02/19/19: I get asked a lot about what a healthy relationship is like, or is supposed to be like. The easy answer is that it looks different for every couple. However, I realized a long time ago that if we didn’t grow up with parents who had wonderful ways of relating to one another, that there was virtually no where else to turn to find a healthy couple to learn from. This leaves the ways that happy and healthy couples relate as secrets that many of us don’t get to experience. So I hope that the following article gives some general ideas on how healthy couples function, although the details will be up to each couple to fill in.
Where This Comes From
The following principles are a combination of four lines of research on relationships. The first is from something called relationship “minding”, which was developed by Harvey and Omarzu (2011). The second is from the Gottman Institute, which studies how couples communicate and interact in positive and negative ways. The third is from current attachment research. The fourth is from Interpersonal Neurobiology, a field being created now by Daniel Siegel, among others.
Before going any further, it would be a mistake not to mention things that happen in unhealthy relationships too. Missing some of the things listed later in this article is normal for anyone, however, there are a variety of things that indicate relationships that are unhealthy. These include verbal and emotional abuse (name calling, intimidation, threats, shaming, belittling); patterns of control and isolation; violence of any kind; violation of boundaries; and emotional manipulation. If you are experiencing things like this in any of your relationships, I would suggest getting help right away to address it.
Otherwise, as you read the rest of this post, I’d suggest thinking about a variety of relationships in your life; a close friend, your partner, your ex, a family relationship, or others. Each point will work out differently depending on the relationship, and each may also reveal an area for improvement. Also remember that no one can do these perfectly all the time, and most relationships have issues in some dimensions.
8 Keys to Healthy Relationships
1. Taking Interest: people in healthy relationships take interest in one another. This is usually done in a variety of ways from asking how someone is doing (and not just in the small-talk-passing-on-the-street kind of way), inviting them to do things, and asking deeper questions about how they experienced something rather than just what they did.
2. Acceptance & Respect: this means accepting what we have come to know about the other person and continuing to treat him/her with respect. When we really get to know someone, we find out things that are not that great about them, and they find out the same about us. Continuing to hold the other person in a positive light (and you being held in a positive light too!), are essential practices in healthy relationships. This is otherwise known as unconditional love. Additionally, people in the happiest relationships also talk favorably about each other in social situations, and also try to honor the preferences the other person has for things.
3. Benefit of the Doubt: people in healthy relationships tend to see negative things the other person has done as honest mistakes or due to difficult circumstances, and attribute positive things as the result of the other person just being a good person, due to hard work, or other positive character traits.
4. Meeting Basic Needs: the basic needs that everyone has in relationships are companionship, affection, and emotional support. People in healthy relationships are focused on meeting these as well as other special needs that the other person has, and they are willing to grow to be better at this. Read more about those needs here.
5. Proportion of Positive Interactions: research shows that relationships are the most satisfying when there are quantitatively more positive interactions with the other person than negative. For some relationships there may be a large number of negative interactions, but as long as the number of positive interactions is still significantly higher, relationship satisfaction will remain high. This is why creating distance when couples are arguing a lot is a bad idea. In doing that, you reduce the opportunity for positive interactions because you are reducing interactions overall.
6. Solve Problems: there are a lot of unsolvable problems in relationships that will continue to cycle through, regardless of solutions, and people in healthy relationships find ways to reduce these conflicts as much as possible. Gottman estimates that 2/3 of all couples argue over unsolvable, chronic disagreements and stresses. However, there are also a lot of problems that can be solved, and highly functioning couples will actively compromise and find solutions to those.
7. Rupture & Repair: people in the the healthiest relationships are able to quickly and effectively repair damage (ruptures) to their relationships. This means a) recognizing that you or the other person is hurt, angry, or unhappy with something, and b) addressing it in a way that fixes things in a timely manner. Many people wait too long to initiate repairs, some try but make things worse because they aren’t sure what to do, and others do not do it at all. A good repair usually starts with an apology, read How to Apologize here, or bringing it up in a constructive way.
8. Reciprocity: this means that both people in the relationship are working on this stuff. If only one person is taking an interest, accepting and respecting, giving the benefit of the doubt, meeting the others’ needs, providing positive interactions, and repairing ruptures, then the relationship likely has larger problems that need to be explored.
Previous version 09/22/13