People often assume a relationship is "healthy" based on ideas of compatibility or superficial elements of cooperation and connection. How many posts on social media does it take for a couple to appear "perfect"? What are the criteria for a healthy relationship anyway?
We deceive ourselves if we said it was primarily on a status of "in a relationship" or even if the relationship began as a "swipe right" or "significant compatibility match" on a dating site.
In my practice, I use multiple measurements during the first and final sessions to assess the level of happiness or satisfaction a couple may be experiencing. This is then further supported through ongoing questionnaires that help determine progress in therapy.
But what is the biggest lie I hear most frequently that is directly related to a couple's perceived happiness initially?
"We can't stop arguing"
"We may not fight much, but when we do, it's big"
"We can never seem to agree on anything"
And what is the biggest change I have seen while working with couples?
The perception that conflict is no longer a measurement of failure in a relationship but that differences and challenges become a driving force to help the relationship become deeper, more meaningful, and resilient even amidst the trials.
Aside from attending regular couples therapy, a brief at-home practice to begin this perspective change is finding time to talk about a conflict or disagreement once the dust has settled. While it may feel easier to pretend like the argument never even happened, if you choose to avoid processing it together, the likelihood of experiencing a conflict similar to that one at an even more intense level is very high.
P R A C T I C E
(This exercise is adapted from The Gottman Method of "Processing Regrettable Incidents")
Make sure you and your partner feel the intensity of the emotions has gone down and you both feel calm ("calmness" can be experienced through slower breathing, heart rate returning to normal, lower tone of voice and rate of speech, improved body temperature, and a general feeling of "ease").
- Agree to take a bird's eye view over the entire experience from start to finish (Gottman illustrates this as "talk about it as if you were in the balcony of a movie theater looking at the people on the screen and what just happened in that movie").
- Take turns now following these simple prompts:
*What just happened?
*This is What happened for me.
*This is what I heard you say.
*Make it a point to acknowledge that there are two points of view in every conflict - validate each other’s points of view (remember, communicating understanding does NOT mean you are in total agreement, it simply says you are actively listening and engaged in what your partner is saying).
Once the incident is processed, then you can put it away, give it meaning, understanding what went wrong, take responsibility for it, and know what can you can do next time.
A careful observation of couples who have completed this exercise through several conflicts has led to the following feedback:
- "We feel our relationship is something we want to preserve now and we want to enrich it"
- "We can now explore the frequent challenges to see what is possibly lying behind it and build skills to try finding solutions WITHIN a conflict"
- "While we still have our issues, we don't avoid each other for days after an argument or pretend it never happened."
- "We feel closer and more connected now. It's like we understand each other better even when we don't agree."
The lie of what constitutes a healthy relationship can boil down to how conflict is experienced - do you see it as something to fear or something to lean into with your partner, learn about your relationship, understand each other more deeply, and feel more connected?
A relationship thrives when challenges and disagreements are acknowledged and when conflict is seen as a road that can lead to growth and increased connection.