As Valentine’s Day approaches, it’s natural to give some thought to our close relationships. Psychologists have studied both healthy and unhealthy relationships, looking for clues to what strengthens bonds between couples. Interestingly, researchers have found that a number of relatively simple assumptions and actions can foster more satisfying relationships.

First, healthy couples express many more positive feelings than negative in their communications with each other. Positive communications are approving, supportive, constructive, optimistic, and empathic. Some examples might be: “You look great”; “I know you’ll do well”; or “I appreciate how hard you worked today”. Smiling, showing warmth, and affectionate gestures are also positive. Negative communications are critical, disapproving, pessimistic, and contrary. Examples might be: “You can’t tell me what to do”; “You’ll probably screw it up, as usual”; or “You’ll never change”. Nonverbal behaviors such as glares, silence, or a sarcastic tone of voice are also negative. One study found that in marriages described as “happy,” four out of five communications were positive; in those described as “unhappy”, four out of five were negative.

A second characteristic of healthy relationships is the assumption that there is no absolute “truth” in human relationships. Many people behave as if there is only one right way of feeling, acting, or thinking: their own. Differences are regarded as a threat or rejection. This attitude leads to frustrating battles over who is “right” and who is “wrong”. In contrast, we can look at differences as the result of unique perceptions, feelings, and experiences. Differences then become opportunities for better understanding and better ways of meeting the needs of both partners. A final assumption is a dual one: everybody makes mistakes; and that the people we love do not mean to harm or hurt us. How can this perspective help us cope?

Inevitably, people we care about will make mistakes, forget, hurt our feelings, and let us down. Many people react to human failing as a sign of selfishness or not caring, as if the intention was to hurt. This view leads to anger and blame, and increases conflict and distance for a couple. In contrast, we can also view human failings as unavoidable, but not intending harm. This view encourages problem solving, cooperation, and increased closeness. (Please note that if you feel constantly hurt, let down, or disappointed in your relationship, deeper issues may need to be addressed.)

These “healthy” assumptions and actions are all relatively simple. With a little effort, anyone can give his or her Valentine the gift of an enriched relationship.


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