Signs of a Healthy Relationship
Did you know that the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell?
I’m guessing you did, because it’s one of those things that every high schooler learns and probably never uses, unless they go on to become a biochemist. Which, to be fair, is a pretty awesome career choice. But there are many things that are essential to becoming a functional adult, that I’m betting no teacher ever devoted a single unit of a single class to teaching you.
How to do your taxes is one of them. How to have healthy relationships is another.
Of all the things we learn in school, we get zero education about how to have healthy, loving, meaningful adult relationships. If you were lucky, a Geometry teacher doing double duty as a Sex Ed instructor may have mentioned something about consent.
But constructive conflict? Healthy boundaries? Attachment theory? We’re on our own!
As an experienced marriage counselor, I know that healthy relationships are essential to a happy life. Without loving, close, enduring connections with others, the rest of life has little meaning. I also know that we’re not born knowing this stuff, and not everyone grows up watching a healthy relationship unfold between their parents.
How are you supposed to know what’s normal, and what’s cause for concern? How can you build a healthier, more empowered relationship without a vision for what “better” would look like?
That’s why I created this article for you: so you could learn about the basics of healthy relationships, and give yours some care and attention when it’s sending out distress signals. You’ll learn how to evaluate the health of your relationship, and the steps you can take to make it even better. And while you’re here, be sure to take our “How Healthy Is Your Relationship” quiz.
I’ve also recorded an episode of the Love, Happiness and Success podcast on this topic. I hope you’ll join me, on this page, Apple podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen.
Our authentic relationship experts know how to help you learn, grow, and move forward into a bright new chapter.
Signs of a Healthy Relationship
As a marriage and family therapist, I know that most people have a hard time distinguishing between normal relational turbulence, and surefire signals that their plane is about to drop out of the sky.
Without understanding what healthy relationships look like, you’re vulnerable to two major dangers, and either of them can destroy your relationship.
The first is:
- Believing something is very wrong when everything is fine.
I often meet people who believe they should never argue with their partner, or that minor differences are a sign their relationship is doomed. Adult children of divorce are prone to this kind of thinking, as are people who witnessed an unhappy but enduring relationship between their parents when they were kids.
These clients are determined to avoid the same outcome, but they’re not sure what a healthy alternative would actually look like. They may refuse to commit to their relationship because it’s (inevitably) imperfect, see catastrophe looming after every fight, or expect too much and become overly critical, eventually wearing their partner down.
Seeing problems everywhere creates new problems. Both for the partner of the person with unrealistic expectations for the relationship, and for the unrealistic partner, who is prone to reject fundamentally healthy relationships until they learn about what’s normal and what’s not.
And the second danger:
- Believing everything is fine when something is very wrong.
Without an understanding of healthy relationships, you’re likely to be oblivious or unconcerned about serious issues that are present.
This often happens like this: Sara is always telling Mike he doesn’t listen. “I’ll work on it,” Mike says, but he doesn’t step back and assess his listening skills, learn about the fundamentals of good listening, and then practice applying those listening skills with Sara. Instead, he thinks this is just something people say when they’re mad. He’s certainly heard it before.
So Mike stays the course, and Sara gets progressively more fed up. Eventually, she stops trying to be heard and starts withdrawing from the relationship. “Why does Sara seem so distant?” Mike wonders. “Better not ask. I don’t want to start a fight.” Eventually, Sara calls it quits, and Mike feels genuinely blindsided.
I’ve seen this play out between many couples, and it’s always sad. Mike loved Sara and he would have taken action, if he had understood that his relationship depended on it.
Characteristics of a Healthy Relationship
To avoid either of these bad outcomes, there are a few characteristics of healthy relationships that you should know. When I’m assessing a couple’s relationship, these are the components I’m looking for. Get these elements right, and your relationship will fundamentally work.
Emotional safety is the most important component of healthy relationships. Returning to our plane metaphor, emotional safety is your relationship’s engine. Without it, none of the other doodads even turn on.
So what is emotional safety? It’s the basic, felt sense of being loved and respected by your partner. It goes beyond hearing your partner say, “I love and respect you,” although this is nice. It ecompasses actually being shown through your partner’s actions day after day that your needs, rights, and feelings are important to them. So much so that you can feel it.
In an emotionally safe relationship, you know your partner is committed to you, and that you’re not going to be abandoned if you have a disagreement or a bad day. You don’t feel judged by your partner, and so you feel comfortable being your true self with them. You know that they care about you and your wellbeing.
Emotional safety does not mean never having a fight. All couples have conflict, and yes, all couples hurt each other’s feelings occasionally. But when your relationship is emotionally safe, you trust that your partner doesn’t want to hurt you, not emotionally and certainly not physically. Fights are unpleasant, but they’re not threatening to you, or to your relationship. In conflict, you both manage your own emotional reactions and respond with compassion to each other.
This makes it possible to address problems as they arise and work through them together; when your relationship is emotionally safe, you’re not walking on eggshells.
Communication is about how you talk to each other, but also how you behave toward each other. You’re always communicating something, as the saying goes.
Healthy relationships have a lot of positive communication. This can look like words of affirmation, which is one of the five love languages. But it can also look like showing your partner curiosity or affection.
Thoughtful gestures are another form of positive communication. When you know your partner had a hard day, so you take care of the dishes without being asked, that communicates that you understand their experience and want to help. It doesn’t involve words, but it says a lot.
Of course, we also communicate when we’re not feeling so happy with our partners, and how you approach those conversations is even more important. When you have problems, how do you resolve them? In a healthy relationship, things may get heated and passionate, but it’s always respectful. Name calling, aggression, and abandonment are signs of destructive conflict.
On the flip side, if you’re not talking about problems, that’s an issue. Conflict happens in relationships, whether it’s out in the open or not. When you can’t address issues without the conversation becoming a catastrophic fight, things tend to get passive aggressive, resentful, and eventually, disconnected.
Another hallmark of healthy conflict is that it’s productive. When you fight in a healthy relationship, the objective is to find a solution and then to come back together, better than before. It’s like a seasonal wildfire that prevents a forest-engulfing inferno, fertilizing the soil for new growth in the process.
Unproductive conflict is more like a volcano: erupting periodically when the pressure is right, destroying a few villages, and then entering a dormant phase where things seem basically ok…until next time.
Every relationship involves teamwork. I call this the “functional partnership” aspect of your relationship. Who picks up the kids? Who mows the lawn? Who pays the bills?
In a healthy relationship, you’re able to work together in an effective, balanced way. You have dozens of little agreements, many of them explicit, around “how we get stuff done” as a couple. You may argue from time to time about who is or isn’t doing what, especially as circumstances change and these roles need to be rebalanced, but you’re ultimately able to find resolutions that make your relationship feel equal and fair to both of you.
When the “teamwork” component is missing, one or both partners will likely feel resentful. One partner may feel like they have to do everything, or it either won’t be done, or won’t be done properly. The other partner may feel their efforts aren’t recognized, or that they can’t do anything to their partner’s satisfaction, so they might as well stop trying. These couples often get stuck in a state of gridlock, where even talking about how they are or aren’t working together feels difficult.
Without good communication, teamwork is hard. When we feel criticized or taken for granted, we’re not eager to step up our efforts, or to cut our partner some slack. If you’re struggling with teamwork in your relationship, try working on communication first.
In healthy relationships, we enjoy each other’s company in basic ways. That doesn’t mean planning elaborate date nights or expensive vacations. Healthy couples can have a nice time chatting over dinner, or perusing the aisles of a hardware store.
You can have a lot of positive engagement in your relationship even if you don’t share a lot of interests with your partner. If you’re married to a birdwatcher, you don’t have to grab your binoculars and join them in the fields every Saturday morning. But when they come home gushing about the red-flanked bluetail they just spotted, give them your attention, and better yet, your curiosity. Showing interest in your partner’s passions shows your interest in them.
The opposite of this is judging your partner, or wishing that their personality or interests were different than they are. In an unhealthy relationship, the non-birding partner rolls her eyes when her mate gushes about the bluetail. Eventually he stops sharing this part of his life with her, and they grow a little bit further apart.
Shared Hopes and Dreams
Finally, healthy couples share hopes, dreams, and goals for the future.
You can do this in a million different ways, depending on what feels meaningful to you both. Many couples connect around their children, and the values they want to instill in them. Others connect around their home, or shared financial goals, or a particular community or cause that they both care about deeply.
Working together toward shared goals is what gives couples a sense of “us.” Together, you both get to become a part of something bigger than yourselves, and create a life that reflects your love.
If this is all sounding a bit ambitious, since you’re currently arguing about, say, who should take out the trash, don’t fret. Once you have the more fundamental healthy relationship components in place — like emotional safety, communication, and teamwork — your big vision for the future will come together more easily.
Healthy Relationship Quiz
I hope this podcast gives you a clear sense of which parts of your relationship are working well, and which parts could use a little work. If you found this episode helpful, share it with your partner. You may inspire a productive conversation.
Still wondering about how healthy your relationship is? Take our healthy relationship quiz.
Episode Show Notes:
[05:23] Is My Relationship Healthy?
- Consider some areas that need improvement in the relationship.
- Sometimes, there is a general lack of awareness about what is healthy and normal in a relationship or a marriage.
- Take the quiz at growingself.com/relationship-quiz to assess the relative strengths and improvements of different parts of your relationship.
[13:16] Unrealistic Expectations of Relationships
- The irrationality comes when you assume that the relationship is problematic when there aren’t any issues in the first place.
- Our source of information about an ideal relationship is through movies.
- We also learn about relationships from our family of origin. However, they also didn’t receive any knowledge about relationships prior to their partnership.
[23:11] Domains of Relationship Health
- The domains of relationship health are emotional safety, communication, sense of teamwork, level of positive engagement, and supporting each other’s goals.
- The most important domain is emotional safety.
[26:25] Characteristics of an Unhealthy Relationship
- Reacting negatively and violently when you’re feeling emotionally unwell.
- An argument either doesn’t lead to any resolution or worse, triggers a bigger fight.
- Invalidating and judging a partner’s interest that’s different from their own.
[54:33] The Makings of a Healthy Relationship
- A relationship can grow when exploring each domain.
- Both partners should pay attention to the warning signs in their relationship.
- Chances are, if the relationship doesn’t feel good for them on some level, it doesn’t feel good for you either.
Music in this episode is from Bedouine with the song, “One Of These Days.”
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Signs of a Healthy Relationship
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Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self. She is a licensed psychologist, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and a board-certified coach, as well as the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.
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