What does it take to have a healthy relationship? We asked our experienced couples’ therapists and discovered some key areas of focus to grow our relationship skills.
In healthy romantic partnerships, both parties feel safe to be vulnerable with each other because their intimate relational needs are known and nourished, versus shut down or cut off. Essentially, partners are respected and assured they can count on the other. Most people think of romance as sending flowers or preparing a fancy dinner, and those things are romantic; however, real romance is defined by the daily acts of kindness and support you demonstrate to one another. Some marks of a healthy romantic partnership include spending quality time together, talking about what’s on one’s heart, consciously focusing on the positives, choosing battles wisely, and cultivating enough space for individual happiness/hobbies, pleasurable physical intimacy, and going on dates.
Many of us weren’t taught how to create the relationships we desire with those we love. When we decide to give couples counseling a try, we learn about the need to fortify communication skills, the ability to fight fair and manage conflict, and how to enhance sexual intimacy, which is often extinguished or diminished by hurtful communication patterns, pornography, substance use, medical challenges, past traumas, or several other circumstances. If you want to create a healthy relationship, here are three things to focus on: knowing yourself, sharing yourself, and listening to understand your partner.
What scars do you hold from your family of origin or previous relationships? Be in touch with those soft spots so that you have a sense of how they influence your ability to be in relationship and what you expect from your partner. It’s specifically helpful to share experiences that have challenged your ability to trust, so that your partner can be more responsive to this need. Be willing to let your partner know about these parts of you, so that they can support you in your healing process.
How are you wired to receive love (i.e. love languages)? Communicate that to your partner. Our natural propensity might be to show love and affection in ways that we enjoy or are comfortable with, as opposed to what our partner enjoys or desires, so this often becomes a growth point for us to lean and live into.
How do you respond to conflict when it arises? Identify your habitual style of reaction (i.e. pursue or withdraw) and design an agreement or covenant with your partner on how you will approach conflict. For instance, if you tend to distance yourself to avoid conflict and your partner wants to talk things out immediately, together you might decide to have a set amount of time on your own to process before you have a conversation. Then when you meet, be strategic and structured about it. Decide who will go first and allow that person to share for ten uninterrupted minutes; then the other person gets a ten-minute turn. Take ten minutes of silence before going another round. Committing to this process can interrupt unhelpful habitual styles of fighting.
There is a saying, “Trust is built in drops and lost in buckets.” That is very true. Trust is built when two people share and show themselves from an authentic place over time. We may be afraid of asking for what we truly want from our partner, but when we do, an entire relational dance is unlocked. The courage to be vulnerable will keep us from getting stuck in a relational rut.
In a healthy romantic relationship, both partners deserve to be seen. It’s difficult to build trust when someone withholds the breadth of who they are and what they feel. After all, how can you really feel supported and assured if you haven’t provided an opportunity to be fully known and accepted for who you really are by your partner?
Listen to understand your partner
It’s probably helpful to first acknowledge the competitive nature of our Western culture and how it covertly fosters an inherent dynamic of winning. Intimate relationships deserve a different paradigm, one that aims at connecting and understanding as opposed to winning and being right. If the goal is understanding instead of winning, how do we work on understanding each other?
Be willing to slow down the conversation. Instead of formulating a response while the other person is speaking, we listen fully to what they are saying so that we can state back to them what we’ve heard. Together, we can attend to and clarify the messages sent and received.
Acknowledge that our way of thinking about or doing a thing is not necessarily the right way or the only way per se. Rather, it is a way we’ve adopted or been taught. Think of a time when, after doing something the way you’ve always done it, you discovered a new way that fit your life even better – maybe it was a new cooking technique or a new route to work. The way you were doing it was fine, but the new way is equally viable.
Realize that listening to someone’s viewpoint does not equal agreeing with it. We can understand where someone is coming from even if we disagree with the conclusions they’ve drawn.
Seeking to understand each other fosters the climate of openness, acceptance, and safety that is essential for a healthy relationship. From here, you can live life together with more satisfaction, strengthened as individuals by your bond.
Clinically Reviewed by Carol Smith, LMFT (TN License #784)