Most of us have heard that healthy relationships are built on a foundation of trust, honesty and communication. But what does that really look like in practice? How do you identify, achieve and maintain these and other characteristics of a happy and healthy partnership?
Although attraction and falling in love may come naturally to many, maintaining healthy relationships involves actively practicing skills and habits, talking about difficult things, and committing to learning, growing and working together.
Some of the signs of a healthy relationship may seem obvious in theory but trickier to achieve in practice, while others might come as a surprise. Thankfully, there are a number of actionable tips and strategies that couples can use to build and maintain happy, healthy relationships that only get better with time.
Trust is often thought of as one of the most important components of healthy relationships, but cultivating and maintaining it is sometimes easier said than done. Past experiences may affect an individual’s ability to trust their partner, and this can lead to ongoing challenges related to insecurity, intimacy and happiness. Work on building and maintaining trust by communicating openly and honestly about any fears or doubts and listening in turn when your partner expresses their own.
Talking about difficult, sensitive things is one of the most important things you can do to maintain a healthy relationship. It can be tempting to sweep things under the rug here and there in order to preserve the appearance of peace or even perfection. However, issues that are not addressed are likely to fester and may lead to resentment and bigger problems down the line. Make an effort to talk about hard, uncomfortable things in a manner that is thoughtful, respectful and honest.
We often assume that relationships will be smooth sailing in the beginning and that conflict will only start to show up later, once the feeling of a shiny, new love has started to wear away. However, research actually shows that couples who can argue and disagree early on are more likely to be happy in the long term(1). This may have to do with the harm that can come from avoiding tough conversations.
When it comes to our relationships, it’s always helpful to try a new perspective once in a while. One helpful technique when faced with conflict or a challenging situation is to take a step back and imagine how you might perceive the situation if you were watching it from afar, or how you might feel about it in the future. One study found that when reflecting on a recent conflict, imagining how one would feel a year into the future allowed for more forgiveness, positivity and improved reasoning strategies(2).
In many romantic relationships, your partner is the person who knows you best, and vice versa. Sometimes, this means assuming that your partner always knows what you want and need, without you having to say anything. This can lead to unnecessary feelings of disappointment or rejection when expectations aren’t understood and therefore are not met.
For example, if you come home at the end of the day and tell your partner that you’ve had a hard day at work, you might want them to sit with you, hold you close and talk about it. But they might think that you would rather be alone or be distracted.
Instead of assuming that your partner knows what you need in a given situation, try telling them what you’re looking for or asking for what you want. Your partner will likely be more than happy to provide what you’re asking for, and relieved to learn how they can best support you.
There is no reason to fear conflict in a partnership; this is a perfectly natural component of any relationship. One of the most telling things about a relationship is not how often a couple argues, buthowthey argue. When conflict arises, focus on expressing and identifying how you feel, and seek to understand how your partner feels. In healthy relationships, the goal is not to be right, but rather to understand.
Try to see things from your partner’s perspective, and meet them with patience and empathy rather than anger or contempt. When communicating your own perspective, try to describe how you feel (e.g. “I feel disappointed because…”) without placing unnecessary blame. Finally, try not to argue or have important conversations via text message — research has shown that couples who do this are less satisfied in their relationships(3).
One of the reasons why relationships tend to be so exciting at the beginning is because both people are curious about each other, interested in learning more and excited to try new things together. In healthy relationships, this sense of curiosity and exploration may change, but it is never lost.
Couples can demonstrate their genuine interest in one another at any stage of a relationship by asking thoughtful, open-ended questions, and planning new, fun activities together. Recognize that no matter how comfortable you become in a relationship, you will never truly be able to know everything about your partner, and that can be part of the magic.
Whether you start out as best friends or develop a friendship as time goes on, this underlies many happy relationships. In fact, research has shown that marriage satisfaction is almost twice as high for those who think of their spouses as their best friends (4).
Of course, having close friends and best friends outside of a relationship is important too. But having a partner who you can confide in and lean on the way you can with your friends is a sign of a bond that is likely to last.
The most effective small gestures are those that take into consideration what your partner wants, needs and values most. For some people, this might mean helping out with the dishes after dinner, while for others, a midday message to say “I’m thinking of you” may be especially meaningful.
Couples can seek to understand what kinds of small gestures make their partners feel most loved and secure, and do these things for one another just to show that they care.
We all change throughout our lives, and couples who are in long-term relationships can expect their partners to change and grow over time as well. As dreams, goals and circumstances change, work on adapting together, and approaching new situations with an open mind, rather than trying to hold on too tightly to your past selves.
When new obstacles arise, try to think of them as opportunities to keep learning and growing. You might find that you become stronger together as you overcome unforeseen challenges.
Sharing interests, hobbies and friends with a partner is great, but it’s equally important to have certain areas of your life that remain your own. Healthy relationships strike a balance between mutual interests and independent pursuits.
Similarly, it’s important that both individuals cultivate healthy and loving relationships with themselves before they can truly love and support each other.
Practicing and expressing gratitude has been linked to overall happiness, and the same is true in relationships(5). Paying attention to the things you like and love about your partner and pointing them out can help not only to make them feel secure and appreciated, but also to keep your own focus on positive things.
Some people might find it helpful to adopt a more formal practice by keeping a gratitude journal and writing down what they appreciate about their partner, but the simple act of looking for things to say “thank you” for rather than for things to criticize can make a huge difference.
Being able to endure challenging times and hardships is essential when it comes to long term relationships. But research actually shows that how partners support each other whengood things happen is an even bigger indicator of relationship satisfaction and success(6).
The happiest, healthiest couples demonstrate what psychologists refer to as “active constructive” responding to good news, which involves celebrating together, being fully engaged without distraction and asking questions that demonstrate genuine curiosity and happiness.
For example, if one person has just shared news about an exciting project that has come up at work, a partner who is engaging in active constructive listening might, in addition to offering their congratulations, ask for more details about when the project is set to begin, who else will be involved and how they will be contributing.
The listener should also make an effort to give their partner their undivided attention in these kinds of situations, by putting their phone or other devices away and focusing solely on the conversation.
Healthy relationships involve trust, communication, appreciation and support, among other things. While we may be able to list these and other key characteristics of healthy relationships, identifying, cultivating and maintaining them often takes time and practice.
There are a number of effective strategies and techniques that partners can use to achieve their relationship goals, and love and support each other over the long term. By learning to identify the signs of a healthy relationship and committing to working on them together, chances are you will find yourself in a partnership that just keeps getting better and better.
Ellie Ellias - Contributing Writer, Physician’s Choice