Much of my professional career has involved speaking, writing, and interpreting research about how to handle relationships that have gone wrong: partnerships that are controlling or toxic, for instance, or where trust has been broken. I’m often asked how to handle infidelity, betrayal, or emotional upheaval within a relationship– and it can be heartbreaking how widespread those issues tend to be.
But just as important is learning to identify when a relationship is going well. Many people are unsure of what to look for, or worse yet, they don’t know all the positives that they truly deserve to have within a relationship. If someone grew up watching their parents or other family members act out chronically toxic patterns, then that person may very well come to define those patterns as "normal," and have difficulty understanding the baselines of what a good relationship looks like.
With that in mind, here is a place to start. Healthy, functional relationships have these characteristics– which apply especially to committed romantic relationships. They shouldn’t be optional. And when they are missing, it’s important to address the problem.
Trust is arguably among the most important relationship characteristics. Without trust, there is the lack of a solid foundation on which to build emotional intimacy, and your potential for hurt– over and over again– grows ever bigger. Without trust, you will be left constantly unsure of whether you can count on your partner to come through for you, and whether or not they really mean what they are saying. There are many ways to build and rebuild trust within a relationship, but if you are not on the path to doing so, your relationship is quite vulnerable to stress and uncertainty.
Communicating honestly and respectfully, especially about things that are difficult, is something that does not come automatically to everyone. We may have learned to keep uncomfortable things under the surface for the sake of harmony or the appearance of perfection, or we also may have never even learned how to acknowledge difficult feelings to ourselves. Still other challenges involve escalating a conflict into a full-out war: lacking the ability to not take things over-personally or lash out when we feel threatened. It’s okay if you have these tendencies; what’s important is that you work on them, as strong and healthy communication is the lifeblood that nourishes good relationships.
No one can be perfectly patient all the time, and factors like lack of sleep, stress, or physical health problems will make you more easily agitated at various points in your life– that’s part of being human. But partners in a healthy, loving relationship extend each other a basic common denominator of patience that allows for peace, flexibility and support when one person is having a bad day or is not at their best. When partners are chronically impatient with each other, they often create a dynamic of bean-counting and resentment, where they are mentally racking up the "offenses" that the other partner has committed. Being able to adjust to the ebbs and flows of a partner’s moods in day-to-day life– within reason– can instead allow a feeling of being unconditionally loved.
Being willing to take another person’s perspective is helpful in so many cases– whether in parenting, being a good neighbor, or even just letting someone merge in front of you on the highway. But it is arguably most important with the person you’ve chosen as a partner. Can you truly put forth the effort to try to understand their perspective, even when you disagree with it? Does their pain spur you to try to help them feel better? Do you feel happy for their triumphs? Empathy is crucial for long-term love.
Affection and Interest
It likely goes without saying that love should be a part of any healthy, committed romantic relationship– in fact I didn’t bother to put that on the main list. But more subtle than love is the expression of that love in the form of affection, and also a genuine interest– a liking– of each other. Small physical gestures of affection like hugs, kisses, and comforting touch can go a long way to keeping each person feeling comforted and secure within their relationship. There is no one "right" amount of physical affection within a relationship– as long a both partners feel comfortable with how their needs match up. The same is true of physical intimacy. As for the "like" factor, this goes further than love– it means that you are truly interested in each other and fond of each other, and that you are together out of attraction (even if no longer the physical infatuation of the early days) rather than obligation.
You’ve heard it before– relationships take compromise. And while some things don’t allow for a perfect scenario on that front (you can’t decide to have half a child, for instance), the key component that makes for good compromise is important no matter what: flexibility. It’s important that both partners show flexibility in day-to-day life and decision-making, because if it is just one partner always doing the bending, that imbalance can grow toxic over time. In healthy relationships, both partners are willing to adjust as needed to the changes and growth– positive and negative– that may come about within their partners during a long-term relationship. And they are able to evaluate on a joint level, especially during conflicts, what matters most to each person within the relationship and how that should be prioritized. Two partners who are never willing to bend to meet the other will be on separate paths altogether before long– a far cry from truly sharing a life together.
The research about the importance of gratitude within relationships is striking; it makes us feel happier and more secure with our partners. And the more that we feel that gratitude, the more we feel appreciated for who we are within relationships: which also improves the relationship’s well-being. Even small expressions of gratitude and appreciation can help improve relationship satisfaction. So the next time you think it doesn’t matter whether you say "thank you" for something your partner did, think again. And perhaps consider the negative feelings all of us tend to have when we notice a lack of appreciation over time.
Room for Growth
Relationships grow "stale" not just because a certain amount of time has elapsed, but because people feel stuck and unable to progress, either as individuals or as a couple. It is unrealistic– and downright unhealthy– to expect that two people will remain the exact same across months, years and decades of a relationship. Hopes, fears, goals, and interests constantly evolve, and that is a very good thing. A relationship doesn’t have to end or even suffer because of this, as long as both people allow each other the space to grow, by not pigeonholing each other into their younger selves, by trying to take an interest in learning what’s important to the other person, and by not setting expectations that are inflexible.
We often associate the concept of respect with people or concepts that are not intimate with each other: respecting one’s elders, respecting symbols of religious faith, or respecting authority. But respect is every bit as important within a close partnership, if not more so. In healthy relationships, people talk to each other in ways that don’t debase, invalidate, or belittle. They value each other’s time and opinions like they value their own. They protect each other’s privacy, and don’t use each other as the butt of jokes or as hired help to constantly clean up the apartment or make a thankless dinner. When respect begins to be eroded within a relationship, it is a long and painstaking road to build it back– the damage is far easier to do than undo.
In healthy partnerships, the tallying that early relationships show ("He picked me up at the airport last week, so I owe him a favor) fades into the background as a new, trusting equilibrium takes its place– you both just generally do for each other when needed. In an ideal situation, the give-and-take roughly works out to equal over time, and neither partner feels resentful. Of course, in many relationships, the give-and-take won’t ever become equal (one partner needs long-term medical care, or is naturally a more happily nurturing person, or struggles with a psychological disorder.) And that can be okay, as long as both partners feel overall comfortable with the level of give-and-take as it exists, and they each find a way to give something to the relationship and their partners– especially in the form of emotional support– when they can.
Healthy Conflict Resolution
Much research has pointed to the fact that the way a couple argues– or doesn’t– can predict a lot about their relationship’s success. We tend to have rose-colored glasses about romance in American culture. We are willing to entertain conflict in the beginning (the boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, then boy-gets-girl-back-and-lives-happily-ever-after trope common in so many popular films, for instance), but once a couple rides off into the sunset together, we expect that things should be a-okay from then on out. Ironically, couples that hide their upset with one another in order to preserve the illusion of everything being perfect are probably far worse off than the couples that express their emotions and work to resolve them as they come up, even when it causes conflict. In short, healthy relationships refrain from stonewalling and escalating into personal attacks when there is a difference of opinion or a problem. They are able to talk it through with respect, empathy and understanding.
Two people who were exactly the same would probably not have much to talk about after a while; after all, they’d already know what the other’s perspective would be, so why bother to listen to it? Of course, two people who are so different that they don’t share each other’s values or daily styles of living are bound to have too little in common to maintain an interest in each other (at best), or be downright incompatible, disliking each other from the start (at worst.) The sweet spot is a relationship where the similarities create a foundation to connect with each other, but individual differences are still respected and valued. Moreover, it’s important that each partner be given the freedom to still live their own life, especially in terms of friendships, professional goals, or hobbies. A strong, healthy relationship brings to mind a Venn diagram– there is adequate overlap to keep the connection strong, but each person has aspects of their life that are theirs alone, and that boundary is respected by both parties.
Openness and Honesty
Different partners have different levels of openness within their relationships– some might be horrified at leaving the bathroom door open, for instance, whereas others will discuss the most intimate of physical details with each other without giving it a second thought. So too is the case with openness about hopes, dreams, and even the details of one’s workday. But no matter where you fall on the spectrum of letting it all hang out, it’s important that there is a solid match– and that honesty underlies whatever disclosures you do make. Partners who mask their true selves, hide their emotional realities, or actively deceive their partners about their habits or their behaviors, are jeopardizing the fundamental foundation of trust that every relationship needs.
Are there other characteristics that are important in your relationship? Let me know in the comments! And if you have a question about your relationships, write anonymously to my column or chat here!