As a couples’ therapist, I see a lot of conflict. I also see a lot of repair, and over the years I have come to understand what makes a relationship distressed and headed for unhappiness, separation or divorce, and what makes it healthy, happy, and continually improving.
Most couples don’t have agreements about how they treat each other, how they fight, or even why they are in their relationship. Not having agreed upon goals, principles or rules for your relationship, is like going on a trip without a destination. You’ll spend the whole time fighting about which way to turn, when you’ve never agreed on where you’re going or how to get there.
When couples have a shared purpose for being in relationship (i.e. we are in this relationship to love and support each other; we are in this relationship to be loving companions; we are in this relationship to help each other feel safe) and agreed upon principles for how they function within their relationship, it makes handling all of the difficulties couples are regularly faced with (like finances, kids, house cleaning, in-laws, scheduling) SO much easier.
There are lots of articles written about how to have a happy, secure-functioning relationship. Leading experts in the field of couples’ therapy have written numerous books and articles and I’ve reference some of these at the bottom of this page. In this article however, I have brought together what I deem to the “best” of the advice, suggestions, rules, principles, and guidelines on how to have a successful relationship. I have personally tested out each one of them with the couples I work with, and in my own marriage, and find these 10 + 1 Principles to be the most crucial.
I’ve written these 10 + 1 Principles for a Healthy Relationship in the present-tense, using “we” statements so that if you find them helpful, you and your partner can print them out, post them on your fridge or beside your bed, and adopt them as your own.
- We don’t name-call, blame, or criticize.
Renowned couples’ therapist, John Gottman, has spent decades researching behavior that leads to happy relationships … or divorce. He has identified four behaviors (three of which I’ll mention in this principle) that are the #1 predictors of distress, unhappiness, separation and divorce.
They are: criticism, defensiveness, and contempt. Criticism means pointing out our partners’ faults and mistakes, and expressing our disapproval of them. Defensiveness is what we do to defend or protect ourselves when we perceive we are being criticized. Defensiveness is also a back-handed way of blaming our partner (i.e. if I didn’t do it, then you did). Contempt is any thought, feeling or behavior that indicates our partner is “less than”, “beneath us”, “worthless”, “undeserving”, or “not good enough”. Criticism, defensiveness and contempt include swearing at our partner, name-calling, belittling, yelling, and attacking our partner for something they did or some attribute of their personality, behavior or appearance. All of these behaviors undermine the safety and security of your relationship. The more they happen, and the longer they persist, the harder it is to recover to a happy, secure-functioning state.
- We ‘turn towards’ each other.
The idea of “turning towards each other” comes from the work of psychologist, Stan Tatkin, and is a three-part principle.
i. We turn towards each other in bids for attention.
‘Bids for attention’ means anytime your partner says or does something in an effort to get your attention. It could be a question or statement, a look, a touch, a gesture. It can be obvious like, “Honey, I miss you and want to connect with you”, less obvious like your partner asking, “How was your day?”. It can be subtle, like a light touch on your back when your partner crosses the room, or an unexpected act of kindness.
Now, it is impossible to catch all of our partner’s bids for attention and even more impossible to respond to every single one. Luckily, you don’t have to. Psychologist, Edward Tronick, discovered that a secure relationship only requires couples to be in sync about 20-30% of the time AND when it really matters. “When it really matters”refers to times of distress when your partner is injured, upset or overwhelmed, or something traumatic has happened. Turning towards each other in bids for attention means that when our partner wants to connect, we respond by turning our body towards them, looking them in the eyes, and verbally responding, when necessary, to let them know we are available to them.
ii. We turn towards each other in the midst of conflict.
When things get tense, or a conflict escalates, we never walk away, turn our back on each other, or ignore each other. We don’t behave in ways that leave our partner feeling shut out or shut off from us.
Turning towards in the midst of conflict is the antithesis of the fourth behavior that I mentioned above in the first principle. John Gottman has identified that “stonewalling” (ignoring or not responding to our partner) is a major predictor of relationship dissatisfaction, and ultimately, separation and divorce.
Everyone gets overwhelmed, and sometimes we need some space and time to cool off. But that doesn’t make it okay to prioritize your needs over your partners’ or behave in a way that leaves our partner feeling unimportant, unacknowledged, or abandoned.
When possible, we do our best to stay present and connected, and if it gets to be too much, we ask for a break. We say, “this is too much right now, I need to go cool down and I’ll be back in 20 minutes”. We say how we’re feeling and what we need, and we put a reasonable timeframe around it so our partner isn’t left not knowing when you’ll return. We also have agreements about what we do when things get that heated, so you don’t have to figure it all out in the midst of the conflict. If a break is needed, that’s something we negotiate together—in advance, and again in the moment—it’s not up to one person to decide.
iii. We turn towards each other first.
Whether it’s good news, a loss or heartbreak, a promotion, an issue at work, a problem we are facing individually or in our relationship, our partner is always the ‘first to know’. We don’t go to other people before discussing important topics with our partner, and we don’t discuss issues in our relationship with other people, without the permission of our partner. We’ve all heard the phrase “actions speak louder than words” and your partner being the first to know is just one way that we let our partner know through our actions that they are the most important person to us.
This includes difficulties in your relationship. If the problems in your relationship are painful enough that you feel the need to discuss them with your friends, family or coworkers, that’s an indication you should be discussing them with a couples’ therapist – and with your partner present. Discussing your relationship problems with a 3rdperson, especially without your partner knowing, is a slippery slope towards an even more distressed relationship.
To be clear, I’m not talking about abuse in any of these principles. If your partner is abusing you physically, psychologically, emotionally, or sexually, by all means, get help and get out. Abuse is a dealbreaker and you are not bound to uphold previously agreed upon commitments or principles if you are in an unsafe situation.
- We put each other first.
In a secure relationship, no one else (and no one thing) can come before your partner, and your relationship. This can feel tricky … you might think, “But wait, I have to go to work! I can’t just stay home because my partner needs me!”, “I have to pick up the kids from school!”, or, “It’s my best friend’s birthday, I have to be there to celebrate!”. I’m not talking about dropping everything to meet your partner’s every whim and demand. I’m not talking about letting your child get hurt, or getting fired because your partner is more important.
What “putting each other first” means is that your partner knows at the end of the day, that they are your number one priority. Stan Tatkin refers to anything outside the relationship as a “third”. “Thirds” refer to children, your work, your cell phone, computer, friends, making dinner, the laundry, your in-laws, a trip … basically anything that is outside the relationship that the two of you have to face together. Thirds are anything that could potentially be a source of conflict in the relationship.
What “putting each other first” means is that you and your partner address “thirds” together. That you never, ever TELL your partner that your needs and commitments, or someone else’s needs, an appointment, another person …. whatever it is … trump them in times of distress. The key here is, “in times of distress” … when it really matters. That you are respectful about scheduling and commitments, that you check in with your partner … that when you need to tend to something outside of the relationship (a work call, a child, a friend, your cell phone), that you check in with your partner first and make sure they are okay, that they don’t need you in that moment. This doesn’t mean that you have to stop and expressly ask permission every time (although sometimes it does—“honey, is it okay if I go take this work call? I’ll be 10 minutes.”), but it does mean checking in in some agreed upon way—a knowing look, physical contact, a meaningful gesture—and being on the same page as your partner before you turn away from them.
Putting your partner first also means that in times of distress you do drop everything. When your partner is in the hospital, or someone close has died, or anything out of the ordinary happens that really upsets or derails your partner. In times of distress, there is nothing more soothing, comforting, and healing than the person we love. As a partner in a committed relationship, it is your job to be there for them when they are distressed, when they really need you, and in those crucial times when having you by their side will make all the difference in the world.
- We check in about our relationship.
We have regular check-ins about how we’re doing. We ask each other how our day was, and how we fared as partners this week. We openly inquire about any outstanding sources of tension or conflict, we check in to make sure any arguments or fights feel fully resolved, and we ask our partner how we can do better. We tell our partner our fears, worries and concerns, and we also them all of the things they did that we loved and appreciated, and the things they did that made us feel special and important. We ask our partner if we loved them well enough and if there is anything else they need from us.
For a more formal “check-in” that you can use as a template with your partner, click here. (Just don’t forget to come back and read the rest of the principles!)
- We know what each other needs to feel loved.
John Gottman calls this one knowing each other’s “Love Maps”, and Stan Tatkin calls it knowing how to “influence, persuade, and romance” one another. Regardless of what you call it, imagine your partner like a unique lock. They have their own size, shape, and particularly designed grooves that require a special key to make them feel special, unique, appreciated, loved, safe, and cared for.
It is your job to both teach your partner how you want to be loved, and to figure out how your partner wants to be loved. Gary Chapman has a great book called The Five Love Languages that can help you understand your partner’s love style. Learning how to ask for what we need can feel vulnerable and risky, but it’s essential to creating the kind of relationship we want. It takes practice to learn how to invite our partner to come close, and to understand the keys that help unlock our partner’s inner world and make them feel safe and trusting with us. Take time with your partner to ask questions about how they want to be loved by you. What is their favorite thing that you do for them? When do they feel most loved? Is there something you could do to help them feel more loved?
- We express appreciation, admiration, and respect.
In our relationship, we frequently express our gratitude and thankfulness for our partner—for who they are, and for the things they do. We tell our partner what we like and love about them, and we treat them with kindness and respect.
We express this to our partner AND to other people.
We don’t complain or speak poorly about our partner to other people, whether our partner is present or not. We uphold each other’s positive image in public and we don’t say anything about our partner behind their back that we wouldn’t say if they were right beside us. We make it a point to share the positives about our partner in the company of other people, both in our partner’s presence and in their absence.
Expressing our appreciation for our partner, also includes acknowledging them. Not only acknowledging their success and achievements, but acknowledging their presence. A wonderful way to do this, is to create rituals throughout the day including greeting each other warmly in the morning and each time you reunite throughout the day. Create bedtime rituals to connect and say goodnight. Hug, kiss, and check-in with each other, morning, nighttime, and whenever you come back together again after being apart.
- We allow ourselves to be influenced by the other.
Stan Tatkin calls this concept “mutuality”. When we are single, or operating as two, independent individuals in relationship, we tend to think of our own happiness, needs, wants, and desires. This kind of thinking in a relationship leads to feeling polarized, needing to fight for what we want, defensiveness, loneliness, and isolation. The opposite of independence is pushing our own needs aside and prioritizing the other person. This doesn’t work either as no one else can be responsible for our own happiness.
Mutuality or letting ourselves be influenced by our partner means, “here’s what I think/feel/need … now tell me what you think/feel/need … and I will stay open to sharing in your experience and being influenced by you.” At the very least, if your experience of things doesn’t change my perception, I will work hard to understand how it is for you, and we’ll work together to figure out how to get both of our needs met. We negotiate or compromise to make sure we’re both taken care of.
- We know our relationship purpose and values, and we hold each other accountable.
We have taken the time to clarify why we are in this relationship. We know what the purpose of our coming together is, and what we both hope to experience in this relationship. We have also identified our values, the things that are most important to us, and we hold each other accountable to meeting them.
You can access a step-by-step exercise to walk you and your partner through clarifying your relationship purpose and values, by clicking here.
- We emphasize repair over being right.
When tension, an argument, or conflict arises, we quickly shift from any personal desire to “win” or “be right” into a mindset of honoring our partner’s experience and prioritizing repair for the highest good of the relationship. We recognize our own defensive strategies, and we take responsibility for our behaviors that trigger, upset, or threaten our partner. We apologize quickly, and we work towards a solution that (as Stan Tatkin says) is, “good for me, and good for them”.
When we defend our position at the expense of our partner’s experience or opinion, or fight for what we want at the detriment of our partner, you’ve both already lost. An “I win, you lose” mentality, is always a lose-lose formula in a love relationship. The only time you win, is when you both win.
- We protect each other and our relationship above all else.
This principle comes straight from Stan Tatkin’s work, and is critical for a healthy relationship. In addition to putting each other first, this means that we guard our partner and our relationship above all else. We don’t make jokes at each other’s expense, we don’t throw our partner under the proverbial bus in public (regardless of whether or not our partner is present). We defend and protect each other in the company of other people. We take each other’s side in any conflict with family or friends.
Defending and protecting each other doesn’t mean that you accept or excuse poor behavior. When you or your partner says, or does, something that you don’t like, you talk about it in private, make amends, and come up with an agreement to handle similar situations better next time.
If you find it difficult to protect and defend your partners’ beliefs and actions in public, with your friends and family, or in front of your children, that’s an indication that your values aren’t aligned and it warrants a bigger conversation—in private, and out of the spotlight of other people.
- (10 + 1) We never threaten the relationship.
This article is titled “10 + 1” principles for a healthy relationship because Principle #11 goes with #10—but it is so important that it deserves its own section. In accordance with protecting your relationship, that also means never, ever threatening it. We don’t say or do things that make our partner feel insecure. We don’t threaten to leave or end the relationship. We don’t suggest that our partner would be ‘better off’ with someone else (or that we would).
If one of you is that unhappy that you are legitimately thinking about ending the relationship, bring that up in a calm, mature way. Conversations about ending the relationship should always take place separately from any argument, conflict, or fight. It is unfair, and highly distressing, to bring up ending the relationship, especially as a threat, in the midst of conflict.
That’s it! I’m not saying this article is all you’ll ever need to experience the kind of happy, secure, healthy relationship you’ve ever wanted—but it is a really good start. I also recommend some of the books I’ve listed below, and the work of Stan Tatkin, John Gottman, Sue Johnson, Gary Chapman, and Harville Hendrix. I’ve drawn from their work in writing this article and their teachings have influenced me in my work counselling couples, and in my personal life in my own marriage.
If you and your partner are struggling and need help in your relationship, or with implementing the principles in this article, feel free to reach out to see how I can support you at firstname.lastname@example.org
References & Book Recommendations
Wired for Love by Stan Tatkin
Your Brain on Love by Stan Tatkin
Relationship Rx by Stan Tatkin
The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman
Love Sense by Sue Johnson
Hold Me Tight by Sue Johnson
The 7 Principles for Making Marriage Work by John Gottman
The Relationship Cure by John Gottman
Why Marriages Succeed or Fail by John Gottman
What Makes Love Last by John Gottman
10 Lessons to Transform Your Marriage by John Gottman
Getting the Love You Want by Harville Hendrix
Keeping the Love You Find by Harville Hendrix