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How To Create Healthy Relationships

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Healthy relationships

How To Create Healthy Relationships

Healthy relationships are made of this

(A 3-factor understanding of what makes lovers soar or sour)

This post is a response to Is Gratitude the Antidote to Relationship Failure? by Amie M. Gordon, PhD

Amie Gordon recently posted an interesting report on her excellent research on gratitude in relationships.  It’s an informative read, and proved quite thought-provoking for me.

Like Amie Gordon, I also regard positivity as a key factor in healthy relationships of all types—at home, at work, with friends, with our kids, and even with strangers in the grocery store.  Positivity includes expression of affection, giving attention, adding agreement, and for sure, proferring gratitude.  Sharing positive vibes is a big chunk of what makes relationships worth having.

At the same time, where do gratitude and its sisterhood of similarly positive emanations stand in relation to other relationship factors?

In my work as a couple therapist, and also in my online marriage education program, I teach two additional critical skill sets: anger management and skills for effective communication/conflict resolution.

Which of these three areas is most fundamental to building a healthy relationship?  All of them appear to be vital.  So here’s my hypothesis about their relative importance: this trio of factors form a paper, stone and scissors circular-causation phenomenon.

Paper, Stone and Scissors

In the children’s game of paper, stone and scissors, on the count of three each player puts out their hand with it formed into one of three options:  palm-open (paper), palm closed in a fist (stone) or palm open with two fingers out in a V (scissors).  Paper wins over stone, stone breaks (and therefore triumphs over) scissors, and scissors cuts (and therefore beats) paper.

So it is in relationships.

Positivity trumps skills. 

I agree with Amie Gordon that positivity leads to more positivity.  As a result, even if people don’t quite know the rules of the road for collaborative discussions, even if they could use an upgrade of their listening skills, and even if make decisions in a winner-loser instead of a win-win way, goodwill is likely to prevail.

Skills trump anger.

Staying in the calm zone is a vital skill anyone can learn.  Recognize when you are beginning to heat up, or when someone you talk with is heating up, and exit the conversation for a brief cool-down period, and you’ll never get into an argument again.  Graceful exits are a skill that can totally eliminate anger from a relationship.  Anger is a stop sign.  Pause, take a break, think through which communication and conflict resolution skills would make the dialogue go more positively and then return to the discussion.

Skills also prevent a person from saying things in a manner that is unintentionally provocative.  Criticizing the other instead of expressing your concerns with an “I statement” for instance is a simple skill that can eliminate much needless irriation in relationships.  Similarly, starting your responses to what others say with “Yes…” instead of “But” or, equally problematic, “Yes, but…” also prevents anger from rising up in the person with whom you are conversing.

Anger trumps positivity.

You can be nice over and over, and at the same time just one anger outburst and the person on whom you have dumped your frustrations is likely to no longer will feel positive toward you for a long long time. Even occasional sarcastic digs will be enough to erase weeks or months of positive gratitude and other positives that you have been expressing prior to, and after, your hostile comment.  Better to learn how to stop arguing.

Circular causality and the trio of positivity, effective communication and conflict resolution, and absence of anger.

All three elements of the paper, stone and scissors of relationships matter, for better or for worse.

Increase positivity, and people spontaneous rediscover the best of their communication and conflict resolution skills…which leads to both participants being more able to sustain a calm emotion zone and therefore ever more positivity and …  That’s why an upgrade in any one of these three factors is likely to lead to improvement in all three.  That’s a spiral toward ever-betterment.

Here’s the for worse part. Downgrade any one of the three factors and a healthy relationship becomes at risk for spiraling downward.  Insufficient positivity, including gratitude, leads to folks becoming careless about their communication and conflict resolution patterns, which begets anger, and the downward course sinks and spins ever lower.

So the moral of the story is…

Good vibes, effective collaborative communication skills, and consistently non-angry emotions create a reliable trio.  Together they can sustain lifelong positive personal partnerships, excellent business relationships,parenting in a manner that raises happy, emotionally healthy and well-prepared-for-adulthood kids, and, let’s hope, an ever-better world.

Photo Credit:Love expression photo from

Author’s Books

Susan Heitler, Ph.D., is a Denver clinical psychologist who specializes in treatment of anxiety, depression, anger, narcissism, parenting challenges, and marital difficulties. An author of multiple books, articles, audio cd’s and videos, Dr. Heitler is best known in the therapy community for having brought understandings of conflict resolution from the legal and business mediation world to the professional literature on psychotherapy. David Decides About Thumbsucking, Dr. Heitler’s first book, has been recommended for over twenty years by children’s dentists to help young children end detrimental sucking habits. From Conflict to Resolution, an innovative conflict-resolution theory of psychopathology and treatment, has strongly influenced the work of many therapists. The Power of Two and The Power of Two Workbook, and also Dr. Heitler’s  website for couples called, teach the skills for marriage success. In addition to her clinical work, Dr. Heitler coaches boards of directors in skills for collaboarative decision-making and, in the world of professional sports, Dr. Heitler serves as mental coach for a men’s doubles tennis team. Education Dr. Heitler graduated from Harvard  University in 1967, and earned her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from NYU in 1975. Awards and Accomplishments The editors of the master therapist video series Assessment and Treatment of Psychological Disorders selected Dr. Heitler from all the marriage and family therapists in the US to demonstrate the theory and techniques of couple treatment.  Her video from this series, The Angry Couple: Conflict Focused Treatment has become a staple in psychologist and marriage counseling training programs. The editors of the Psychologist Desk Reference, a compendium of therapeutic interventions, selected Dr. Heitler to write the chapter onTreating High Conflict Couples. Other editors of books on counseling theory and techniques have similarly invited her to contribute chapters on her conflict resolution treatment methods. Dr. Heitler’s 1997 book The Power of Two (New Harbinger), which clarifies the communication and conflict resolution skills that sustain healthy marriages, has been translated for publication in six foreign language editions–in China, Taiwan, Israel, Turkey, Brazil and Poland. Dr. Heitler has been invited to present workshops on her conflict resolution methods for mediators and lawyers, psychologists, and marriage and family therapists throughout the country.  She has been a popular presenter at national professional conferences including AAMFT, APA, SmartMarriages, and SEPI and has lectured internationally in Austria, Australia, Canada, China, Israel, Lebanon, Spain, and the United Arab Emirates. Dr. Heitler is frequently interviewed in magazines such as FitnessMen’s HealthWomen’s World, and Parenting.  Her cases have appeared often in the Ladies Home Journal column “Can This Marriage Be Saved?”  She is often interviewed by Denver TV newscasters for her perspectives on psychological aspects of current events. In May, 2004 Dr. Heitler appeared on the CBS Early Show where anchor Harry Smith introduced her as “the most influential person in my life—my therapist.”  He encouraged his viewers similarly to seek therapy when they are emotionally distressed and pre-marital counseling when they are contemplating marriage. Most recently, Dr. Heitler, three of her adult children and one of their friends were awarded a U.S. government Healthy Marriages Initiative grant to produce interactive games for teaching marriage communication and conflict resolution skills over the internet.  See to experience their fun, low-cost, high-impact methods of teaching the skills for a strong and loving marriage. Personal Dr.  Heitler and her husband of almost 40 years are proud parents of four happily married adult children and are grandparents, thus far, of a a baker’s dozen grandchildren.

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