What is a healthy relationship?
We are in relationships with many people in our lives: with our friends, romantic partners, hook-ups, friends with benefit, our spouse, work colleagues, business partners, neighbours, etc.
Not all relationships are healthy.
A healthy relationship is when people develop a connection, even a short-lived one, based on mutual respect, trust, honesty and support.
The ability to nurture healthy and positive relationships with people close to us has life-long beneficial effects.
It is important to learn how to do that.
How can we recognize what makes for healthy relationships?
Compatibility: Love and compatibility are not the same thing. Falling in love with someone doesn’t necessarily mean they’re a good partner for us. It’s possible to fall in love with a person who doesn’t treat us well, who makes us feel worse about ourselves or who doesn’t have the same values. It is important to take the time to think deeply about what exactly we are looking for in a relationship. This means learning how to be true to ourselves and honest with others about our values, our desires and our needs. It can feel scary to be real about who we are and what we want but this means building relationships on authentic terms. It’s also important to take the time to get to know someone when starting a new relationship. This can help us get a good sense of what this person is about, and figure out whether their values match our own and whether their personality is a good fit with our own. This means being clear with ourselves about what are “deal-breakers” (things that are absolutely a no-go for you in a relationship) and what qualities you absolutely require in a relationship and then, listening to our gut. Sparks can be fun, passion can feel intoxicating, but that doesn’t always mean compatibility!
Honesty: Honesty means being real about our needs, intentions and desires in a relationship. Honesty doesn’t mean not having privacy and having to share private information with your family, peers or partner(s). It means communicating openly about the important information that impacts the relationship and expecting the same from those around us. Being honest has nothing to do with being angry, hurtful or mean. Sometimes we think being honest means being “brutally” honest and so, it feels bad. Being more honest is about being clearer, more specific and more sincere about our needs, our emotions and our boundaries. It means showing our authentic self.
Reliability: Being reliable means that if you say you will do something, you do it. People who can be trusted to follow through in the little things are the people we trust with the bigger things. This means, not saying yes to a dinner out when you are not sure you can go. It means showing up or calling when you say you will. It means doing the task you said you’d take care of. Of course, sometimes, things out of your control come up and you need to cancel or reschedule. But being truthful and open about what’s going shows how you value the other person, their time and their trust. The benefits of being reliable are that people trust you and feel they can count on you.
Accountability: In a relationship, being accountable means that each partner takes responsibility for their own feelings and behaviours and for their contributions to the relationship, good and bad. To be accountable to someone, we have to take responsibility for both the intentions and impacts of our behaviours, as sometimes we might not have meant to hurt someone but our decisions, words or actions did. We don’t blame outside things for our mood or our reactions, instead we are honest about our needs and emotions.
For example, instead of “It’s your fault if I am grumpy today, you keep nagging me”, try “I need to let you know that I am feeling anxious today, I have a lot on my mind and so, could we talk about this later? I need to take care of a few things before I can do what you’re asking me. I know it means a lot to you, so I want to give it my full attention.”
*It is important to note that when someone abuses or hurts someone else, this is not about the person who was abused having to feel responsible for how they made the other person angry or something like that. It is not rare that people who abuse others try to blame the person for what happened, like “You should not have made me feel so jealous, you know how it gets me riled up”. No one else but the abuser is responsible for their behaviors. Read more on ways to be accountable when you have been abusive.
Sharing power: It is important to be mindful of power dynamics in relationships. In this context, power is the ability to influence or outright control the behaviour of people. Sharing power is a big part of a healthy relationship. This means that no partner has more say than the other about things that impact them both. Everyone has the same amount of input over big and small decisions like: “should we move in together?”, “what should we do during the holidays?”, “where should we go for dinner?”, “what color should we paint this wall?”, etc. Everyone should feel safe, respected, and have the room to voice their desires, views and concerns in a relationship.
Obviously, when something is about our own body or lives, while we may appreciate our partner’s thoughts, we are the ones in charge (e.g. when someone is pregnant, transitions gender, wants a tattoo, want to wear a certain piece of clothing, wants to take a class, etc.).
One of the ways to do that is to make room for open communication about what each person wants in a given situation and then, to come up with answers that meet everyone’s needs. Many of us think that the only way to get along is to either a) agree to do something we don’t want to, b) force the other to do what we want or c) compromise which means that each side has to make concessions. Compromising is important but, when possible, we can also use our imagination to come up with solutions where all parties have their needs met instead of watering them down. For example, it’s Friday night, one person feels tired and want to stay in with their sweetheart, the other craves seeing friends and being social. Instead of one of them either going against what they want to do to please the other, or both of them compromising by let’s say going out but for a really short time (and both being grumpy about it), perhaps they can both get their needs met with one going out with friends right after work for a couple hours of socializing while the other comes back home, relaxes in a bath with a good book until they reunite to watch a movie together on the couch. When we are real about what we need and make room to be creative around solutions, it is possible to find ways for everyone to feel seen and respected.
Healthy physical boundaries: Even in long-term committed relationships, healthy physical boundaries are important. This means being clear with yourself and your partner about what you are comfortable with when it comes to different types of touch and sexual activity. We don’t ever owe anyone any kind of physical intimacy. Consent is important even in long-term committed relationship. Be sure to communicate those boundaries with your partner(s), and make sure you’re making the space for your partner to do the same.
Healthy emotional boundaries: It’s perfectly ok (and in fact, super healthy) to create emotional boundaries in our relationships. Emotional boundaries can help us keep a strong sense of self and protect us from feeling manipulated or emotionally drained in a relationship. Emotional boundaries help us separate ourselves from the problems or feelings that our partner(s) might be experiencing (this is sometimes easier said than done, of course). This should not be mistake with being unsympathetic, uncaring or unsupportive – it’s about recognizing that it’s not up to you to solve another person’s problems for them (no matter how much we love and care for that person). We can be there for our partner(s) or people around us without getting ourselves invested in “fixing” them and feeling responsible for their feelings and their needs.
What does that look like? Here are some examples of poor emotional boundaries: “You can’t go out with your friends without me. It makes me feel too jealous. You have to stay home with me” “Sorry pals, I can’t go out with you tonight, my girlfriend gets really angry when I go out without her”, “I’d love to go to university in Toronto, but my mom would never forgive me for moving so far away”
In each of these scenarios, the person is either taking responsibility for actions/emotions that are not theirs or they are demanding that someone else take responsibility for their actions/emotions. Setting healthy emotional boundaries is understanding that we don’t control other people’s emotions and that no one controls ours. Instead of falling for the idea that controlling another person will help us feel better or prevents us from feeling bad, partners should be all about supporting one another in their growth and in feeling fulfilled.
For example, instead of “you can’t go out with your friends without me, etc.” try “I know how important it is to you to stay connected with your friends from summer camp, have the best time tonight, let’s talk tomorrow”. If that person feels worried and anxious, they can examine why and take care of themselves. This can mean being accountable for our own feelings and owning that we are not feeling anxious because of anything our partner has done, maybe a past partner cheated and now, it’s hard to not be suspicious. When that’s the case, we can make a point of doing things that helps soothe the hard feelings and lean into rebuilding our ability to trust. We can work to better understand the way we think and react and maybe even seek professional support around why, let’s say, we feel abandoned when a partner does things without us. In this scenario, everyone wins!
Sometimes though, taking care of ourselves means choosing to invest in relationships with people who show us that they are honest and trustworthy because having emotional boundaries does not mean accepting to be mistreated, quite the opposite – see below about ‘trust’.
Trust and respect: Respect is one of the fundamental forces behind healthy relationships. Respect is a way of feeling about people, showing esteem or honor for them. It means having high regard for them, who they are and their qualities and then, treating them as such. An example of respect is truly listening to someone speak because we believe that their opinions and who they are matter. The opposite of respect is contempt which is the feeling that a person or something is beneath our consideration, worthless, or deserves scorn. That might just be the number one enemy of a healthy relationship.
In every relationship, communication can sometimes break down, we can go through rough patches, we can disagree deeply. Without respect for your partner, it becomes easier to doubt their intentions, to dismiss their opinions, to resent or judge their choices. But what does it look like to respect the person you are in a relationship with? Respect means that you recognize and demonstrate that you understand how your partner is a whole person with different experiences, views and needs. That they have feelings and need that deserve our care and consideration. Click here to read more about ways to show respect in a relationship. From respect flows trust. That’s because, when there is mutual respect, we can feel safe sharing our deepest, most intimate selves with each other. We can talk about our feelings and our needs and they can do the same and that means, we can trust one another.
When people talk about trust, they also mean trusting them to do the things they have said they’d do, including respecting agreements you have, for example, being faithful if you have decided to be exclusive with one another. While trust is much more than just not cheating, respecting our agreements comes from being respectful and having esteem for our partner(s). Thinking highly of our partners means we treat them a certain way and, on the flipside acting in ways that means our partner(s) can think highly of us means we can benefit from our partner(s)’s trust.
Nurturing our full selves: While a new relationship can make us feel really excited, and we might want to spend all of our time together, or text until late into the night every single night, it’s important to try to keep a sense of balance in our own lives and personal relationships. It’s okay (and in fact healthy!) for each person to maintain their own identity and full lives including their own interests and other important relationships. Regularly taking time for ourselves to get in touch with our own feelings and needs benefits everyone. Spending time apart, staying in touch with our friends and doing the things we liked doing before the relationship began, is really important.
Make sure you spend time nurturing the things that make you you and make your life feel full and interesting even if all you want to do at first is hangout with your new partner. In the long run, it will lead to a happier, healthier relationship where everyone feels like they get to be their best selves.