Sonya Thomas lcsw

The Five Types of Relationships

John Gottman categorizes relationships into five types, three of which represent happy relating, and two representing unhappy relating.  After decades of data collection on real, live couples, Gottman suggests that relationships fall into one the below five categories.  Shamelessly adapted from the Gottman blog, here are the five types of relationships, with the top three indicating “happy” couples, and the bottom two indicating “unhappy” couples:

1. Conflict Avoiders

Conflict avoiders emphasize their areas of common ground and minimize their attempts to persuade one another. They avoid conflict, avoid expressing what they need from one another, and congratulate their relationship for being generally happy. An important aspect about conflict-avoiding couples is in the balance between independence and interdependence. They have clear boundaries, and are separate people with separate interests. They have a restricted range of emotional expression, yet also have the magic ration of 5:1 positive to negative interactions in place, as well as an absence of the four horsemen in their relating to one another.  I have an unproven theory on these types of couples; I wonder if these are the couples who are SO highly compatible that differences rarely have an opportunity to surface because they simply do not exist.  While it is easy to construe this as the ideal type of relationship, there are other ways of coming together that creates space for differences.  And remember, one cannot force compatibility.  We can work to negotiate compromises and problem solve when differences exist, but for conflict avoiding couples who may be EXTREMELY compatible, differences may simply not exist that require negotiating.  Again, that is just my theory.

2. Volatile Couples

Almost the exact opposite of conflict avoiders, volatile couples are intensely emotional. During a conflict discussion, they begin persuasion immediately and they stick to it throughout the discussion. Their debating is characterized by a lot of laughter, shared amusement, and humor. They seem to love to debate and argue, but they are not disrespectful and insulting. Their positive-to-negative ratio falls within the magic numbers of 5 to 1 . There may be a lot of negative affect expressed, including anger and feelings of insecurity, but no contempt. While they have to argue a great deal about their roles, they emphasize connection and honesty in their communication.  My theory with these couples is that they are skilled at remaining emotionally regulated even in the midst of conflict discussions.  Ones capacity to maintain a non-defensive sense of humor, even in the midst of conflict, is indicative of a sense of internal grounding rather than being in a fight/flight state.

3. Validating Couples

The interaction of these couples is characterized by ease and calm. They are somewhat expressive, but mostly neutral. In many ways they seem to be intermediate between avoiders and the volatile couples. They put a lot of emphasis on supporting and understanding their partner’s point of view, and are often empathetic about their partner’s feelings.  They will confront their differences, but only on some topics, and not on others. My take is that they can “let go” of things that may matter more to their partner than to them.  However, they can become highly competitive on some issues, which can turn into a power struggle. Then they usually calm down and compromise. During conflict, validators are only mildly emotionally expressive. Once again, the ratio of positive-to-negative affect for validating couples averaged around 5 to 1.  I have to admit, I have a bias towards this way of relating as it allows for differences without those differences being threatening, nor does it depend on one person always getting their way.

4. Hostile Couples

Hostile couples exhibit high levels of defensiveness on the part of both partners. There is also a lot of criticism, “you always” and “you never” statements, and whining. During conflict, each partner reiterated his or her own perspective. No support or understanding was offered for either person’s point of view. There was lots of contempt. All Four Horsemen were present.

5. Hostile-Detached Couples

These couples are like two armies engaged in a mutually frustrating and lonely standoff. They snipe at one another during conflict, although the air is one of emotional detachment and resignation. I can imagine stonewalling being very present in these relationships as a way of exiting or shutting down rather than staying present for the bickering and sniping.

The writing is on the wall for the last two types of couples.  Unless they can can begin relating in a more mature, psychologically adult way, one can predict that divorce or living parallel lives is in the cards.  It is easy to see why folks would want out of these types of relationships.  Much like groundhog day, though, the sad reality is that unless one grows into a more mature and psychological adult as a result of the demise of the hostile or detached relationship, they can expect to experience unhappy future relationships.  As someone once said, change may be inevitable, growth is a choice.

Until next time, peace.