Relationship styles: Righting your ratio

By Clay Culp, Relationship Rx facilitator

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Watch Clay discuss this topic on WBIR.

Contrary to popular opinion, there’s more than one way to do stable and healthy when it comes to relationships. It’s all about having the right ratio of positive and negative interactions. Research by John Gottman has shown that most stable relationships can be characterized by one of three styles, each with their own pros and cons. Sharing a similar preferred relationship style helps partners deal with conflicts in ways that feel mutually satisfying. Alternatively, a mismatch in styles can often lead to destructive patterns of communication. When working well, each style helps couples make sure the number of positive interactions far outnumber the negative — a crucial ingredient for relational stability.

1) Validating: This is the type of relationship you probably think of when you hear professionals discuss the do’s and don’ts of relationships. Arguments between validators are characterized by mutual respect and a sense of “we-ness” that allows for compromise and problem solving. Couples in validating relationships tend to be highly-skilled communicators who are naturally empathetic, even in the face of conflict with their partner. While these partners do try to persuade one another, they are likely to validate their partner first and use caution as to not run roughshod over their partner before coming to a mutually agreeable decision.

Key strength: Strong sense of “we-ness.” Great problems solvers.

Pitfalls: Couples may struggle to manage individual interests as they focus on compromise and unselfishness.

2) Volatile: As the name suggests, sparks — both good and bad — tend to fly with these couples. Arguments are intense, not infrequent, and focused on trying to win the fight and change the other person’s mind rather than developing mutual understanding. Although volatile couples have a comparatively high level of conflict, they make up for it with high levels of passion, engagement, and affection. Their high level of engagement during conflict and their knack for emotional honesty and expressiveness fuels their positive interactions. Perhaps most important, volatile couples are masters at making up after a fight.

Key strengths: High levels of passion and engagement. Great at making up.

Pitfalls: Negativity can overwhelm the relationship. Honesty to the point of being hurtful.

3) Conflict avoidant: Rather than either the mutual respect and understanding of validating couples or the passion and persuasiveness of volatile couples, conflict avoidant relationships are characterized by resolving things by “agreeing to disagree.” Conflict avoiders acknowledge disagreement, but rather than come up with a mutually beneficial compromise arguments are often ended with one partner simply agreeing to be more like the other or with both partners agreeing that the issue just isn’t such a big deal in the grand scheme of their relationship. By leaning on the good aspects of their relationship, these couples are able to avoid having to resolve many issues altogether. Conflict avoiders seem to have a keen sense of what their irresolvable issues are and how to avoid the pain that continued struggle over them often causes other couples. Despite not having a solution, avoiders can leave an argument still feeling positive, having reminded themselves about all they do agree about.

Key strengths: Low levels of hostility and negativity. Won’t spin their wheels.

Pitfalls: Inability to handle major conflict, risk of withdrawal and loneliness.

While Gottman argues that most stable long-term relationships eventually lead to one of these three styles, couples can continue to negotiate their style, learning from the best of each style. The most important thing is to know and understand both your own and your partner’s style.

Photo used under Creative Commons license.


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