4 Characteristics of Healthy Romantic Relationships (and 4 Signs of Distress to Look Out For)

Valentine’s day may be long gone, but we believe that attachments and healthy relationships are important all year long. Research has shown time and again that healthy romantic relationships can buffer the negative impact of life’s stressful events. Positive attachments also significantly affect your mental health and chances for developing symptoms of depression.

But the benefits extend past the psychological. A happy marriage appears to reduce the likelihood of developing heart disease, as well as dramatically increase your chance of surviving heart surgery. A whole host of physiological benefits may be responsible for that. For one, sharing your bed with a supportive and caring partner helps you sleep better, which has all-around benefits for your health. And in case you were wondering, even just smelling your partner’s scent can help you cope with stress through lowering your cortisol levels.

But what makes for a healthy romantic relationship and how do we lock it in once we have it? Below, we identified 4 characteristics of healthy and supportive relationships (and 4 signs of distress to watch out for).

1. Foundation of affection and friendship

Who do you call when you are in distress? And how about when something awesome happens in your life? Say, you got promoted or accomplished something at work that is a big deal. Would you significant other be on top of the list? Do they respond to your emotions in a way that makes you feel supported and close? This is a profound way of gauging your connectedness with your partner. In healthy romantic relationships, partners are each other’s go-to person for issues happy or sad. If you are thinking that perhaps this used to be the case, but no longer is, then you also likely have some foundation of affection and friendship in your relationship that can be rekindled.

2. Validation validation validation…

Validating your partner’s feelings or opinions is not the same as always agreeing. At its very core, the word “to validate” means to prove the accuracy of something, to declare it acceptable. Therefore, when validation is missing in relationships we are often shut down to each other. When we chronically feel as if our significant other deems our feelings unacceptable, unimportant, or wrong, we begin to feel as if we as a whole are unacceptable, unimportant, or wrong.

Validate validate validate…

In couples where partners validate each other, on the other hand, friendship and mutual trust lead to leaning on each other for support. This, in turn, enhances feeling special, heard, and important to our partners. Think about the difference between “Wow that was a difficult experience for you, I am so proud of you for getting through it” and “Really, dear, getting through your fear of flying is no big accomplishment. People fly all the time.” (This last one is also a type of communication that John Gottman identifies as especially corrosive to relationships. For more on that, read on.)

3. Ability to resolve disagreements

In happier couples, partners are able to recognize that an argument does not mean the end of the relationship. As in the classic dialogue between Pooh and Piglet, we all want to be sure of our partners, to feel re-assured (over and over again) that the bond can survive conflict. Even more important than what problem-solving strategies we use, is the deeper belief that the relationship can survive feelings of upset, anger, disappointment, and embarrassment.

This is particularly important, albeit even more difficult, in couples where one or more partners have a history of neglect or abandonment in their past. In such couples, the past trauma can significantly impact our ability to see our partner as a caring, loving being. Instead, our unconscious stealthily reminds us that (based on our traumatic experiences) nobody is to be trusted, because inevitably they will hurt or abandon us. Therefore, it is crucial to practice validation and reassurance of each other, especially in more heated moments.

4. The 5:1 ratio

According to John Gottman, arguably the most prominent of relationship scientist of our time, there is a magic ratio of positive vs negative interactions in a couple. Gottman and his colleagues, who have studied healthy romantic relationships for over 50 years, argue that, in happy couples, for every negative interaction, there are at least 5 positive ones.

In that sense, it is useful to think of your relationship interactions as an ATM. With every positive interaction, be it a compliment, validating your loved one’s feelings, or offering support or consolation, you are making a deposit. Every negative interaction, then, is a withdrawal. Of course, not all exchanges are equal and there are some that are much more intensely positive or hurtful. The latter may be larger issues, such as infidelity or acts of aggression, for example. To move past these, partners may need more continuous and motivated work, such as couples counseling. 

4 signs of distress to look out for:

Dr. Sue Johnson, the creator of Emotionally-Focused Therapy for couples talks about the dance that partners engage in when they are in a relationship. The well-established back-and-forths, the routine course that most arguments follow, the typical ways of responding to each other. This dance, when filled with more positive ways of communicating, helps the partners feel connected and close. However, when our relationship dance includes many negative patterns, relationship problems can grow in significance and ultimately lead to much distress.

John Gottman and his colleagues identify the following characteristics of a relationship that may put it in trouble:

  • Criticism
  • Contempt
  • Defensiveness
  • Stonewalling

For more information on these Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, as Dr. Gottman calls them, as well as strategies to overcome them, check back soon for our next article 4 Signs of Relationship Distress and What to do About Them.

Posttraumatic Stress (PTS) also has an impact on couples, even in healthy romantic relationships. If one or both partners struggle with PTS, some additional work may need to be done on how to remain close and help each other. For more on that, click on one of the links below:



Author: Dr. Valentina Stoycheva

Dr. Stoycheva is the Co-Founder and Director of STEPS: Stress & Trauma Evaluation and Psychological Services, Long Island, NY (www.traumaprofessionals.com). STEPS is a group practice staffed with expert and dedicated clinicians, who strive to provide the highest quality trauma-informed and evidence-based treatment for all affected by stressful events and traumatic experiences. STEPS offers individual, as well as group and family therapy for adults and children of all ages who have been exposed to traumatic events, or love someone who is struggling to recover from a traumatic event.

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