How to Know If You Are In a Healthy Relationship
Relationships are an important part of a healthy life. Research has consistently shown that social connections are critical for both mental and physical health. People who have healthy relationships have better health outcomes, are more likely to engage in healthy behaviours, and have a decreased risk of mortality. For example, research has shown that people who are in a secure romantic relationship have a lower risk of cardiovascular disease.
It is important to remember that there is no such thing as a perfect relationship. Every relationship has a mix of both healthy and unhealthy characteristics. What makes a bond positive is that each person recognises that these bonds take work and each person must strive to maintain the connection and remedy problems.
We often spend a lot of time talking about how to spot a bad relationship, but there is a lot less discussion about what exactly constitutes a healthy relationship. How can you know if your relationship is healthy and what can you do to make an okay relationship even better?
Questions to Ask Yourself
Do you have trust in one another?
Do you respect each other?
Do you support each other’s interests and efforts?
Are you honest and open with each other?
Are you able to maintain your individual identity?
Do you talk about your feelings, hopes, fears, and dreams?
Do you feel and express fondness and affection?
Is there equality and fairness in your relationship?
Every person’s needs are different. For example, some people have higher needs for openness and affection than others. In a healthy relationship, each person is able to get what they need.
Characteristics of Healthy Relationships
While all relationships are different, there are some key characteristics that help differentiate a healthy interpersonal connection from an unhealthy one.
Trust in your partner is a key component of any healthy relationship. Research suggests that your ability to trust others is influenced by your overall attachment style.
Relationships experienced early in life help shape the expectations that you have for future relationships. If your past relationships have been secure, stable, and trusting, you are more likely to trust future partners as well. If, however, your past relationships were unstable and undependable, you may have to work through some trust issues going forward.
Trust is also established by how partners treat one another. When you see that your partner treats you well, is dependable, and will be there when you need them, you are more likely to develop this trust.
Building trust requires mutual self-disclosure by sharing things about yourself. As time passes, opportunities to test and evaluate that trust emerge. As trust grows, the relationship becomes a great source of comfort and security. If you feel that you have to hide things from your partner, it may be because you lack this essential trust.
Openness and Honesty
You should be able to feel that you can be yourself in a healthy relationship. While all couples have varying levels of openness and self-disclosure, you should never feel like you have to hide aspects of yourself or change who you are. Being open and honest with each other not only helps you feel more connected as a couple, but it also helps foster trust.
Self-disclosure refers to what you are willing to share about yourself with another person. At the beginning of a relationship, you may hold back and exercise more caution about what you are willing to reveal. Over time, as the intimacy of a relationship increases, partners begin to reveal more of their thoughts, opinions, beliefs, interests, and memories to one another.
This doesn’t mean that you need to share every single thing with your partner. Each individual needs their own privacy and space. What matters most is whether each partner feels comfortable sharing their hopes, fears, and feelings if they so choose. Healthy couples don't need to be together all the time or share everything.
Differences in opinion over how much honesty there should be in a relationship can sometimes cause problems, however. Fortunately, one study found that when people are unhappy with their partner’s level of openness, they typically discuss the problem with their partner. This is a good example of how addressing a problem openly can help strengthen a relationship.
While your partner may have different needs than you, it is important to find ways to compromise while still maintaining your own boundaries. Boundaries are not about secrecy; they establish that each person has their own needs and expectations.
Healthy boundaries in a relationship allow you to still do the things that are important to you, such as going out with friends and maintaining privacy, while still sharing important things with your partner.
A partner who has unhealthy expectations of openness and honesty might expect to know every detail of where you are and what you're doing, restrict who you can spend time with, or demand access to your personal social media accounts.
In close, healthy relationships, people have a shared respect for one another. They don't demean or belittle one another and offer support and security.
There are a number of different ways that couples can show respect for one another. These include:
Listening to one another
Not procrastinating when your partner asks you to do something
Being understanding and forgiving when one person makes a mistake
Building each other up; not tearing each other down
Making room in your life for your partner
Taking an interest in the things your partner enjoys
Allowing your partner to have their own individuality
Supporting and encouraging your partner’s pursuits and passions
Showing appreciation and gratitude for one another
Having empathy for one another
Healthy relationships are characterised by fondness and affection. Research has shown that the initial passion that marks the start of a new relationship tends to decline over time, but this does not mean that the need for affection, comfort, and tenderness lessens.
Passionate love usually happens during the beginning of a relationship and is characterised by intense longing, strong emotions, and a need to maintain physical closeness. This passionate love eventually transforms into compassionate love, which is marked by feelings of affection, trust, intimacy, and commitment.
While those intense early feelings eventually return to normal levels, couples in healthy relationships are able to build progressively deeper intimacy as the relationship progresses.
However, it is important to remember that physical needs are different for each individual. There is no “right” amount of affection or intimacy. The key to a healthy relationship is that both partners are content with the level of affection that they share with their partner. A nurturing partnership is characterised by genuine fondness and affection for one another that is expressed in a variety of ways.
Healthy, long-lasting relationships, whether they are friendships or romantic partnerships, require the ability to communicate well.
One study found that a couple's communication style was more important than stress, commitment, and personality in predicting whether married couples would eventually divorce.
While it might seem like the best relationships are those that don’t involve conflict, knowing how to argue and resolve differences of opinion effectively is more important than simply avoiding arguments in order to keep the peace.
Sometimes conflict can be an opportunity to strengthen a connection with your partner. Research has shown that conflict can be beneficial in intimate relationships when serious problems need to be addressed, allowing partners to make changes that benefit the future of the relationship.
When conflicts do arise, those in healthy relationships are able to avoid personal attacks. Instead, they remain respectful and empathetic of their partner as they discuss their thoughts and feelings and work toward a resolution.
Strong relationships are marked by natural reciprocity. It isn’t about keeping score or feeling that you owe the other person. You do things for one another because you genuinely want to. This doesn’t mean that the give-and-take in a relationship is always 100% equal. At times, one partner may need more help and support. In other cases, one partner may simply prefer to take more of a caregiver role. Such imbalances are fine as long as each person is ok with the dynamic and both partners are getting the support that they need.
Signs of Problems
Relationships can change over time and not every relationship is 100% healthy all the time. Times of stress, in particular, can lead to unhealthy behaviours and coping mechanisms that can create problems. A relationship is unhealthy when the bad outweighs the good or when certain behaviours are harmful to one or both individuals.
Feeling pressured to change who you are
Neglecting your own needs to put your partner first
Being pressured to quit the things you enjoy
Lack of privacy or pressure to share every detail of your life with your partner
Unequal control over shared resources including money and transportation
Attempts to control your behaviours
Criticizing what you do, who you spend time with, how you dress, etc.
Being afraid to share your opinions or thoughts
Lack of fairness when settling conflicts
Feeling that spending time together is an obligation
Avoiding one another
Some problems may be temporary and something that you can address together, either through self-help methods or by consulting a mental health professional. When it comes to more serious problems, such as abusive behaviours, your primary concern should be on maintaining your safety and security.
How to Build a Healthier Relationship
Toxic behaviours are often a sign that an unhealthy relationship should end. For other problems, there are many ways to fix weaknesses and build a healthier relationship.
Some steps you can take to make your relationship stronger:
Couples who feel gratitude for one another feel closer to one another and tend to be more satisfied with their relationships. One study published in the journal Personal Relationships found that showing gratitude for a partner can be an important way to boost satisfaction in romantic relationships.
Another study found that feeling gratitude for a romantic partner was a predictor of whether a relationship would last.
Keep Things Interesting
Keeping up with the daily grind of work and other responsibilities can sometimes cause couples to fall into the same old routine. Boredom can lead to greater dissatisfaction as a relationship progresses. Researchers have found, for example, that couples who reported feeling bored in the seventh year of their relationship were more likely to experience marital dissatisfaction nine years later.
So what are some things that you can do to keep the romance alive over the long term?
Make time for one another; schedule dates or set aside time each week to focus on one another
Try new things together; take a class or try a new hobby that you can both enjoy
Break out of the same old routine
Find time for intimacy
Even if your relationship seems healthy, it can be helpful at times to step back and look for improvements you can make together. Healthy relationships are marked by an ability to recognise problems, including your own, that might pose a threat to the long-term success of your relationship. By being willing to analyse your relationship, you can work together to build a more fulfilling partnership.
The Student Wellbeing Team