How to Maintain Healthy Relationships

By Olivia K Pitkethly, MA, LMHC

Between careers, education, children and other family responsibilities, your relationships can easily get overlooked and you may not even realize it’s happening. Relationship experts Drs. John and Julie Gottman have spent decades studying couples and their relationship patterns and have found three components for a healthy relationship: expressing interest, being gentle in conflict and repairing negative interactions.

Expressing Interest

Avoid creating emotional distance with your partner by expressing interest: take a few uninterrupted minutes at the start and end of each day to touch base. And who says your dating days are over when you get married? Date your spouse! Make it a point to go to your favorite restaurant or schedule a weekend getaway for just the two of you. If finances or time are an issue, surprise your love with a note or a special treat to let them know you are thinking of them.

Jessica Stewart and her husband David have been married for 14 years. They recently moved to Florida to care for an older grandparent, which has expectedly been a significant adjustment. Jessica said that respect and communication are essential to maintaining a healthy marriage.

“Honesty is important too, even when it may not be what the other person wants to hear,” she said. “We allow each other space to be grumpy, even though I want to talk things through immediately and he needs time to process. We couldn’t be more different, but we make it work!”

Being gentle in conflict

No relationship is without conflict. The Gottmans advised being gentle with each other during disagreements by avoiding the blame game, using “I feel” statements and expressing your needs. And if your conflict has escalated before you can use a gentle approach, make sure you do your part to repair it. Take responsibility for the conflict, even if it’s just a small part. You may not solve every problem you have and that’s OK. Remember to approach the problem as a team, not as opponents. The Gottmans said the ability for couples to repair their negative interactions is directly related to the strength of their friendship.

Although it’s not outlined in the Gottmans’ three tips, having time apart is healthy for relationships, too. Having your own individual interests and friends allows you to maintain your independence and fulfills your personal growth. It also gives you something different to contribute to your relationship. You can talk to your partner about your newest hobby or the fun time you had with your friends.

Repairing negative interactions

The Gottmans’ suggestions can extend beyond couples and into maintaining healthy friendships and family relationships, too. Be careful not to let life’s responsibilities get in the way of your friendships. It’s easy to let social media play a major role, but nothing beats inperson interaction. No matter the distance between you and your friends, make it a point to schedule a face-to-face at least once every couple of months. If it’s not always doable, sending a funny card in the mail or a thoughtful text will maintain the bond you have with your closest friends.

The same goes for family relationships. When you have your own family — spouse and kids — it’s easy to get wrapped up in their activities. It’s important, though, to stay in touch with extended family. Remind yourself of your roots and teach your kids where they came from. Older relatives, siblings and cousins can provide wonderful memories for all of you. Visit during spring break or summer vacation, send holiday cards and schedule a video chat.

If you find yourself in conflict with family or friends, take the Gottmans’ advice to repair the relationship. Own up to your contribution to the conflict and let the other person know how important your relationship is to you. Most disagreements aren’t worth losing a relationship over.

Know when to say goodbye

If you find yourself questioning if your relationship is unhealthy, here are some signs to look for:

  • Abuse: One of you is verbally, physically or sexually abusive
  • Codependence: When one or both parties is excessively emotionally dependent in the relationship.
  • One-sided: When one of you is putting all the effort into a relationship.

If you find your own physical and emotional health is deteriorating as a result of a relationship, it’s time to decide to let go.

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