Relationship conflicts seem to be a regular theme among my clients. From problems with communication to issues being vulnerable with a romantic interest, relationship stress can snowball into bigger issues.
In my experience counseling couples, I’ve learned that partners only pursue therapy when relationship problems begin to interfere with daily life or when there is uncertainty about continuing the relationship.
I’ve seen that chronic relationship stress can aggravate depression or anxiety for one or both partners. Additionally, relationship problems can affect a person’s self-esteem leading to feelings of guilt, shame, or anger. Sometimes, one or both partners employ substance abuse to cope with the conflicts rather than confronting the source.
The specifics of each person’s relationship vary, and no relationship is perfect, but simply put: A healthy relationship makes you feel confident, respected, and supported. Some characteristics that define the health of a relationship is mutual respect, compassion, trust, honesty, safety, and effective communication. While some of these characteristics seem apparent, it can be challenging to put all those into practice.
How to Cultivate a Healthy Relationship
First, it’s essential to lay down the foundation for the basics of any relationship. Bear with me—while some of this information may seem obvious, it is a crucial exercise for a long-lasting healthy relationship.
There are three fundamental principles to building a strong romantic relationship. They are:
1. Knowing Your Wants
While this may seem pretty straightforward, navigating the dating landscape is arguably harder than ever. Most of the single clients I’ve worked with have described to me the constant exhaustion and frustration in trying to find a romantic partner. From short-lived relationships that fizzle out to those that come to a dead-end, the underlying trend seems to be that either one or both parties don’t fully understand their wants.
Knowing what you want is critical. Let’s say you want tacos—would you go to a Thai restaurant? Ridiculous example, I know, but the answer, I hope, would be, “no.” Why? Simply because the Thai restaurant doesn’t specialize in tacos and probably doesn’t make them either. So if you went into said Thai restaurant with the expectations of Mexican fare, you’d be hard-pressed to find what you’re looking for.
What values are you looking for? Do you want marriage in the future? Do you want children? Where do you want to settle down? What personality traits are you looking for? The list goes on. And the good news is that we’re free to choose whatever we want, but with so many conflicting messages, it’s hard to know what it even is that we want sometimes.
Therefore, taking inventory and stock of what you want in a partner is key to starting a healthy relationship off on the right foot. If not, resentment can start to creep in because one or both parties will be unyielding to change.
2. Choosing the Right Person
Yes, I know, obvious. But how do you go about choosing the right person? The key can be to actually look to the past. Look at your past relationships and romantic interests. What has made you happy and what has made you miserable? If you take a moment to ask yourself if there was anything you didn’t like about individual relationships or qualities in previous partners, it will help you make a more refined decision for the next partner you date.
Dating itself is a process of self-discovery, and sometimes we end up in the same relationships over and over again because we ignore red flags. Slow down and reflect on the type of relationship that you imagine having, and notice if there are any differences between that vision and the partners that you have been with.
Selecting the right person is challenging, but important qualities to look for is a partner who is empathetic and supportive. The rest are personal preferences, but reflecting on your choices are essential to make the right decision.
3. Practicing Healthy Relationship Skills
Look, having a healthy relationship takes work in the same way living a healthy lifestyle takes work. Don’t be discouraged if you feel that you don’t have the skills for a healthy relationship—it’s something that’s pre-programmed. Healthy relationship skills such as insight, mutuality, empathy, commitment, emotional regulation, and commitment, along with many others, are things that require regular practice.
Practice makes perfect is the old adage. As you practice the skills, you become better at implementing them into your own relationship. Incorporating healthy relationship skills also has the added benefit of helping you to reduce unhealthy relationship habits, which increases the rapport you have with your partner.
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The Five Skills Every Healthy Relationship Needs
This list of relationship skills is not exhaustive, but from my experience working with couples, these five skills are the key for a healthy and stable relationship. Each of these skills can be learned, but they do require a lot of practice to incorporate into your current or future relationship.
Insight is the ability to understand yourself and the ability to understand your partner. The benefit of insight in a relationship is that you can understand the causes and consequences of your behavior as well as learn from your mistakes. When you fully cultivate insight, you’ll have a much better understanding of yourself and your partner or potential partner. Because how can you expect your partner to understand you if you don’t understand yourself, right? Insight allows you to learn from mistakes that have caused issues in your relationship as well as help you develop foresight into decisions that will either help or harm your relationship.
Everyone has needs, wants, and desires. Mutuality is recognizing that you and your partner have needs, wants, and desires, and it understands that certain sacrifices need to be made so that there’s a high probability that both yours and your partners’ needs can be met. When mutuality is fully developed, you can communicate clearly and effectively, meet your partner’s needs with full support, and consider your partners’ needs and preferences into your decision-making process.
Empathy is the ability to understand or feel what another person is experiencing. Often when couples have come into my office after years of relationship conflict, the biggest thing that seems to be lacking empathy and support for one another. Each partner becomes entrenched in their position and refuses to see things from the other’s perspective. Empathy is natural early on in the relationship, especially in the “honeymoon phase.” Over time as the inevitabilities and stressors of life happen, empathy can erode and turn into contempt or criticism.
To cultivate understanding requires a few things. Firstly, it requires being present and being vulnerable with your partner. To be more empathetic, it also requires that you consider your partner’s needs, be more compassionate, and sometimes even take on some of your partner’s responsibilities to lighten their load. All of the strategies mentioned above help you to really put yourself in your partner’s shoes, but it also helps deepen the trust that you have with your partner. Empathy also increases the respect and admiration you have for your partner.
Commitment is an essential ingredient in any healthy and long-lasting relationship. Any time we commit to something like either a cause, ambition, or activity, we oblige ourselves to do something. A relationship is no different. When we commit to a person, we’re inherently saying that we’re willing to make a sacrifice and dedicate ourselves to working through something. As a word of caution, commitment doesn’t mean ignoring abusive or manipulative behaviors in a relationship.
Many of us have committed to jobs or academic pursuits, and those endeavors don’t always have the most relaxed or most forgiving days. Despite that, we continue to push through. A relationship is similar when you commit to someone. Sure, there are hardships, but it means that, despite the difficulties, that you and your partner are both loving, trusting, open, supportive, sacrificial, and patient.
5. Emotional Regulation
Emotional regulation is the ability to regulate your responses in a variety of situations, and it’s vital for relationship confidence. Additionally, emotional regulation is critical because in relationships there are situations that try our patience or our ability to cope, so being in control of how you feel can help you make sound decisions with your partner. Oftentimes, when we act on emotions, we can make less-than-ideal choices.
Emotional regulation is the ability to tolerate the discomfort, maintain your self-respect, all the while keeping your feelings leveled. It allows you to keep things in perspective so avoid becoming overly dramatic. Emotional regulation itself enables you to think more clearly about your decisions and actions, as well as how that impacts yourself and your partner.
Everyone deserves to be in a healthy, loving relationship and with the right person by their side, and it is entirely attainable But as with any healthy lifestyle change, it requires dedication and consistency to implement.
In addition to incorporating healthy relationship skills, we need to check our own motives above all else, so that we don’t bury our self-worth in the opinions of others because when we know who ourselves and our beliefs it empowers to move forward along our chosen path. It is only then we can develop our personal emotional and relational maturity, and have realistic expectations of our partners.
Finally, the overall mark of health in a relationship is understanding that people change. And that every relationship is dynamic. And growth is vital — but we have to be sure we’re growing in the same direction as our partners.