Alex and Jamie met in their early 30s. They met through friends and shared similar interests in travelling, exercise, outdoor life and values of wanting to be in a long-term relationship with a partner. They both wanted to have a long-term relationship with the prospect of having a family one day. They openly discussed their desires for the future and often had long conversations about life and past hurts. They feel compassion towards each other and the difficulties they have faced in their lives. Whilst moving in with each other after dating for a year felt like a natural step forward, at the same time, they had to negotiate with each other how they would share the space and other practicalities. They had a mutual respect and trust in each other being there during difficult times.
When Alex’s company had restructuring and Alex was made redundant, the couple leaned in on each other even if it was financially more difficult. Their lives were transformed with a birth of their first child and even when lack of sleep and the demands of taking care of a new-born made them exhausted, they felt supported and comforted by each other’s company. When they argued, they reminded each other that they are on the same side and they were soon after able to repair the relationship and bring the relationship back to a state of harmony.
Perhaps you are looking for a relationship? Or your current relationship feels unsatisfactory? You are wondering what does a healthy relationship looks like? Perhaps you have never experienced a relationship that could be described as a healthy one and your experiences with relationships may be been full of drama and hurt.
I wanted to write about the qualities that healthy relationships have and offer some guidance on how to have a more satisfying and fulfilling relationship. Previously I have written about 7 Steps in transforming your relationship which talks about identifying the cycles you may be stuck in your relationship and how to start transforming your relationship to become a more satisfying one for both you and your partner.
“I feel emotionally and physically safe with my partner”
The fundamental quality of a healthy relationship is that “I can be me in the relationship”. I can trust that my partner respects and supports me, whilst I offer the same for my partner. Being able to be ‘me’ means that there is compassion and we are accepted with ‘warts and all’ by our partner.
A healthy relationship has open and honest communication even about the most difficult matters. In a healthy, well-functioning relationship I can share with my partner those parts of myself that feel vulnerable and I trust that my partner honours my pain and does not use my vulnerabilities against me when we argue.
A healthy relationship has mainly a secure bond (attachment) and an essential characteristic of it is consistency in interactions. Of course there are times of interruptions but they are repaired and this general consistency in interactions increases emotional safety.
“We are committed to our relationship”
In a healthy relationship, the partners are commitment to each other and their relationship even when facing difficult times. They turn to each other for solutions rather than lean outside to look for solutions from the outside world. When difficulties arise and we feel unsafe it would be easy to seek solutions from outside of the relationship, in a healthy relationship the partners trust that by being committed to the relationship and wanting to work through difficulties, they can together overcome obstacles and find their way back to a more harmonious and loving existence.
“I am an individual in a relationship”
Many people feel that they lose their identity when they enter a relationship. Initially, when the brain & body is flooded with the love hormone of oxytocin, all you may wish to do is to be with your partner and do what they want to do. After a while, usually after two years, according to the couple’s developmental model (Bader & Pearson, 1988) the relationship enters a stage of finding one’s own identity again as part of a couple. This means about having both shared and individual interests and being able to tolerate that your partner may have different interests and/or views from you.
However, if this individualisation is experienced as a threat to the relationship, the relationship may have difficulties, for example:
- A partner has experienced inconsistent parenting and possibly as a result fears abandonment when his/her partner engages with their interests
- A partner becomes or is so independent that they do not consider the attachment needs of their partner or the relationship is not prioritised anymore for having developed an insecure-avoidant attachment adaptation.
A previous post talks about how childhood relationships impact adult relationships.
“We share values and interests”
Another important factor for having a healthy and successful long-term relationship is the couple sharing values and interests. To assess whether a date would be a compatible partner it is important to discuss values from the beginning, especially values relating to whether one wishes to build a long-term relationship with a view of having children or not. Values guide our decisions in life and sharing values help a couple to navigate together difficult challenges in life. If values are very different concerning core questions in life, it may become difficult to find a shared path and direction in life.
Similarly, having some shared interests with your partner creates a sense of togetherness and being best friends as well as lovers. Talking about and doing things that both you and your partner enjoy add flavour to your relationship. For couples who, for example, initially get together for being largely only physically attracted to each other, it can be more difficult to build a long-term emotionally satisfying relationship.
“We have fun”
“Couple who play together, stay together”. Playfulness is essential for a healthy couple and it is a sign of the couple being able to relax and feel emotionally safe with it each other. From a neurobiological point of view, we can only be playful when fully relaxed and we feel accepted by our partner. Playfulness also encourages light-hearted communication and having fun together creates beautiful memories for the future and times when life is less rosy. Also having fun releasing well-being hormones in the brain that contribute to your general well-being.
“We communicate with each other about our personal boundaries”
Being able to say “no” in a relationship is important not only for our own well-being but for the well-being of our relationship. In a healthy relationship communicating and respecting each other’s boundaries also creates a sense of equality. As strange as it may seem but asserting boundaries can help to keep the relationship “alive” and give it energy. In a relationship where partners are afraid to communicate their boundaries, for example, a partner may take advantage of the other partner who then may feel used.
“We repair our relationship after a disruption”
Taking responsibility for when we hurt each other; being willing to look ourselves in the mirror and owning our mistakes are also a part of a healthy relationship. Arguments and both partners asserting their views and boundaries can bring a sense of energy in the relationship as long as the couple can repair the disruption in the relationship.
“We can talk about and be open about our physical needs and preferences”
Sex is like the glue that keeps a romantic relationship together. Satisfying physical intimacy calls for emotional safety and feeling like one can truly express his/her sexual needs and fantasies to his/her partner. In a healthy relationship, no topic is a taboo and partners co-create sexual experiences that satisfy both partners.
Healthy relationships come in many packages and this is a rough outline of happy and fulfilling relationships. It is not an all-inclusive list by any means. If you find that you are in a relationship that is less than satisfying, you may find this post helpful in improving your relationship “7 Steps in transforming your relationship.” Couples therapy or even individual therapy that focuses on addressing your relationship can be helpful in understanding and changing the dynamic in your relationship. If you are looking for a psychologist to help you to transform your relationship, please find out more from my Services page or book online a free 15min phone consultation to discuss your specific situation.