Many of us reached adulthood without having a clear idea of what a healthy romantic relationship between adults can look like. Romance novels and Disney movies (not to mention compulsory heterosexuality and patriarchy) unfortunately often promote ideas that are unrealistic or negative when applied to real life.
At Salt River Therapy, we have supported many individuals and couples in building healthier and happier romantic relationships. While no two relationships are exactly the same, these are six of the foundational signs of a healthy relationship that we come across in our practice again and again.
Respect is absolutely essential in a healthy relationship. Without that deep value and consideration for the other person’s thoughts, desires, experiences, and embodied selfhood, there’s no way to create safety or trust between the two of you. In turn, a lack of safety and/or trust impedes being truly vulnerable with one another, because the risk of being hurt or betrayed is too great.
When respect is present, partners have the ability to choose to be in a relationship with one another on their own terms. There’s no need to worry that the other person will pressure you into something you don’t want or will purposefully disregard your boundaries - you can freely open up to one another from a place of consent.
Empathy opens you up to being able to step outside of yourself and experience things from another person’s vantage point. In a relationship, empathy helps you treat your partner with kindness by anticipating how they may feel in response to your actions. This thoughtfulness also helps you understand and respond to their wants and needs.
Partners don’t always agree with one another or share the same lived experiences, but through empathizing with your partner you are able to validate what they feel or go through even if you do not experience it yourself. Through sharing and feeling together in this way, partners grow in emotional intimacy.
3. Commitment to the relationship
When we say commitment to the relationship, we’re not talking about a marriage license and a mortgage. Commitment to the relationship means consistently and intentionally putting time and effort into the connection with your partner. This includes factors such as providing one another with mutual support, and ensuring that a sense of equity and fairness is maintained in the relationship. Commitment to the relationship also involves articulating clearly what you expect from your partnership, and continuously so as expectations often change over time.
Expressing appreciation for your partner and the relationship you’ve built together is a great first step in showing commitment to the relationship - this demonstrates that you do not take the other person or your connection for granted, and you’re aware it’s an ongoing effort and choice.
This may seem like an obvious point but, to be in a relationship means to relate with one another - in other words, to communicate. Strong communication sets you up to have a strong relationship.
Roughly speaking, communication comes in two forms - communicating with words, and communicating with actions. You can’t substitute one for the other, it’s crucial to have both in a relationship. Communicating with words allows you to share thoughts, feelings, needs, and desires with your partner. Using words provides a level of clarity that cannot always be achieved with actions.
However, communicating with actions is an opportunity to “back up” your words or express understanding of your partner’s words through embodied living. Showing up to the hospital unprompted when your partner’s mother is ill expresses a level of care and concern that isn’t captured by the words “I care about you”. Changing your behavior when your partner points out you often spend time checking your phone during your date night dinners expresses that you value spending time together and it’s important to you that your partner feels valued and heard. Providing that message through actions is more powerful than the overused words “I’m sorry”.
Nothing in life is perfect, and even in the happiest of relationships things will go wrong. Feelings get hurt, opinions don’t line up eye to eye, life experiences from outside the relationship take their toll. Relationship health isn’t measured by the total absence of challenges - how you respond to the challenges is much more salient.
When you and your partner hold divergent desires, can you reach a compromise? When you have an argument, can you resolve it and let it go? If something in your relationship causes you to feel hurt, can you forgive your partner and open yourself up to building trust and connection again?
In healthy relationships, life is not always so serious! The presence of playfulness actually indicates the presence of several other qualities on this list. Respect allows for lighthearted teasing, because at the end of the day partners still have that care and esteem for one another and the teasing is never taken too far. Empathy and emotional intimacy give partners the safety to explore new experiences together.
Playfulness is vital in long-term relationships, particularly monogamous relationships, as it gives partners the chance to feel something new, pushing a little outside of the security of sameness. Laughter and curiosity have enormous potential to restore bonds that may have begun to feel stale.
In a partnership, you are not only a unit as a couple, you are also each individuals. Holding both of these truths at the same time is key to a healthy relationship. Partners should maintain their own individual identities when in a relationship - they need not have all the same friends or the same interests.
Partners are each entitled to their privacy - it’s OK to not share every single thought you have with your partner, or want to spend time by yourself. Similarly, close relationships still have boundaries. You may prefer to have certain topics be off limits, or you may know yourself to be a person who doesn’t like to be touched a certain way. In a healthy relationship, that reality of your experience is honored, rather than breached in a misguided belief that doing so is “intimacy”.
Boost your relationship health
Therapy can improve your relationship well-being, whether you build your interpersonal insights and skills through individual therapy or get right into the relationship dynamic work through couples therapy. If you’ve been considering giving it a shot, click the button below to schedule a free initial consultation. We'd love to learn more about you and help you in determining where and how your relationship can grow.