Healthy Relationships: Definition, Characteristics, and Tips
By Arasteh Gatchpazian, M.A., Ph.D. Candidate
What is it like to be in a healthy (or unhealthy) relationship? You may have an idea from popular media or your own personal experience. Keep reading to find out what psychological research has to say.
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If you’re like me, a classic rom-com (romantic comedy) always sounds like a good idea for movie night. These movies often show you what healthy and unhealthy relationships look like, but are these accurate representations of real-life relationships? Like many sources of popular media, they may be setting standards that are too high or perhaps even too low.
It’s no doubt that romantic relationships require work from each party. It’s one thing to begin a new relationship, but it’s a whole other ball game to maintain it for the long-term (if that’s the goal). What exactly are the components of a healthy relationship? If you have a working definition of this, keep it in mind as you read through this article and reflect on whether you have the same relationship by the end.
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What Are Healthy Relationships? A Definition
When you think of a “healthy relationship”, what are the first few things that come to mind? A healthy relationship can be difficult to define because you may have a different experience of relationships compared to me, or to anyone. Maybe you thought of aspects like clear communication, honesty, or displays of affection.
Although our relationship experiences are unique, there are still some essential elements that should be in every relationship for it to be healthy and fulfilling for everyone.
In psychology, many researchers conceptualize relationship quality in terms of how satisfied each partner is in the relationship. This focuses on the hedonic dimension of the relationship (pleasure or happiness). Nevertheless, it may be clear to you that there is more to healthy relationships than how good you feel.
That’s why researchers have also looked at the eudaimonic dimension of relationship quality, or relationship flourishing. Relationships can be a source of meaning, characterized by commitment, sacrifice, and personal growth (Fincham et al., 2007; Stanley et al., 2006; Finkel et al., 2014).
Recently, a few researchers decided to examine this by creating a questionnaire to assess relationship flourishing (Fowers et al., 2016) and examined four dimensions:
If you want to assess flourishing in your relationship, it can be helpful to reflect on what your relationship’s strengths and weaknesses are. Are you deriving a sense of meaning from your relationship? Does it feel like you’re celebrating your partner’s accomplishments more than yours? Are they putting in more work than you are? These are all important questions to consider when assessing the quality of your relationship. It can provide some guidance to areas you may want to target for improvement.
Video: 8 Habits of Healthy Relationships
Healthy vs. Unhealthy Relationships
Although it’s important to learn how to identify when a relationship is going well, it’s just as important to look out for signals that a relationship is not going well. Keep reading to learn about the telltale signs and characteristics of unhealthy relationships.
Communication in Unhealthy Relationships
A key aspect of relationships is communication. Many times, conflicts arise in romantic relationships because of a misunderstanding or lack of communication.
You may have heard of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, which is a metaphor that depicts the end of times in the New Testament. It describes conquest, war, hunger, and death. Researchers have applied this metaphor to describe faulty communication (or lack thereof) in a romantic relationship. These are often predictors of divorce, and understandably so (Gottman & Levenson, 2000)
The first horseman is criticism. When you criticize someone, you are attacking them to the core of their character. This is different from offering a helpful opinion or voicing a complaint.
An example of a complaint would be: “I was upset to see the dishes hadn’t been washed because I thought we agreed that Wednesdays are your day to wash them.”
A criticism, however, would sound like: “Of course you didn’t wash the dishes, I can’t believe how selfish you are. You only think about yourself.”
Can you see how the criticism is a lot harsher and can escalate a small mistake into a huge fight? Although constant criticism is a red flag, it isn’t necessarily the end of a relationship. You want to be able to identify when this pattern is occurring so that you and your partner can work at improving it, especially if either of you is feeling constantly rejected or hurt.
The real problem is when criticism turns into contempt, which is the next horseman.
Contempt goes beyond criticism as it encompasses your moral superiority over the other person. This can include mocking them, ridiculing, calling them names, mimicking their body language, or scoffing. The intention is to make them feel despised or unworthy, which is a terrible feeling to instill or receive from someone.
The third horseman is defensiveness, which is usually in response to criticism. It’s natural to be defensive sometimes, especially if you’re particularly stressed or tired. Sometimes you might feel that you’re not receiving the right treatment or you might play the victim so that the blame is no longer on you.
Defensive responses often shift the blame onto the partner, which usually isn’t the best way to go. It tells the other person that you may not be taking them seriously and that you won’t own up to your mistakes.
For example, if your partner tells you that you forgot to pick up something in the grocery store, a defensive response might be “I was just so busy today, and at least I went to the grocery store. Actually, you could’ve helped me out and done the groceries yourself”. See how the blame is being shifted to the partner here?
A non-defensive response would be something like, “Sorry about that! I can pick that up tomorrow morning.” Here there is an apology and solution provided without any defensiveness.
The fourth horseman is stonewalling, which is usually in response to contempt. This happens when the listener who is receiving the sarcastic remarks or ridiculing comments ends up shutting down and no longer responds to the partner. They ‘stonewall’ the partner and try to avoid confrontation by acting busy, disengaging from the conservation, or simply leaving their presence.
The three other horsemen before this can eventually build up to be too much for either partner, which can finally end up in stonewalling. This is where it gets especially tricky because stonewalling means there is little to no communication happening, which is problematic for any relationship.
Video: Four Horsemen of the "Relationship" Apocalypse
How to Build Healthy Relationships
Now that you know what a healthy relationship is and isn’t, how do you go about building one? Here are a few important elements to consider when you are developing an intimate relationship:
1. Develop a strong emotional connection: According to years of psychology research, one of the most important predictors of a healthy relationship is being emotionally responsive (Lemay et al., 2007). This involves sending cues (e.g., verbal, physical) to your partner and having them respond to it (e.g., soothing, encouraging, etc).
2. Be vulnerable with each other: When partners open up to each other, this helps develop and strengthen mutual trust.
3. Be honest: This can go hand-in-hand with vulnerability, but also encompasses other forms of communication. A healthy relationship will likely not be based on lies.
4. Have ‘healthy’ conflicts: Conflicts are inevitable in any relationship, but how you go about dealing with them is essential. Remember the four horsemen of the apocalypse, and avoid resorting to criticism or stonewalling. Read the next section to learn the antidotes to the four horsemen.
Video: Skills for Healthy Romantic Relationships
How to Maintain Healthy Relationships
There are some things in life that are ‘one and done’ activities. For instance, you can do an at-home workout, try a new food, or watch a movie. Once you do it, you’ve done it. Then there’s another category of activities that require continual practice. For example, if you want to get into meditation, you don’t meditate once and call it done. You have to keep doing it until you improve and develop to the skill level you’re hoping for.
The same thing can be applied to our romantic relationships. You have to continually put in the work, because not only is each person in the relationship evolving, but the relationship as a whole is always evolving too. There are cycles of ups and downs, and sometimes there will be more challenges than you think you can handle. So how exactly can you maintain healthy relationships and keep them from spiraling into unhealthy relationships?
Communication in Healthy Relationships
You read about the four horsemen earlier, which contribute to unhealthy relationships. How can you combat this? Luckily, there are also antidotes to the four horsemen, and these can help you maintain a healthy relationship (Lisitsa, 2013).
1. Antidote to criticism: Gentle start-up
Shift your ‘you’ statements to ‘I’ statements. Instead of criticizing the other person, focus on expressing how something made you feel so that you are clearly communicating your concerns.
2. Antidote to contempt: Appreciation and respect
As mentioned earlier, contempt shows up from a position of moral superiority and is incredibly detrimental for a relationship. To combat this, it is important to build a relationship of mutual respect and kindness. To do this, it’s helpful for you and your partner to regularly express gratitude and affection, so that this becomes a habitual part of the relationship. This will act as a buffer against expressions of contempt.
3. Antidote to defensiveness: Take responsibility
When you become defensive, you don’t fully own up to your mistakes. By taking responsibility, you signal to your partner that you are not shifting the blame onto them, which prevents a further conflict in the relationship.
4. Antidote to stonewalling: Physiological self-soothing
Although stonewalling involves withdrawal, there are physiological effects that are still taking place (e.g., increased heart rate, stress hormones). If you ever feel like you are stonewalling during a conversation or conflict with your partner, it can be useful to stop the conversation and ask for a break. Sometimes a long conversation is too much for you both emotionally and physiologically. It can help to take a quick break to calm your system (e.g., go for a walk, read, or watch a show). Then return to the conversation when you’re ready.
More Tips for Healthy Relationships
You may have heard of ‘love languages’ before, which first made its debut in a book by Dr. Gary Chapman (1995). In his book, he dives into the principles of communicating love to your partner, with qualitative research from his 30 years of marriage counseling. The five love languages he identified are:
1. Gift giving
2. Words of affirmation
3. Acts of service
4. Quality time
5. Physical touch
It can be useful to find out what you and your partner’s love language(s) are to ensure you are both communicating your love in the form best suited for each other. For example, my partner and I both have “words of affirmation” as our top love language, so we make sure to always communicate affection with our words.
Here is a link to some love language quizzes.
Activities for Healthy Relationships
Here are a few tangible actions you can take today that may help strengthen your relationship:
Video: The Difference Between Healthy and Unhealthy Love
Articles Related to Healthy Relationships
Want to learn more about health relationships? Here are some more related articles to read.
Books on Healthy Relationships
Here are a few books that may help you learn more about healthy relationships.
If you read this article and realized your relationship is truly unhealthy, you can either work toward fixing this or it might be time to end it. Relationships require work from each partner, and it’s okay if you go through periods where you don’t think it’s working out.
Just remember that both partners should work toward improving the relationship because it’s unfair for that to fall on one person. As a gentle reminder, it’s also okay if the relationship needs to come to an end. A relationship should not be more stressful than it is enjoyable most of the time.