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Care Talk with Tanya Russell: Keeping a strong relationship

Q: After a marriage breakdown and many years of being on my own, I am now in a new relationship. I believe we have a solid foundation for a wonderful relationship as we communicate often and quite well, but I’m curious to know what other factors make a relationship strong. I don’t want to find myself single again, particularly as this new relationship feels so right.


You’ve identified a very important aspect of successful relationships and that is good communication. Good communication includes the willingness to discuss all aspects of life such as values, goals, dreams ‒ but also topics that may have the potential for some conflict. This requires the individuals to allow themselves to be vulnerable and open to pain occasionally. I highly recommend watching a Ted Talk on this topic by vulnerability researcher Brené Brown called “The Power of Vulnerability”. Allowing yourselves to be vulnerable can strengthen relationships.

Although healthy communication is so important, it is equally important to demonstrate respect in a relationship. We know that if respect is lost, it almost feels impossible to regain it. Trust and respect go hand in hand. Respect each other’s differences including differing perspectives, interests and pastimes. Respect is about each person in the relationship ‘having a say’ about the relationship. Be mindful of complaining about your partner to others. If you have any concerns about your partner, the first person you need to talk to is your partner. Of course, our close friends might offer support but consider how you discuss any problems with them and make the problem the problem, not your partner as a person.

Grow with your partner and embrace change. Change isn’t always easy but as the years go by, change is inevitable. Support each other through life’s challenges and provide encouragement when needed. Change is not always positive so be prepared to reflect on yourself and each other and keep the communication channels open and honest ‒ no secrets. This leads to another aspect of good communication: knowing how to deal with conflict.

World-renowned relationship expert Dr John Gottman has studied couples for many decades and is able to predict accurately which couples will end up together or separated; based on how they “fight”. It’s not conflict itself that leads to divorce and separation but four particular characteristics that he calls “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”:

  1. Criticism: Criticising your partner is different from offering a critique or voicing a complaint. The important thing is to learn the difference between expressing a complaint and criticising.
  2. Contempt: When we communicate in this state, we are truly mean ‒ we treat others with disrespect, mock them with sarcasm, ridicule, call them names and mimic or use body language such as eye-rolling or scoffing. Contempt is the single greatest predictor of divorce.
  3. Defensiveness: Sometimes when we feel unjustly accused, we fish for excuses and play the innocent victim so that our partner will back off.
  4. Stonewalling: Stonewalling occurs when the listener withdraws from the interaction, shuts down and simply stops responding to his/her partner. Rather than confronting the issues, people who stonewall can make evasive manoeuvres such as tuning out, turning away, being ‘busy’, or engaging in obsessive or distracting behaviours.

Visit John Gottman’s website for further advice on what to do instead of engaging with the above ‘four horsemen’. Hopefully you now have some food for thought as a starting point for enhancing your relationship. Further reading in this area as suggested will provide you with more ideas to keep your relationship strong.