What do people in successful relationships do differently than those in unsuccessful or unsatisfying relationships?
Since the 1970s, psychologist John Gottman, Ph.D., and his team have studied thousands of couples to see what exactly people are doing in their relationships, and they’ve monitored these couples for many years following their time in the lab.
Their research has found that the couples that split within six years of getting married tend to have six similar habits. These habits are:
- Harsh startups
- Use of the four horsemen
- Chronic flooding
- Body language issues
- Failed repair
- Hyperfocus on bad memories
Let’s talk about them—and what you can do if you see any of them in your relationship:ADVERTISEMENT
1. Harsh startups
The first three minutes of a conversation are an indicator of how that conversation will end. So, if a conversation starts gently, then it is more likely that the conversation will continue to move in a gentle and positive direction. Whereas if a conversation starts with harshness, it will likely end in the same way.
A harsh startup usually includes the word “you” followed by an absolute term like “always” or “never.” For example: “You never help around the house,” or “You are always on your phone!” Another indicator that you are using a harsh startup is bringing topics up during a time that catches the other person off guard or using a threatening tone of voice.
Of course, we are all bound to start a conversation abruptly, critically, or with an unsettling tone from time to time—humans are not robots. However, couples who end up getting divorced tend to use harsh startups in their difficult conversations more often than their happier counterparts.
Ultimately, harsh startups are about bringing up difficult topics through the use of criticism—which brings us to our next less-than-healthy habit.
2. Use of the four horsemen in conflict
Given their name by Gottman as a play on the biblical story of the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” signaling the end of days, the presence of the “four horsemen” of relationship conflict signals a relationship in distress.
The four horsemen are:
- Criticism: In this definition, criticism is different from a complaint. Criticism is when you point out character flaws within your partner as an attack.
- Defensiveness: When people are defensive, they overexplain, justify, and negate their partner’s complaints without taking a moment to actually hear them out.
- Stonewalling: When people stonewall, they look exactly as the word sounds: like a stone wall. While their partner is talking, they will withdraw and tune out.
- Contempt: Contempt is criticism supercharged, and it can be a form of emotional abuse. When people are contemptuous, they belittle their partner.
When couples routinely use the four horsemen, Gottman’s research show they are more likely to break up.
3. Chronic flooding
As a couple gets more embedded into a negative conflict cycle through the use of harsh startups and the four horsemen, they will begin to experience what is called “flooding.” Flooding occurs when we are exposed to stress and conflict again and again. Our body starts to release stress hormones that affect our ability to be relational and solve conflicts with other people. This leads people into fight, flight, or freeze in their conflict discussions.
When couples can navigate their flooding through taking breaks and self-soothing, it does not become chronic, and they are able to neutralize the impacts. However, when couples do not know how to take breaks and self-soothe, their relationship often becomes more unhappy over time.
4. Body language issues
Body language matters in our relationships. Whether we like it or not, our partner is automatically and constantly scanning our body language for cues about whether or not they are safe and loved in the relationship. Couples who have closed-off and threatening body language with each other prime their relationship for conflict.
5. Failed repair
In any relationship, we are bound to mess up. In fact, it’s only natural that couples get into conflict from time to time. The healthiest couples are able to repair after these mishaps, though. Even further, they are able to accept each other’s attempts to repair. In comparison, couples that are headed to divorce tend to make far fewer repair attempts and are also less likely to accept their partner’s attempt to repair.
Failed repair might sound like:
- “Hey, can we start over? I feel like this is going in a bad direction, and I don’t want to fight.” (attempt to repair)
- “Are you kidding? No way! You said what you said!” (rejecting the repair attempt)
Successful repair might sound like:
- “Hey, can we start over? I feel like this going in a bad direction, and I don’t want to fight.” (attempt to repair)
- “I agree. We need to start this conversation over. Can we actually take a break for 20 minutes?” (accepted repair)
6. Hyperfocus on bad memories
Happy couples spend time talking about the good times. They share recollections with each other of their favorite vacations, how they met, and what they “miss” about their early days. When things get tough, they tend to negate the tough stuff with the good stuff. For example: “Wow, this is a really hard month…but we’ve had so many good years together. I know we will get through it.”
In comparison, unhappy couples tend to spend more time focused on where things have gone wrong. Their thoughts and conversations will spend great amounts of energy directed toward the bad. This might sound like: “This was a really good month for us…too bad the rest of our relationship is crap.”
The good news is that all of these habits have behavioral antidotes. This means that if you notice any of these things in your relationship, you can change them by changing your behavior. And, as you change your behavior, you might also notice your relationship changing too.
The antidote to a harsh startup is to learn how to bring topics up with gentle assertiveness and to speak on your needs. Rather than saying something like “You are always on your phone!” you might learn to say “I’m feeling really lonely. I need us to spend time together without our phones.”
The antidotes to the four horsemen are:
- Instead of criticizing, use gentle startup (see above).
- Instead of defensiveness, empathize and take responsibility for your own part.
- Instead of stonewalling, learn to self-soothe so you can be present.
- Instead of contempt, own your feelings.
As for body language, check in with your partner about how they are feeling during your conversations to ensure that what you’re trying to express through your body is landing the right way.
The antidote to failed repair is to learn to make repair quickly and to accept it—even when it’s hard.
And if you tend to hyperfocus on bad memories, you’ll want to spend conscious time talking about what is good. You might do this by sharing memories or offering each other appreciation regularly.
The bottom line.
If you see any of these signs in your relationship, it’s not hopeless! You can create a relationship that feels more fulfilling through using the tips above to change your habits.
The bottom line is this: in order to build healthy relationships, we need to be self-aware and take responsibility for the way in which we interact. Learning how to recognize harmful behaviors in your relationship can help you to shift them.