There are signs of a healthy relationship that often go unnoticed.
People usually focus on the grandiose, and often cliché, ways of expressing their undying love. Or they chase the chemical cocktails that give you butterflies and keep you high.
I am not here to judge these means of expressing love. I am here to tell you that a healthy relationship goes way deeper than these means. To recognize, or to create, this healthy relationship that you are after, you need to pay attention to subtler ways of being and communicating (with yourself and with your partner).
And this is exactly what we are going to discuss in this article.
Let’s dive in . . .
How do you fight?
I call them, “arguments.”
According to Gottman, there are two types of ‘problems’ in relationships:
Solvable problems and perpetual problems.
Perpetual problems make about 69% of the problems in a relationship, meanwhile, the solvable ones make the remaining 31%1A solvable problem can develop into a perpetual one given the right circumstances.
So, if most of your fights are going to be about stuff you cannot ‘solve’, you are screwed, aren’t you?
It turns out that happy couples fight in a different way than unhappy couples. They still disagree and have different opinions and feelings and even values; they have perpetual issues. But, those fights don’t end with china plates thrown around each other. They don’t make partners feel alienated, unheard, or misunderstood. In fact, those fights can be ways to connect even deeper. Or, at least, they don’t create emotional distance between partners.
Gottman mentions something that he calls ‘gridlocks’. You reach them when discussing a perpetual problem has been too much of a burden. When you are in gridlock, your physiology (heartbeats, hearing and seeing capacities, …etc.) and the way you feel will be affected negatively.
You feel also emotionally flooded. This means you will be feeling intense emotions that overwhelm you. You are less able to have access to your sense of humor, less likely to listen, less likely to be understanding or emphatic, and more likely to attack your partner and say or do nasty things to them.
Over time, those gridlocks can become the reason a relationship fails because they create emotional distance. The accumulations of these negative experiences around your partner, and the inability to connect or communicate with them, can be devastating to a relationship.
Happy couples don’t reach those gridlocks very often. And if they do, they quickly recognize that and fix the damage.
When happy couples are discussing or ‘fighting’, they actively try to listen and understand and empathize with their partner. They don’t get flooded; they can down-regulate their emotions and feel calm. They may even pause fighting until they are not flooded and emotionally overwhelmed.
“Hey, I am not feeling well and I feel that I might say hurtful things. Can we discuss this later/after an hour/after we reach home/after we sit down?” This is not conflict avoidance2which is damaging to relationships more than conflicts; this is telling your partner that now is not a good time to discuss something. And you do get back to discuss it as you promised.
Got that out of the way? Now, there is more about these happy couples fights that is just amazing. It is about fighting gently.
What does that even mean?!
When it comes to how you discuss things, it is important to realize that even though fights are supposed to be negative experiences, they are actually not meant to be solely negative. This means that there is, in a healthy fight, some degree of positivity and/or neutrality.
Gottman suggests that, during a fight, happy couples have a positive to negative ratio of 5:1. Unhappy couples have a ratio of 0.8:1. Gentle fight and a ruthless street fight! And oh, it kinds of takes 5 positive effects to override one negative effect.
This means that during these fights, there will be humor sometimes. There will be sincere attempts of understanding. There will be empathy because you believe that your partner is an awesome person and you want to see things and feel them from their perspective. There will be affection and tenderness. There will be respect. There will be less or no criticism and more accountability. You are not trying to spot the bad guy; none of you is the bad guy; you, together, are fighting the bad guy.
Yes, acceptance and compromise are important. However, you still have to be able to talk about what bugs you. But you do that in a positive and respectful manner. As you can see, with gridlock, those things are impossible to achieve.
You may come close to solving a perpetual issue, but it is not very likely. Most of them are handled by understanding, empathy, compromise, and acceptance. I think that is why you need to select a partner that you can live with their flaws. As Mark Manson suggests, the most accurate metric of your feelings for someone is how you feel about their flaws.
One last thing that is worth mentioning is that happy couples repair very well. Gottman calls fights regrettable incidents. Through fights or not, we inevitably hurt and annoy our partner. Sure, we do that accidentally and with good intentions. When two people have an intimate relationship, they open their inner worlds to each other. And it is impossible not to touch a wound here and there.
Happy couples have this ability to repair the damage. They make repair attempts, which can be as simple as saying sorry or as we discussed above, “I don’t feel good and I think I will say nasty things, let’s talk in 20 minutes.” the repair attempts can be attempts to understand and empathize.
We may hurt our partner. But we can repair this damage by attempting to do that. Those repair attempts bring us closer even more and help us override the negative effects instead of accumulating them.
Whether our partner will accept our repair attempt or not has nothing to do with the nature of those attempts, Gottman found. He says it has more to do with the quality of the friendship between you. Which brings us to the next point . . .
How well do you know him/her?
Ask questions. Be curious.
What is her/his biggest dream? What stresses her/him the most these days? What is he/she anxious about the most? What is his/her favorite meal? Really? Do you know? No? Then, ask. And ask because you care. And because you care, you should be genuinely interested in knowing the answer. That is called genuine communication and having good intentions. And your partner can sense that.
Those questions may reveal deep aspects of both of your personalities, which will help you understand each other deeper. And you don’t want superficial and boring answers. You dive deeper to understand more.
For instance, why is your biggest dream to be a great musician?
Maybe music was the only thing that made you feel safe as a teenager in the midst of the chaos that was around you at that time; you used to play music and use it to express your feelings; it made you feel better and that you are in control of something, and that, no matter how sad an instrument was, you had control either to dwell on its tenderness or to change it. Share that with your partner. Don’t force it, just share it whenever you are discussing something related. Now ask your partner and try to encourage them to do the same. Go deeper and ask deeper questions to know them beyond the boring answers. Appreciate their answers and respect them for sharing these answers. Dive within yourself. Understand. Share. Ask. Ask deeper questions. Help them answer with the intention of getting to know them. Watch your friendship grow bigger. Watch trust builds between you.
Great. Keep on.
Are you there for your partner? Are you supporting them and helping them out? Or are you leaving them to dry in the wind? Are you ignoring them or actively trying to communicate with them? Are you reaching out? Does your partner know they can count on you and reach out for you when they need to?
Are you a good friend to your partner?
You are a couple and you must be real, good friends. Being good friends will help you have more affection and fondness and respect. These things are like oxygen for a healthy relationship. And they make a huge difference.
They are like money in your emotional bank, as Gottman describes them. As small as they may be, they can do miracles. They help you connect deeper. They create trust. And should you do something stupid, your partner will be more likely to forgive you when there is enough in your emotional bank. And as we mentioned above, your partner is more likely to accept your repair attempts if you have been a good friend to them lately.
I may go the extra mile and say that they are more important than the romanticized ways of showing love and care for someone. An expensive date doesn’t mean anything if she feels she cannot depend on you. A gift may not mean anything if you haven’t called her for a week.
Work on the little things. They make the big things meaningful.
Those are two of the healthy attitudes and behaviors in healthy relationships.
Together, they say a lot about the basics of the basics when it comes to sharing your life with another person. After all, you will fight anyways, so if you cannot fight well, and you don’t know each other, what’s left to build a relationship on?
Below are some of his books. I will receive a commission if you buy any of them.
- The Science of Trust: Emotional Attunement for Couples (Highly recommended, for it explains all these concepts and elaborates on them)
- The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country’s Foremost Relationship Expert
- What Makes Love Last?: How to Build Trust and Avoid Betrayal
- If you are a man, or a woman who is curious, you may check: The Man’s Guide to Women: Scientifically Proven Secrets from the Love Lab About What Women Really Want