A healthy relationship is a collaborative effort involving communication, mutual respect and trust. Healthy relationships provide us with important emotional and social benefits while allowing us to retain our independence. Essentially, relationships are the foundation of the human experience. Our species is a communal one. Archeology has found humans living in communities since the very beginning. Our babies are helpless for years after birth, so we learned to pair bond, live in groups, communicate and share resources for the benefit of all.
So how do we develop and keep these emotional bonds healthy? How do we know when they are doing more harm than good?
Characteristics of a Healthy Relationship
On the surface, healthy relationships are easily identified. Both parties enjoy the company of each other. Each is getting their needs met and can be themselves without explanation or justification. But how does one get to this point? What characteristics should be present so the relationship results in a mutually beneficial experience where one can grow and thrive?
Communication is an essential component of most human interactions and requires speaking and listening. Within relationships, communication becomes a focus when there is conflict or parties are not getting their needs met. The best communication begins with a mindset. When partners are seen as flawed collaborators, it fosters empathy and patience. Mindsets that see conflict as an opportunity to understand one another and create deeper bonds are more likely to communicate beneficially.
Collaborative conflict includes “I” statements. “I” statements share how the individual feels without making accusations about the other. For example, “I feel left out when you don’t give me a chance to participate in your hobby”.
The partner can then repeat back a summary of what was said using a “When I” statement, demonstrating effective listening. For example, “When I don’t include you in my hobby, it makes you feel left out; I am sorry about that.”
The next step in this conversation is to decide to communicate openly about this issue and agree to collaborate to find a resolution that reflects the needs of both parties. Effective communication in a relationship demonstrates interest in the other, empathy, care, and collaborative conflict resolution.
When relationships are sexual, enthusiastic consent must be obtained from both parties. To consent to sexual activity enthusiastically means it is evident that both parties would like to participate. This type of consent looks and sounds like a confident ‘yes’. It does not look like a “maybe”, a silent nod, a grimace, or confused intoxication. Enthusiastic consent is not assumed because consent has been given in prior experiences with others or with the current partner. Finally, enthusiastic consent can be withdrawn at any point in an encounter.
Trust in a relationship
Trust is a necessary component of any relationship. Trust is initially developed when each partner is reliable, truthful, and responsible for their actions. These should be present to begin a relationship.
Once a relationship is established, trust creates a safe space for both parties to grow without fear or guilt. Trust allows each partner as an individual to be celebrated. Partners feel comfortable sharing new ideas or interests. They are comfortable sharing their feelings, worries, and weaknesses. Trust in a relationship means time apart is not something to feel guilty about or rejected over; it is natural to want space. Relationships without trust feel stifling and diminish the potential of both parties. Healthy relationships have deep mutual trust.
Trust and mutual respect are similar concepts. To respect another is to appreciate what they offer and honour their boundaries. When there is mutual respect, new suggestions about shared resources are thoughtfully considered. For example, the new paint colour or furniture proposals are not just dismissed. New ideas or desires for the future are seriously taken into account.
When partners set boundaries, it is a sign of respect to honour those boundaries. This can include respecting privacy, time alone, and outside friends and interests. Healthy relationships need mutual respect.
We have already discussed important boundaries for sexual intimacy, but intimacy can be much more than that. Intimacy can be present in platonic relationships. Emotional intimacy is an important part of any meaningful relationship. When in a relationship with someone, all involved should feel comfortable sharing hopes, dreams, trauma, worries, and questions. Recent research found that for women, in particular, a lack of emotional intimacy is grounds for ending a relationship.
For romantic partners, physical intimacy is one of the most critical components of the alliance. Once enthusiastic consent is obtained from both parties for physical intimacy, individuals must feel safe enough in the relationship to share their needs and desires. Intimacy will grow when trust and mutual respect needs are met.
Relationship Red Flags
How do we know when relationships will not turn out to be healthy ones? Of course, there are red flags to look out for. It should be no surprise that many of them are the opposite of what we have just discussed. For example, when your partner can’t or won’t communicate their feelings or does not listen to your concerns or needs.
Communication is foundational to a relationship between two people; when it is not present, the connection will not deepen. Additionally, whenever someone does not wait for enthusiastic consent, the relationship should not continue. This behaviour indicates that your partner does not respect boundaries and puts their own needs before yours, and in a worst-case scenario, may be an abuser. Either way, this is a red flag that cannot be overlooked.
Other red flags include partners who can’t (or won’t) spend quality time together, inequality of emotional or physical contributions, and consistent unhappiness. Trust, mutual respect, and intimacy cannot flourish in these scenarios. For example, suppose a partner is at the bottom of the priority list or time spent together is filled with other distractions. In that case, this red flag results in a lack of trust and intimacy. If you cannot trust your partner to give you their attention, it’s not likely other aspects of your relationship will flourish.
Equality is vital to happy relationships. If one partner is highly emotionally supportive and the other just functions as the recipient of this support, this will become an unfulfilling scenario quickly. Healthy relationships have to be a give-and-take situation.
Finally, if any relationship creates frequent feelings of unhappiness, this is a red flag. Our relationships should enhance well-being, and happiness, relationships that don’t are relationships that should be re-evaluated.
How to Build a Healthy Relationship
Healthy relationships start with healthy individuals. People who are confident in who they are, enjoy their own company, and have a vibrant life will attract and maintain healthy relationships. This is the most important step in building healthy relationships.
The next step may be to evaluate potential relationship candidates. Consider the following:
- Does my partner support my growth?
- Are our individual goals for the future similar enough for each of us to be happy?
- Am I genuinely myself when I am with this person?
- Is our conflict resolution collaborative and beneficial for both?
Building healthy relationships is not the easiest path, but thoughtfully considering questions like these can prevent later heartache.
Does Couples Counselling Work?
Couples counselling before and after relationship troubles emerge can be beneficial. Counselling should not be seen as something that is done only when a relationship is really in trouble. You can seek counselling at any time for the benefit of the relationship. For example, if couples are in a season of difficulty and communication is breaking down, or conflict has become very contentious, a few sessions with a counsellor could be exactly what is needed.
Couples counselling is typically done with the couple and a mental health professional. Several techniques can be used to guide a relationship back to health. A few examples include the following:
- Communication counselling: as its title alludes to, this technique focuses on how a couple communicates. It focuses on getting couples to feel safe sharing feelings and seeking support. Using communication tools to support beneficial conflict resolution is also a focus.
- Attachment therapy: this style of therapy seeks to understand how early childhood experiences may have consequences for current relationships. Attachment theory says that early childhood may dictate how you connect with those closest to you later on. For example, an early childhood where caregivers were neglectful may result in an adult who is either afraid of getting too close or perhaps desperate to secure love. This technique tries to get the couple to understand and overcome negative attachment patterns.
- Gottman method: this therapeutic technique helps couples to understand and respect one another. It asks couples to put themselves in their partner’s shoes and develop a more profound friendship, a shared sense of meaning, and better conflict management.
There is no shame in seeking counselling. Whether as an individual or a couple, counselling can provide a fresh new perspective on what is going right and how to make beneficial changes to what is going wrong.
Healthy relationships are the icing on the cake of a meaningful life. When relationships are good, they are mutually beneficial. Both parties will experience more joy in the good times and more support in the bad. Therefore, it is worth the time and effort to curate a life filled with healthy relationships. When people are surrounded by fulfilling relationships, they can become the best version of themselves and support others in seeking to do the same.