Thursday, February 14, 2019
By Emma Martin LaPlant

Valentine’s Day may be over, but that doesn’t mean the urge to nurture your relationships should be. Healthy relationships are a vital component of emotional health, and they need to be fostered all year long. What happens now that we’ve digested that romantic dinner and the roses are beginning to wilt? How do we make the warm feelings that Valentine’s Day conjures up last throughout the year? Let’s explore what really makes a relationship healthy and how you can bring you can bring those elements into your own relationships.

But first, why should we care about building positive, sustainable, loving relationships? Is it just to make us feel warm and fuzzy inside? Or are there other, bigger reasons? Humans are a social species — we live within our networks of relationships with family, friends, and even strangers. A nearly 80-year-long study from Harvard University found that positive relationships were the best predictor of living a long, healthy, and happy life. Their study even showed that people’s satisfaction with their relationships at age 50 was a better predictor of their physical health than their cholesterol levels were!

Close, positive relationships have a protective effect on our physical and emotional health. People in healthy relationships, according to the Harvard University study, live longer, maintain good health, and do not smoke or drink alcohol in excess. Building positive relationships is critical to maintaining our overall well-being as individuals and in connection with others. So how do we build a healthy relationship?

Advertisements, store displays, and social media posts may try to convince us that love is all about grand gestures and happily ever afters, but relationship experts Drs. John and Julie Gottman suggest otherwise. Drs. Gottman have been studying couples for over four decades to determine what makes a relationship last and the telltale signs of relationship collapse. They argue that love is in the little, everyday interactions. How we treat our partner when we get home from work each day is just as important, if not more so, than the fancy Valentine’s Day dinner. Drs. Gottman suggest three main ways to create a healthy, sustainable relationship:

1. Treat your partner like a good friend.

Treating your partner like a good friend involves showing interest in your partner and their life. It can be as simple as asking, “How was your day?” at the end of the day. Or, if your partner looks out the window on a lazy Saturday morning and points out a colorful bird perched on the windowsill, you can say, “Oh wow!” and then return to whatever you were doing. The Gottmans call this “turning toward” your partner.

2. Handle conflict with gentleness and positivity.

Handling conflict with gentleness and positivity is avoiding criticizing or blaming your partner even during fights. Instead of saying, “You never wash the dishes,” try saying, “The dishes are piling up, and I could really use some help.” In the Gottmans’ research, couples whose relationships stood the test of time focused on the positive, even during times of stress, at a 5:1 ratio! That means these “Relationship Masters” avoided criticizing, blaming, shaming, shutting down, or getting defensive. Instead, they treated each other with mutual respect during a conflict, acknowledging their partner’s emotions and infusing conflict with humor, interest, and openness.

3. Repair after conflict and negative interactions.

Repairing after conflict and negative interactions is critical for a relationship’s success. We all make mistakes, even when trying hard to handle conflict with gentleness and positivity. Dr. John Gottman says, “Conflict is an opportunity to learn how to love each other better over time.” Couples in sustainable relationships accept responsibility for their actions when making repairs after a conflict, admitting when they were wrong. The Gottmans found that the successfulness of repair attempts directly relates to the strength of the couple’s friendship with one another, and couples who made intentional efforts to show interest in each other’s lives outside of conflict had a higher success rate of repairing after conflict than couples who did not show interest in each other’s lives.

As you shop the after-Valentine’s Day candy sales or toss out those wilted flowers from your sweetie, maybe stop to think about how you can bring connection and love into your daily interactions with your partner. Ask them about the high and low of their day, treat them with gentleness and kindness, and bring openness and humility when reaching out to repair conflict. Try starting a conversation about healthy relationships with them at your next date night and explore the power of positive relationships in both of your overall health and wellbeing. Because, you know, we all deserve love, happiness, and health in our lives.

The importance of building healthy relationships applies to all interpersonal relationships, not only romantic ones. These ideas from the Gottmans can be applied to your relationships with family, friends, coworkers, and people you meet through the day. Don’t wait until you get home to start living a healthy, happy life!

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