Relationship check-up: the vitals

Relationship check-up: the vitals

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By Kyle Horst/Marriage and Family Therapist

Any health care provider will tell you the importance of monitoring your “vitals” – body temperature, pulse rate (or heart rate), blood pressure and respiratory rate. Others might be included, too, but these four are the most common. Vital signs are important measurements in the diagnosis and care of most disease processes. When one of these is out of whack, that usually means something is wrong.

As a Marriage and Family Therapist, I believe there are certain “vital signs” that indicate a relationship is either “healthy” or “sick.” Much of this comes from the work of Gottman but also derived from my own work with couples.

Take a look at these concepts and ask yourself, “How’s my relationship doing?”

The Vitals:

1. Trust: Arguably one of the most important aspects of a relationship. Trust is more than just sexual or emotional fidelity in a relationship (although this is certainly an important part), it involves having a sense of security and stability in your partner. Security is the presence of safety in the relationship, and stability is the presence of consistency.

Can you trust your partner to be emotionally available when you are upset? Can you trust your partner to respect your family and friends? Can you trust your partner with important parenting decisions?

There is truth in the old adage “trust is a two-way street.” Just as it is important to trust your partner, it is equally important to be trustworthy for your partner. As you think about your level of trust in your relationship, ask yourself:

    — Do I avoid bringing problems to my partner because I don’t think he/she will address them?

   —  Does my partner fail to consult me about important life decisions?

   —  When I think about my partner do I often think, “I can do better.”

 — Do I feel I know better than my partner? Does my partner feel he/she knows better than me?

2. Connection: Emotional disengagement and withdrawal can be “terminal” in a relationship. On the other hand, a strong sense of connection is the bedrock of a healthy relationship. Connection goes beyond sexual intimacy, although it is an important aspect. Connection includes empathy, excitement, joy, comfort, affection, shared humor, active interest and more. It is about feeling supported while also supporting your partner.

When thinking about connection ask yourself:

   — Do I turn to my partner for comfort before anyone or anything else?

   — Does my partner have to often guess what I’m thinking or feeling?

   — Do I sometimes feel lonely in the relationship?

3. Dialogue: As a couples therapist, I find that more than 90 percent of the couples I work with come to me for “communication problems.” However, often when they say “communication” they are referring to connection, trust, or another emotional aspect of the relationship. Despite this misunderstanding, many couples do struggle with “dialogue” – both hearing your partner and feeling heard. I prefer the term dialogue because it implies a two-way street. I’ve seen many couples who trust one another and feel connected but have a difficult time dealing with conflict.  A good relationship is not determined by the absence of conflict, it is sustained through the ability to dialogue through conflict.

The opposite of dialogue is gridlock, where both partners feel stuck in the conflict management process. Everyone has different styles of handling conflict: some avoid it altogether, some move aggressively toward a solution, and others become emotionally flooded. Couples who recognize each other’s tendencies to handle conflict are better prepared when problems eventually do arise.

So ask yourself:

   — Do I know how my partner will react to an argument or fight?

   — Am I still hurt about conflicts we’ve had in the past?

   — Do our arguments usually get solved by the problem “just going away?”

If you have been answering “yes” to many of the above listed questions, it might be a good time to have a conversation with your partner about the relationship. If you do not feel like a conversation is safe or effective, perhaps it’s time to consider couples counseling.  

Kyle Horst, PhD. is a medical family therapist at St. Mary’s Family Medicine Residency where he helps individuals, couples and families heal. He is newly wed and a new resident to the Grand Valley. You might find him enjoying a good book and good Colorado brew.

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