When Harvard Study of Adult Development followed 268 men over 70 years in a quest to find the secret to a long life, the surprising conclusion to the study was that how happy you are in your relationship has a powerful influence on your health. “Good relationships don’t just protect our bodies; they protect our brains,” says psychiatrist Robert Waldinger, the director of the study, in his TEDx Talk. “And those good relationships, they don’t have to be smooth all the time.”
Conflict is inevitable in every relationship. From feeling hurt over a text going unanswered or cancelling a date last minute, to who should do the household chores or financial matters—some gaps in communication are natural, as are disagreements and fights. Conflicts are not inherently bad, and when navigated wisely, they can create a deeper understanding of your partner as well as strengthen your bond. But for a relationship to remain healthy, it is important to not let conflicts and negativity take over every aspect of your relationship. The difference between happy and unhappy couples lies in the balance between positive and negative interactions within conflicts.
According to American psychologist and relationship researcher Dr John Gottman, the ratio of these interactions in every stable and healthy relationship is 5 to 1. This means that for every negative interaction that you have with your partner, you need to have at least five positive interactions, such that there are five times as many good things going on in your relationship as bad ones. “Unhappy couples tend to engage in fewer positive interactions to compensate for their escalating negativity,” writes Dr Gottman in his book The Seven Principles of Making Marriages Work. “If the positive-to-negative ratio during conflict is 1-to-1 or less, that’s unhealthy.”
What are negative interactions?
Anger is a natural reaction during conflicts, but according to research, anger by itself is not equivalent to a negative interaction. When anger is accompanied by being dismissive, emotionally critical, or defensive, that is when it escalates into a negative interaction. People who were found to be in long-lasting happy marriages during Dr Gottman’s 1970 study were experts at conflict resolution. He writes in Why Marriages Succeed or Fail, “They may be arguing, but they are also laughing and teasing and there are signs of affection because they have made emotional connections.” Identifying what negative interactions look like is essential to understanding how you can eliminate them.
- Use of the Four Horsemen as explained by Gottman: Defensiveness, Criticism, Contempt, or Stonewalling
- Raising your voice during a conflict
- Not listening to your partner when they speak during conflict
- Being invalidating
- Rejecting bids for connection
- Rejecting a repair attempt made by your partner
- Neglecting to do something you told your partner you would do
- Forgetting important milestones and events that are important to your partner
How can you increase your positive interactions?
The key to preventing negative interactions from irreparably harming your relationship is by keeping the number of your positive interactions high. The positive interactions that make a relationship work do not have to be grand gestures.
- Show interest: Listening is an active skill. This means that for healthy communication to happen, you need to pay attention to what your partner is saying, and reciprocate with interest. Ask open-ended questions, make eye contact, nod to show you are paying attention to them. A simple question every day about how their day went can work wonders to lead to healthy conversations.
- Be appreciative: Appreciation can be verbal or non-verbal expressions of love. Pay compliments often. Relationship researchers report that expressing gratitude on a regular basis is an important means of showing someone that you care about them. Show appreciation by doing small acts of kindness, such as bringing them dinner if they are busy, helping them out with a household task, or spending quality time with them.
- Empathise with your partner: The best way to avoid disagreements from escalating is by understanding the situation from your partner’s perspective. Empathy is a profound connection skill in a relationship, and saying things like “I understand why you would feel that way” during a disagreement, even when you have differing opinions, can take you a long way in turning a conflict into something that enforces your bond.