples a sense of describing where the relationship is. Then, given their situations, histories, and desires, they can consider where they would like to be, and if both want that and if that is feasible.

Here are the ways I describe each category.

Connected is the most intimate, deep and fulfilling sense of relationship quality. Perhaps best encapsulated by the famous line in movie Jerry Maguire, when the main character says, “You complete me,” I think of this level of relationship quality as being akin to what people mean when they describe their partners as their “soulmate.” The term ‘connected’ attempts to capture the deep-seated feeling that there is a sense of wholeness or oneness that is experienced by the union. Most people in deep romantic love experience the feeling of “connected.” However, for a host of reasons that usually wanes over time and most companionate loving relationships do not sustain this level of relationship quality (although it is worth noting that many couples do stay “very intensely in love” over long periods of time). As such, and as this blog makes clear, it is probably wise to at least be cautious about thinking about finding a long term partner as seeking one’s soulmate.

Close refers to the normal state of happy couples. It is when each partner feels supported, known and valued. Such individuals are comfortable expressing intimate feelings and have a sense of passion and desire to be near one another. Fears and concerns can be authentically expressed and when conflicts emerge they are dealt with in the context a felt sense of security and commitment. As two popular blogs describe (see here and here), close couples tend to share interests, enjoy regular sexual contact, express care and affection, walk hand in hand, think frequently of the partner when absent, and have the default mode of trust and forgiveness.

Cordial is a friendly, relaxed state of being comfortable with one’s partner, but on closer inspection it is notably more distant beneath the surface than being close or connected. Such couples cooperate and may work well together on day-to-day processes, and likely have shared purposes and investments, such as children or finances. Yet, the couple lacks a deep sense of passion or intimacy. Usually, when one looks for it, there is a subtle avoidance of core emotional sharing or there is a sense in one or both partners of a lack of being known and valued at a deep level. If one or both partners are a bit emotionally avoidant or restrictive in connecting with how they feel, or if the couple has grown apart in terms of passion and connection yet the situational forces in their lives keep them together, then it is likely the relationship will settle on cordial rather than close.

Civil is most notable for the lack of warmth, and couples whose feelings of romantic love have long since left the marriage find themselves in the civil domain. There is not necessarily any overt hostility and the couple can usually engage in cooperative behavior, but it is experienced as a contractual-type relational process (e.g., I'll pick up the kids if you do the laundry). There is usually the sense that the couple is living separate lives, and there is limited sharing apart from trivial things or the need to solve every day problems. In the civil terrain, it is obvious to most outside observers fairly quickly that the couple is not close because of the relative coldness and restricted range of expressed affection.   

Finally, Conflicted is when there are strong deep-seated differences in values, interests, patterns, and the frequent conscious experience that the relationship is fundamentally failing to meet one’s needs. Thus, there is constant fighting regarding the direction of the relationship in terms of patterns of investment (i.e., money, sex, children, values, time, etc.). Couples who are fundamentally unsatisfied and show it, couples who are entering therapy as a last resort, or who are going through a contested divorce are examples of couples being in the conflicted state. Within the context of the conflicted terrain, I make a further distinction between necessary and constructive conflicted states, and destructive conflicted states. Necessary conflicted states are when one or both partners are, for good reasons, not getting their fundamental needs met and are seriously considering whether to dissolve the relationship. Adultery, irreconcilable value-based differences, changes in one’s deep-seated feelings of attraction, radically different needs for lifestyles, etc. can all be good reasons for serious conflicts, and those issues cannot not be ignored and thus the couple ought to engage in a process to determine if the relationship can be saved or not. And that can’t happen without strong feelings of hurt, anger, sadness, disappointment, betrayal, guilt, etc.

But these realities don’t mean the situation should turn into warfare. In contrast, destructive conflicts are when aggressive impulses are used to fundamentally diminish the dignity and well-being of the other. Most obviously this includes physical attacks or abuse. But it also includes verbal assaults consisting of contemptuous, hostile, spiteful, character assassinations, and the use of profanity to degrade. This final state of terrain is one that I encourage all couples to make a moral commitment to avoid.

In short, I believe this continuum of relationship quality provides a useful, straightforward way for individuals to think clearly about where their relationship is on the continuum of connection and, if it is not where they want it to be, it provides descriptions that allow them to think seriously about what a different terrain might look like and what might need to occur to get there.