How to have a good relationship

A summary of the research evidence, by Dr Bob Rich

Letter to a bitter wife

Love in the bank: the 5:1 rule

   Every relationship involves problems and conflict. Trading in one partner for another is freeing yourself from one set of problems, and taking on another set. Choosing to live alone also has its problems. So, the trick is to have a good relationship DESPITE the problems that arise.

   Research by John Gottman and many others has shown that it is possible to "put love in the bank." When the conflicts arise, you can survive them and maintain a good relationship if, on the average, there are at least 5 good interactions for every bad one.

   When I found out about this, I monitored good and bad interactions between my wife and me for a week. I found that the ratio was more like 20:1, explaining why we have been married for over 50 years now.

   A good interaction is anything that one person does in order to make the other feel good. It can be a smile, a friendly tone of voice, a non-sexual touch like a pat on the back... basically, anything the other person notices, and therefore feels good for sharing a life with you.

   So, deliberately and intentionally, go out of your way to do things that put love in the bank. Avoid actions that go the other way. If one happens, apologise, own up, and counter it with one or more good acts.

   Do note that this only works if BOTH partners do it.

How to handle conflict

   Every relationship involves conflict situations. Where "there is never any conflict," you can be sure that one partner controls, dominates and therefore abuses the other. There would be conflict if the subjugated person dared. Conflict is healthy -- if handled right.

   Four dimensions are all-important. Here are the extreme points of each:

   Listening vs. defensiveness. When you make a complaint, you need to be heard. More than that: you need to feel that you've been heard. Even if the complaint proves to have been misguided and wrong, the emotion associated with it is genuine. So, a response of this kind is good: "I hear that you're hurt that I didn't phone that I'd be late. Sorry you feel so badly about it. But actually, I tried to ring, only my phone ran out of charge, and I couldn't get to any other phone. So, all I could do was to hurry home, and well, here I am." Defending your actions is fine -- AFTER acknowledging the feelings of the other person.

   The opposite is illustrated by: "You've trampled mud all over the carpet again!" "Yeah? And I see last night's dishes are still in the sink!" A counterattack like this may work, but damages the relationship.

   Complaint vs. criticism. A complaint addresses an issue. A criticism says something negative about a person. For example, "You've trampled mud all over the carpet again!" is a complaint. "You're a slob for trampling in all that mud" is a criticism. The first is constructive, the second destructive.

   It's a cliche of childraising to discipline the child with love: to do something about unacceptable behaviour while making the child still feel loved. The same applies to adult relationships.

   Accepting influence vs. stonewalling. I am stonewalling when whatever you say, whatever you want, I do what I feel like, when I feel like. Included are promising to do a job and then not doing it, not-hearing something or forgetting it had been said, advancing endless excuses, and a straight refusal every time, even if the suggestion or request is wise and reasonable. Some men have the habit of thinking that accepting influence from a woman is somehow demeaning and belittling. It ain't. A good relationship is one in which partners listen to each other, pool their wisdom and make decisions jointly, each accepting influence from the other.

   Respect vs. contempt. This is the most important. Even if the other three factors are handled right, the relationship will founder if one partner acts with contempt toward the other.

   Derogatory terms (stupid, slut, bastard, lazy, slovenly, spendthrift, miser...) are terms of contempt. Interestingly, the research shows that universalising statements have the same effect as such labels: "you always..." and "you never..." are terms of contempt. "It distresses me when you drink to excess" is respectful. "You're a drunkard" is not.

Argument style

   People have various emotional styles for engaging in conflict. The relationship is more stable if you and your partner use the same style. Mismatches cause problems, but with tolerance and goodwill, you can learn to make allowances and put in place defence strategies for minimising the effect of the different styles.

   Three major styles are called volatile, rational and avoidant. None of these is better than the others -- the issue is whether your way of doing it drives your partner away or not.

   Volatile arguers are drama queens. They shout, scream, exaggerate, make a great show out of the issue. Then when it's over, they are passionate, and make great love.

   Rational arguers like to organise a meeting, sit down and seriously talk an issue out. They need to understand, negotiate, look for compromises.

   Avoidant arguers are those who say, "We can agree to disagree over this." Peace and harmony are a lot more important to them than being right, or having their way.

   As I said, if you and your partner have matching styles, then you can have a good long term relationship. Two volatiles can have fierce arguments followed by wonderful passion. Two rationals can sort things out. Two avoidants can live together regardless of an accumulation of unresolved issues. The problem arises if the two partners have different styles, and you can see why. A volatile and a rational will drive each other crazy. When one partner calls the other "a cold fish," "boring," "all in the head, no heart," you can be sure it's a volatile talking about a rational. The retort will be "throws tantrums like a spoiled kid."

   A rational teamed up with an avoidant is a chasing game. One has the need to talk it out, the other to run away. Some situations of domestic violence can be understood with one or the other reaching breaking point, because the issue just won't stop. And yes, a rational can be violent.

   The worst is a volatile and an avoidant. It doesn't take long for the avoidant to move out.

   It IS possible to build a loving, lasting relationship despite such mismatches. This needs understanding and allowance. You need to accept the other person's style, and each of you needs to do your best to modify somewhat toward the other's preferred way of doing things. This is difficult, but possible. It may even be good for you.

Attachment style

   As a little child, a person has to make sense of the world. We build a model of reality, including what kind of person we are, what is safe and what is dangerous. As part of this, we form long-term reactions to other people, and these strongly influence romantic relationships in adulthood.

   If the people who cared for you when you were little treated you with consistent love (even when you needed discipline), and you learned to trust them, then as an adult you will have a positive view of others and feel comfortable around them.

   But if the big people who ruled your childhood were dangerous and unpredictable, you will have a negative view of others as an adult, and generally keep them at an emotional distance.

   That's one dimension. The second is how you think of yourself. If the way you were treated as a little child built up your confidence and made you feel good about being you, then that's how you will be as an adult. However, the events in your childhood may have made you feel damaged, never good enough, inferior, and then you have a negative view of yourself as an adult.

   Naturally, both these distinctions have many degrees. Each is a continuum, not a point. All the same, a good understanding of what makes people tick in relationships is that how you feel about yourself and others determines how you behave as one half of a couple:
  trust others fear others
I'm OK Secure attachment Dismissive attachment
I'm faulty Insecure attachment Avoidant attachment

   Various researchers have used different names for these, and some only have three rather than four types. But the concept is clear enough.

   People with secure attachment are wonderful partners and lovers, and many of them find secure partners for themselves. Those of us with attachment problems are not so lucky. We tend to have selective perception, seeing situations and other people in a way that confirms our expectations. We fall in love with people who treat us the way out childhood carers treated us, and this keeps our problematic attitudes going.

   If you have problems in your relationship, chances are your and your partner's attachment style contributes to this. People with dismissive attachment tend to handle conflict by being abusive and contemptuous, those with insecure attachment readily fall into the victim role (and these two often find each other), avoidant people are often loners who wish for love, but don't know how to get it. And because these patterns act as self-fulfilling prophecies, they tend to be stable for many people.

   But there is hope. Your attachment style is only one of many relevant influences. And it is an invitation, not a command; a tendency, not a doom. I am an example. I have the very worst pattern: "I am damaged and people hurt you." And yet, I am now impervious to negative opinions of other people (while taking in anything they say that might help me to improve). The damaged little boy is still within me, but he no longer has any influence. People like me, and I can form good relationships with them, including those the closest to me: my wife and children.

   If I could do it, so can you. It took me many painful years, but I can shorten the journey for my clients. If you have identified an attachment style that's not the best, see a psychologist.

In summary

   Look for a mate who argues the way you do. Whatever the provocation, treat your partner with respect, be open to influence, listen, and complain rather than criticise. And put LOTS of love in the bank.

...and something from me

   I am not aware of any research on the next point, but it works. It turns on the little word "me."

   Think of the difference between

  • I want someone to love me;
  • I want someone to love.

       One is needy, the other giving.


  • She is screaming at me. How can I defend myself;
  • She is screaming. How can I help?

       A rule of the universe is, the more you give, the more you get. If both partners are in the relationship FOR the other rather than for what they can get out of it, they can ride over every difficulty.

       In summary:

    The difference between giving love and grasping love is the little word 'me:' 'I want someone to love' vs. 'I want someone to love me.' If both partners practice giving love, you have a lifetime of beauty.