Department of Psychiatry
Penn Behavioral Health

PAH Outpatient Behavioral Health Clinic

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Newsletter: February 2011

A Day for Romance...and Reflection

Katherine Kivisto, BA

No February would be complete without the obligatory yearly reminder of romantic relationships.  For many couples, Valentine’s Day is a time to reflect on the good things about a relationship.  Yet, solid romantic relationships are not always full of romance, gifts, and sweet nothings.  In this article, we discuss insights from decades of research on healthy (and not-so-healthy) romantic relationships, and ways couples maintain relationship health in the face of distress. 

What do Satisfied Couples Look Like?

Romantic relationship researchers have been observing couples’ interactions for over 30 years, and have drawn some general conclusions about what factors in relationships give couples the most relationship satisfaction and longevity.  One of the key findings is that non-distressed couples spend more time having positive interactions with each other than they spend in negative interactions.  This might sound like a no-brainer, but researchers and relationship therapists find that the time distressed partners spend together is often argument-focused.  One therapeutic homework assignment that distressed couples often receive is to schedule regular “couple time” together.  Couple time does not need to be extravagant (although it can be), but could be as simple as a recurring date night, a walk after dinner, or a cup of coffee or tea every morning.  Happier couples also tend to strike a balance with expressing positive feelings about each other: for example, some partners prefer grand gestures, whereas other partners prefer the “little things,” like notes or a scheduled phone call from work.  Communication appears to be the key to striking this balance, so that each partner communicates what makes him or her feel good (within the time and budget constraints of the relationship.)

In fact, non-distressed couples spend more time communicating with each other in general.  Experts break communications down into two main types.  Type One is instrumental communication.  Instrumental communication involves the goals that one or both partners have and the steps needed to accomplish them, for example, negotiating chores, child care, and entertainment decisions.  Most couples’ conversations are Type One.  Type Two is emotional communication.  Emotional communication involves partners sharing their feelings, needs, interests, hopes, and dreams, and tends to happen less often within couples, especially distressed couples (or those with young children).   For distressed couples, teaching communication skills is often a first line of therapeutic intervention.  Partners are encouraged to problem-solve together and share their feelings.  However, during arguments, it can be easy for one partner to listen to the other just long enough to think of ways to prove the other partner is wrong.  This often leads to the escalation of negativity in an argument and is counterproductive and potentially damaging to the relationship.  Partners in therapy may be taught to listen and reflect on what the other partner is saying, before reacting to the partner.   Active listening is a give-and-take process in which partner one talks while partner two listens.  Partner two then summarizes and repeats back what partner one said.  Then partner two responds, partner one summarizes, and so on.  Even if the partners disagree, both end up feeling heard.

When a Disagreement Strikes…

No couple agrees about everything all of the time.  Disagreements in romantic relationships are important.  They help partners define their views and core values, and to clear up misunderstandings.  They help relationships to grow and change.  Researchers have spent countless hours observing couples fight, and have some insights to offer about how to use disagreements constructively, rather than destructively.  Even couples with the longest-lasting, most satisfied relationships fight.  The trick is how they fight.  Along with using communication skills, such as active listening and reflection, non-distressed couples tend to consider the timing and context of their arguments and avoid certain highly negative and damaging types of statements and behaviors.

In terms of timing and context, when not dealing with an immediate crisis, couples who consider the timing of a fight tend to come to better resolutions.  When there isn’t enough time to work through an argument, for example, on the way out the door to work or just before bed, it tends to go unresolved or leave one partner feeling resentful because of a hasty resolution.  Most partners are also not at their best for communicating effectively when very tired, very hungry, or under the influence of alcohol or other substances.  In these instances, non-distressed couples tend to postpone a major or heated debate.

In addition, non-distressed couples tend to contain the argument to just the couple.  For couples with children or other family members in the home, it’s human nature to want to pull reinforcements for one’s own side.  Pulling an outside person into an argument is called triangulation (three people make a triangle).  Of course, there are times when seeking another adult’s opinion or advice is appropriate to solving a problem.  However, triangulating a third party in the actual argument may lead one partner to feel ganged up on, hurt, resentful, or coerced – not the best way to achieve positive interactions or stable decisions!  Moreover, in the case of children, researchers find that involving a child in an argument between parents or parental figures can lead the child to feel confused and dysregulated.  He or she may feel blamed or overwhelmed by the inability to “fix” the parents’ problems.  If it is a long-standing pattern, child triangulation can even be linked to psychological problems in kids.  As an aside, despite adults’ attempts to keep arguments from children in the home, kids have an uncanny way of finding out, anyway. If a child correctly perceives that a disagreement happened, research suggests that kids do better if adults admit to having the fight, even if they don’t discuss the details.

There are some relationship behaviors that are so damaging to relationships that they have been dubbed “The Four Horsemen” (of the relationship apocalypse):  Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling.  Criticism means attacking a partner’s character or personality, rather than his or her problem behavior.  Women are more likely to criticize.  Contempt is a more intense form of criticism, and may include insulting a partner, dismissing him or her, or sarcasm.  Defensiveness means focusing one’s energy entirely on protecting oneself, rather than working to protect the relationship, and makes it difficult for the defensive partner(s) to actively listen.  Stonewalling means completely shutting down and refusing to respond to the argument.  Men are more likely to stonewall.  Stonewalling is different than expressing the need to take a time-out to cool down; in fact, cool downs can be very productive, since many people find it hard to be constructive when they’re really angry.  In addition to the Four Horsemen, physical attacks or violence are not only damaging to the relationship, they can do serious and lasting harm.  In most states, one or both partners may be sent to jail for domestic violence.  Fortunately, there are many resources for individuals who find themselves becoming violent or being the victim of an attack. 

In summary, as we reflect on Valentine’s Day and romantic love, it may be helpful to consider ways to maintain and enhance romantic relationships.  Couples who report greater satisfaction and relationship longevity spend more time engaged in mutually positive activities than they do in negative ones, they have time set aside to be together and share their feelings, and they remind one another in big and/or small ways that they care.  Couples with less distress communicate more often and listen actively to one another.  Non-distressed couples take time to argue, while avoiding triangulating other adults or children into the mix.  They also avoid using criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling in their arguments, and never resort to physical attacks or violence.  If this all sounds like a tall order, consider that healthy relationships come in all shapes and sizes, and there are numerous resources for help with relationship difficulties.  



Reading for Coping with Relationship Difficulties:

Reconcilable Differences by Andrew Christensen and Neil Jacobson (The Guilford Press)

Couples’ Therapy:

Pennsylvania Hospital: Behavioral Health Outpatient Clinic
(215) 829-7335

University of Pennsylvania: Center for Couples and Adult Families
(215) 746-4100

Women’s Crisis Shelter:

Women Against Abuse 24-hour Hotline: 1-866-723-3014