Producer’s note: Someone on Quora asked: What are the most important aspects of a healthy relationship that you and your partner need to satisfy? Here is one of the best answers that’s been pulled from the thread.
Romantic relationships are about attachment. We need from our partner all the same things we need from a parent when we’re children: assurance that they won’t abandon us, demonstration that they care, reason to trust them, etc. The more you foster this attachment, the healthier your relationship will be. The weaker this attachment, the unhappier and more likely to break up you will be.
1. Do you use a “soft startup” to bring up difficult topics?
One of the strongest predictors of divorce in Dr. John Gottman’s empirical research on marriage was a “harsh startup” to fights. “You don’t care about me!” “You never take out the trash!” “There you go again, going into la la land.” Instead, use a startup that doesn’t attack your significant other. “I’m not feeling happy with the way we’re dealing with the garbage right now.
2. Do you criticize or show contempt for your spouse?
Criticism means, when you bring up issues, you attack them as a person, rather than raise complaints about actions or situations. Contempt means you’re disgusted by them. These usually take the form of superlatives. “You’re lazy. That’s why you don’t help me.” “You’re a cold bitch. Why can’t you ever consider my feelings?”
3. Are you defensive?
When our significant other brings up an issue, do we immediately try to justify our actions? Do we defend ourselves? This is natural if they’re criticizing us, but even when that’s the case, defensiveness escalates the situation, rather than defusing it. If even when they’re aggressive, you can ask “what’s wrong?” instead of “no I don’t!” you dramatically reduce your odds of divorce.
4. Do you make repair attempts?
Repair attempts are anything that de-escalates a fight. It can be an apology, a hug, or a comment. “We’re getting heated. Let’s slow down.”
5. Do you recognize your partner’s repair attempts?
Even more important than making your own repair attempts is accepting your partner’s. If they reach out to you to de-escalate tension, and you ignore them, or attack them, this was the single strongest predictor of divorce in Gottman’s research.
6. Do you know your partner?
What’s your partner’s favorite food? What’s troubling him or her right now? What is he or she trying to achieve? You should know these things off the top of your head. If you don’t, you need to talk to them more.
7. Do you make frequent small gestures of love?
Relationships don’t live on grand gestures. The big fight you had won’t kill your relationship, and the trip to the Bahamas won’t save it. It’s when you hold each other when you get home from work, or you cook for each other, or you remember their birthday. These are the moments that reinforce your attachment every day.
8. Do you pay attention to them?
Just as it’s the small things that build attachment, the small things destroy it. If they come home upset, and you don’t do anything to comfort them, they will feel abandoned, and this will chip away at your relationship. Your moments of ignorance do more to wreck your relationship than anything else, and fights are usually a consequence of feeling abandoned, not the true cause of relationship meltdown.
9. Do you use “I” statements?
A habit of highly successful couples originally proposed in the ’60s by Dr. Thomas Gordon is to speak in terms of “I” rather than “you.” This keeps you talking about facts. “I feel XYZ,” as opposed to “you are doing ABC.” It avoids the criticism and contempt mentioned before.
10. Do you let them influence you?
The more hierarchical your relationship is, the more likely it is to fail. If you are unwilling to consider your significant other’s perspective on things, and everything must be done your way or the highway, there’s a high chance it will lead to the highway.
11. Do you practice loving rituals?
We are what we make habits. If you make a habit out of rituals of love, you will consistently reinforce your relationship without thinking about it. This could be a date night every Friday, a daily cuddle session, or an annual honeymoon. All of the above are good ideas.
12. Do you practice “loving jealousy?”
It’s popular to believe that jealousy is a sign of love and affection. It’s actually a sign of distrust and insecurity. If you’re not comfortable with your lover visiting friends, talking to the opposite sex, or doing anything in general, your relationship will be more miserable.
13. Do you hold your lover responsible for your emotions?
As I mentioned, it’s important to be sensitive and attentive to your partner, but you can’t hold them responsible for taking care of your feelings. You need to take measures to comfort yourself and manage your own emotions too. They are only human. It also helps if, when you need their help, you verbalize that need.
14. Do you continue to improve yourself?
It’s easy to get complacent in a relationship, and most people do. It’s a tendency you need to resist. Keep going to the gym. Keep developing hobbies. Keep making yourself sexier and more interesting.
15. Do you turn towards them?
One of the strongest indicators of successful couples is “turning towards” rather than “turning away.” Individuals in couples often make “bids” for each other’s attention. This can be everything from calling to ask if you need milk to commenting on the pretty bird. The milk and the bird aren’t important. Responding to your lover is. Couples that respond to their lovers’ bids for attention are immensely more likely to stay together years later than those who don’t.
16. Do you deal with your solvable problems?
Most problems in relationships are solvable. They might be big arguments, but they can be resolved through compromise and sensitivity. Couples who sweep these problems under the rug (usually because they use harsh startups and are critical of each other, making talking about problems uncomfortable) grow bitter and miserable.
17. Do you have a system for accommodating your unsolvable problems?
Unsolvable problems derive from differences in core values or dreams. They might involve religious differences, disagreement about kids, differences in desire to travel, etc. These aren’t the deal-breakers we often assume them to be (though they can be). Couples who successfully address unsolvable problems employ habits that minimize the influence these problems have on their relationship.
18. Do you admire your partner?
Partners who admire each other are far more likely to happily stay together. Get in the habit of reminding yourself about your partner’s positive qualities. Remember why you fell in love with them.
19. Are you willing to leave?
Ending the relationship should be the last resort, but it has to be an option. If you are addicted to your partner, or are too insecure to live without their validation no matter how bad the relationship gets, this can kill both of your motivations to work on the problems.
20. Do you keep score?
Some couples think successful relationships are about reciprocity. “He does things for me, I do things for him.” The good things you do for each other should arise because you want to do them, not because you expect reciprocity. You also should be forgetting the missteps, not saving them to bring up in the next fight. If you’re keeping an account of who’s investing more or less, this is a sign of a broken relationship.