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A New Year Relationship Check-up

Happy New Year!!

Granted, by now we’re a few weeks into the New Year and, since our Gregorian calendar insists on kicking the year off with January for some reason, that fresh “new year smell” has probably already begun to fade.  Well, Happy New Year anyway.

And in that spirit, how are those resolutions holding up?  You know, the New Year’s Resolutions, often conceived and made by those of us still falling well short of perfection, where we promise ourselves personal betterment in some way… to quit this, start that, improve here, or trim there.  If you’re like most people – well-intentioned if inconveniently human – most of the good intentions optimistically pledged during the happy height of the holidays fall prey to the slushy, dark, cold, virus-infested truth that is January.  We hope, if you are the resolution making type, you‘re still going strong.  The longer you stick with a new, positive behavior the likelier it is to become habit.  The longer you stay away from old, destructive habits the likelier they are to be permanently broken and replaced with good behaviors.  If you are still plugging away as you read our belated New Year greeting, congratulations!

What is great about New Year’s resolutions is the necessary self-examination they demand.  Unfortunately, most people’s self-examination tends to stay safely on the surface and focus on the obvious – diet, health habits, exercise, etc. - while ignoring or avoiding deeper and more uncomfortable topics.  We want to challenge you to go deeper.  We’re going to go back to our roots and challenge you to take a close look at your relationships.  Take the time for a “Relationship Check-up”.

Law enforcement can be tough on relationships, and especially so on the most important one, that between you and your “significant other” in whatever form it takes.  We’ll look at the check-up from that perspective, but it many ways it can also be applied to the other major relationships in your life (kids, friends, extended family).  No matter how tight your bond or how successful you’ve been so far, the passage of time can wear on the quality and strength of that relationship.  It’s easy to get complacent or fall into bad habits; vigilance is necessary to ward them off.

Troubling indicators

When doing a check-up of your relationships health, it’s easier to focus on what is working for the two of you, point to it in a self-satisfied way, and declare victory.  Unfortunately, that’s not enough.  You have to be attuned to what isn’t working, or what has slipped over time, in order to accurately assess the overall health of your relationship.  Dr John Gottman and his wife, Dr Julie Schwartz Gottman, are widely considered the foremost experts in the field of couples therapy.  For over thirty years, The Gottman Institute has been researching relationships and what makes some work and others fail.  Out of their studies they develop tools for therapists.  To many in the field, the Gottmans are gurus!

Out of their research, the Gottmans have identified eight dysfunctions commonly found in ailing relationships.  As you look at your own relationship - and hopefully you do this openly and honestly together – you will want to determine not just what you still do well but also where symptoms of trouble are beginning to poke through.  These are:


When people in successful, stable relationships are in conflict with each other they tend to remain positive in how they speak and relate to each other despite their conflict.  Research by the Gottmans shows, in fact, the ratio of positive to negative interactions in word, deed, and reaction to each other is 5:1.  Among couples in unstable, failing relationships that ratio is 0.8:1.

How are your interactions?  Are you more positive than negative with each other, even when you are fighting?  Or does conflict bring a combative, insulting, or provoking nature to your relationship?

Escalation of negativity

Borrowing from the Book of Revelation, of all places, the Gottmans refer to “the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” to describe four characteristics common to doomed relationships.  Being in conflict – even exchanging anger and sharp words with each other – is not really a big deal.  The “Four Horsemen” – criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling – are a huge deal.  When these four take root in a relationship they begin its destruction.

How do you fight?  Are you able to be in conflict with each other without resorting to one of the “Four Horsemen”?  If so, you can likely negotiate anger and conflict without lasting harm.  If not, you need to reassess your conflict style and how it makes you react to each other.

Emotional disengagement and withdrawal

The absence of negative affect during conflict, or positive affect whether during conflict or not, is indicative of emotional disengagement and withdrawal.  Being unable or unwilling to engage emotionally may mean you’ve already left the relationship, even if you still occupy the same space physically.

The failure of repair attempts

According to the Gottmans, “The goal of therapy ought not to be helping couples to avoid fights, even ones that are painful and alienating.  Nor should it be helping couples to avoid hurting one another’s feelings… Instead, the goal ought to be to help couples process these inevitable fights… and to be able to repair the relationship.” 

All couples will have issues about which they disagree.  All couples will occasionally argue and fight over this issues.  Successful couples are able to repair the relationship, soothe the hurt feelings that may come from disagreement, and easily see those moments as inevitable but not fatal.  When repair attempts fail, however, the relationship is in trouble.

Negative sentiment override (NSO)

When negative sentiment override (NSO) is present in a couple, one or both of the partners will habitually perceive interactions with their partner with a “negative subtext.”  Even if their partner approaches them with a neutral or positive interaction, it will be perceived as negative or as an “attack” on them.  Ultimately, at least one of the partners has begun to see only the errors in the other, and to attribute them to “lasting, negative personality traits or character flaws.”  Even positive interactions by that partner will be ignored, minimized, or misconstrued as negative.  That partner is set up for failure.

Maintaining vigilance and physiological arousal and Chronic diffuse physiological arousal

When one or both partners begin to see the other’s attempts at raise issues or introduce conflict as overwhelming or emotionally dangerous, they stand vigilant against their partner.  The heightened physiological arousal that accompanies constant vigilance is destructive for a relationship.  It lends itself to “fight or flight,” of which neither is conducive to maintaining a safe, happy, successful relationship.

Do you constantly keep your shields up against each other, for fear of emotional attack?  Are you constantly waiting for the next conflict to erupt, and planning what to do when it does?  That is no way to live your life.  Your partner should be a source of solace, not fear.

“Chronic diffuse physiological arousal” is marked by a wide range of general symptoms that traditionally indicate “danger” and associated with a chronic state of hyperawareness and anxiety. 

The failure of men to accept influence from their women  

In successful heterosexual couples, the women wield significant influence with their men, and the men accept and invite influence from their women.  This “true partnership” style empowers and supports both halves of the relationship, and fosters respect and love.  When men fail or refuse to accept influence from women they will leave their partner feeling disrespected in, and disengaged from, them and the relationship.  The short-term effect for men may be satisfying – they make the decisions they want without hindrance or question, disengage from the responsibility of having to consider other points-of-view, or avoid uncomfortable conflict – but the long-term danger is their partner’s emotional disengagement from them.

So men, do you accept influence from your women?  Or do you ignore or minimize her influence in favor of your independence? 


As you enter 2013, pay close attention to these symptoms of dysfunctional or failing relationships.  Take time to honestly assess the health of your relationships and, if necessary, root out complacency and unproductive or harmful behavior.  You have a lot to pay attention to at work to keep yourself safe, make coming home to safety second nature.


The Gottman Institute

The Gottman Institute on YouTube