Hallmarks of a Healthy Relationship

Dr. Adriana Kipper-Smith, the Interim Director of the Vanderbilt University Psychological and Counseling Center, goes in-depth on the characteristics of a healthy relationship, how to determine the state of your current relationship, and how to boost a good one.

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Rosemary Cope:  Welcome to this edition of the Vanderbilt Health and Wellness Wellcast.  I am Rosemary Cope with Work/Life Connections.  I am here today with Dr. Adriana Kipper-Smith, who is the Interim Director of the Vanderbilt University Psychological & Counseling Center.  Dr. Kipper-Smith earned her Doctorate in Clinical Psychology from Fielding Graduate University.  She has been on the Vanderbilt faculty since 2015 and is an Assistant Professor of Clinical Psychiatry.  She also serves as the Chair of the Diversity Committee at the Psychological & Counseling Center.  Most of us have the same desires when it comes to relationships.  We want one that is filled with happiness, joy and love, but we may have been exposed to unhealthy patterns as children or experienced relationship disasters as adults.  Adriana, what do you suggest as the basic characteristics of a healthy relationship?


Dr. Adriana Kipper-Smith:  Well, thank you for having me here.  That is the first thing.  What  I would say that expressing interest, being gentle when there is a conflict, putting feelings into words, which is very difficult at times (we tend to just keep that to ourselves when we are especially mad at someone), expressing empathy and repairing negative interactions - that tends to be the staples of a good, functional, healthy relationship.  And there is that rule of thumb that people say - for any negative interaction, you add five positive interactions, and that tends to be a good balance and a good math for healthy relationships.

Rosemary Cope:  It is a good rule of thumb, and it makes you think about how do I focus on whoever it is that I am having this relationship with, and how do I encourage them in being healthy in this relationship.

Dr. Adriana Kipper-Smith:  And how active I have to be in this relationship to make the math work.

Rosemary Cope:  It is work, isn't it?

Dr. Adriana Kipper-Smith:  Yeah.  If I only sit down and wait for the other to do everything, to come up with a checklist, I think that would just generate frustration.

Rosemary Cope:  So, sometimes it is not so easy to decide if a troublesome relationship should be maintained the way it is, worked on or ended before it gets any worse.  What should the listeners look for when evaluating the health of their relationship?

Dr. Adriana Kipper-Smith:  That is very difficult, isn't it?  So, there are some thoughts that I can share with you.  All relationships have conflict, and that is a good thing because you grow and the relationship grows deeper with the conflict.  You can get more intimate and you can learn more about the other through the conflict.  But, of course, I think one thing you have to think about is - have you felt empowered to solve that conflict?  There is an issue of empowerment ... self-empowerment.  Have you felt empowered to solve the conflict?  Have you had any progress compromising?  Have you felt hurt?  All of those questions, they are important to keep in mind, because at times people try and try, and they feel stuck, disempowered, resented, and that is very difficult.  So, sometimes there is a sense of dread when you are not changing or finding solutions for relationship conflicts, and this dread leads to withdrawal.  Gottman called one of the four horsemen of bad relationships, right, or unhealthy relationships is the stonewalling that is based in that withdrawal, so I pull away rather than trying to put my feelings into words, which again, it requires a whole lot of ... it is way far from a passive relationship.  It is very difficult.  You have to be quite invested to do that, because of course, doing that, you have to take the plunge and be courageous and own your own mistakes and try to solve it, and after that, if you remain disempowered and hurt, then it may be time to move on.  But I think all of those things need to happen first.  You have to allow yourself to be vulnerable.  Try to own your own mistakes and shortcomings because even though at times you know that you are not the one to blame totally, you are part of that equation, so partially it is you, too.  So, you have to be able to do that.

Rosemary Cope:  Those are really good things to think about, and most people want to avoid when they get those feelings in a relationship where they say, "Oh, this doesn't feel good.  I will just keep doing what I have been doing and maybe it'll change."  And then you brought out some things that happen that make people say, "Maybe I need to take a closer look at this and either invest more or decide this is too harmful to me."

Dr. Adriana Kipper-Smith:  Yes.  I will share what the other horsemen are.

Rosemary Cope:  Please do.

Dr. Adriana Kipper-Smith:  So, the stonewalling, contempt, defensiveness, when you are stuck in those blind spots, and the criticism, the negative criticism.  So, it is not like you can't have any criticism toward your significant other, partner, lover, but you have to add that reassuring mind and criticizing ... how am I doing this?  Is that in a caring way?  Is that in a respectful way?  That is it. 

Rosemary Cope:  Is it in a respectful way

Dr. Adriana Kipper-Smith:  Yeah. 

Rosemary Cope:  We talked about some troublesome spots, but even healthy relationships need a boost every now and then.  Do you have any suggestions for our audience for that?

Dr. Adriana Kipper-Smith:  I know.  People may think that I will come up with some very creative strategies here, but I think it is actually a lot of work.  Sometimes, at the end of the day, you just want to get home and be at the receiving end of the care and love, and in reality, there is a lot of investment that needs to happen.  You have to take a chance.  You have to show interest.  You have to display affection and make the other feel like they matter, even if at times they are not that loveable and that receptive to that.  I think all of those things you have to keep in mind, because it has a ripple effect in a relationship that is quite positive.  So, empathizing, apologizing, having fun together, regardless of the level of fun.  Sometimes people think - let me come up with the most expensive or the most creative and wild solution for our date night, and at times, little things like that can make a real difference.  So, relationships are one of the most rewarding things in life, and I think everyone would agree with that, but they need hard work and lots of fertilizer, and they are definitely not evergreens.  I think many people wish that they were, that they could just leave it there and take it for granted, but it is a lot of work.  The work is not necessarily that external work that you have to do things, you have to fix things in a house ... well, that is important, too, at times, but it is the work of becoming vulnerable.  It is the work of showing interest.  It is the work of reaching out when you are tired, too, after a day of work and say, "How was your day," that type of thing.  Touch them.  Kiss  them.  To hug them.  Hold hands.  All of those things are very important.

Rosemary Cope:  Those are great reflections.  Thank you so much for sharing your insights with us.

Thank you for listening.  Please feel free to leave us any comments on this Wellcast by clicking the "Add New Comment" link at the bottom of this page.  If you have a story or a suggestion, please email it to us at health.wellness@vanderbilt.edu, or you can use the "Contact Us" link on our website at healthandwellness.vanderbilt.edu.