Believe It or Not, Fighting Can Be One of Them
So you just had a big argument with your partner. Maybe it got heated, maybe you said some things that you regret or maybe your feelings got hurt by something that was said. Either way, you’re left shaken and wondering if this means your relationship is unhealthy?
The truth is healthy relationships are not all romantic walks on the beach, fun dinner dates, and great sex. And they seldom look anything like the idealized versions we see in movies or on influencers’ social media feeds.
Relationships are sometimes messy. There are disagreements and arguments. There’s hardships and tough times, hurt feelings, and even tears. But if your relationship is “healthy,” your time together will be, on average, more positive than negative.
What a Healthy Relationship Looks Like
“It’s kind of like the stock market graph,” explains Peter Kanaris, psychologist and sex therapist. “If you look at the graph, it’s up and down, but over time, is your market graph going up? And is there a bounce back after you take a hit?”
If you have more good moments than bad ones (like the fight you just had), you’re probably OK.
In fact, research by Dr. John Gottman suggests that there is actually a ‘magic ratio’ in relationships of 5 to 1. For every one negative moment (say, a hurtful comment), there should be at least five positive interactions outweighing it. These positive moments can be big (Think: a romantic getaway), or they can be as small as a kiss or an inside-joke that the two of you share.
Of course, it takes time to figure out if your relationship is more good than bad.
“I encourage people to take a year,” says Kanaris. “Go through all four seasons. See your partner in action, not just at the party, but at the after-party. On a sunny day and a rainy day and a snowy day. Have an opportunity to go together through a little bit of life.”
Every relationship is a little different, which means that the definition of ‘healthy’ can vary by couple. That said, there are some signs you can look for over time, which psychologists, couples’ therapists, and researchers agree are important components in a healthy relationship. These include:
1. You Actually Like Each Other
Sounds obvious, right? But the truth is, in an unhealthy relationship, liking each other can go out the window if repeated unresolved conflict leads to a build-up of hurt and resentment.
“In a healthy relationship, couples have a strong sense of fondness, respect, and admiration for one another,” says Kimberly Panganiban, licensed marriage and family therapist. In other words, a couple in love will be genuinely kind to one another.
This means you’re not just lovers, you’re also friends who enjoy each other’s company.
“You have to enjoy living life together,” says Nicholas Hardy, a psychotherapist. “Life is too short to not enjoy the one you are doing it with.”
2. You Make Time to Nourish Your Relationship.
All relationships take work.
“We think that marriage [and long term relationships] will be the thing we turn to when everything else sucks,” says Nick Bognar, licensed marriage and family therapist. “Work sucks, life is hard, I’m frustrated, but I will go home and my partner will make me feel better and I’ll have sex and that whole mechanism will work for me without much input.”
But in reality, he continues, the mechanism falls apart without active attention and maintenance. “The relationship needs to be treated like a passionate job. You need to make time for it, show up for it, be reliable with it, feed it, and devote yourself to it.”
This can involve date nights, or it can be as simple as making time alone to talk about your day, sans interruptions (including your phones). With the rise of technology, it can be easy for one or both of you to spend more time with your devices than each other. And when life gets busy with work, kids, etc. – partners may begin to take each other for granted.
Healthy relationships can also include couple’s therapy if you think you need it or are facing a difficult challenge or adjustment together. “Even a good relationship can improve,” says Hardy. It doesn’t mean you’re broken. It means you’re trying to prevent things from getting bad and working on becoming a better partner.
“People who make it their conscious responsibility to nourish their relationships have the best relationships,” Bognar adds. “People who just expect to show up and have it serve them are often frustrated and lonely.”
3. You Feel Safe Being Yourself, But You Also Push Each Other to Grow
You should still maintain an identity that is separate from your relationship. You should still feel like you. But your relationship should be interdependent, meaning you both can rely on each other and work towards a common future.
This is important, says Hardy, because if you are only comfortable but never challenged, the relationship can become stagnant. You need that common goal to work together towards.
But, there has to be a balance, he says. “If you are always challenged and never feel comfortable being yourself, you may not feel accepted or feel as though you must live up to an idealized image.”
4. You Trust Each Other
“The most important thing,” says Kanaris, “is whether I feel like my partner has my back.”
In other words, do you trust that your partner will be there for you, even when things get hard? Do you believe that your partner is capable of making small (or big) sacrifices for you and your relationship, even when it is inconvenient? Do you trust that they will put you, or your family, first when necessary? Do you trust them to be loyal and to stand up for you?
If you don’t have that kind of confidence in each other, it’s difficult to be vulnerable with each other. And if you can’t be vulnerable, it will have an impact on your connection and your intimacy.
5. You Communicate Your Needs Clearly with Each Other
This involves being honest about your feelings and emotions, as well as about your physical relationship.
“I have treated so many couples who have really good communication if they’re talking about paying the mortgage, or taking little Timmy to school on time,” says Kanaris. “But intimate communication is a different realm.”
And yet, he says, clear communication is incredibly important in helping your relationship grow and keeping you both happy. “It’s something that might not be there immediately,” he continues, “but it needs to develop over time in a healthy relationship.”
6. You Fight Fair When You Have an Argument
“The couple I never want to see in my office is the couple that never fights,” says Bognar. That couple “goes for 20 years with no squabbles and they brag about it to all their friends and they create this legend that they have the perfect relationship.”
“What’s actually happening is that they are doing a delicate ballet dance to avoid every point where they might have a clash with one another. The fruits of that particular labor are deep and abiding resentments,” he says. Invariably, these kinds of couples will have one explosive argument over something petty that could result in an ugly breakup.
The fact is disagreements are a healthy part of your relationship — as long as you both fight fairly and have “good arguments.”
“Good arguments start with this premise: ‘we are on the same team,’” Bognar says. You understand that you are arguing over a problem. It’s not me vs. you; it’s me and you versus a problem you have to solve.
“[Good arguments] involve active listening, which takes place under this assumption [that] even if I don’t agree with my partner, their viewpoint makes sense. If it doesn’t make sense to me, then I need to ask questions until I understand it,” Bognar says. In other words, you have to validate your partner and make them feel seen, heard, and understood — even if you disagree.
In addition, fighting fairly in a healthy relationship also means, according to Hardy, that “you have the ability to receive feedback without getting defensive, or operating as though you are always right and [your partner] is always wrong.”
“Keeping an open mind allows space for you to disagree and maintain perspective that you could have a blind spot in the argument,” he continues. This also allows space for both of you to work on and fix issues in your relationship — and find compromise.
It’s also a good sign that your relationship is healthy if when you both feel the argument going off the rails, you are both able to step back and even pause the argument until you both calm down.
7. You Apologize When You’re Wrong or Hurtful
It’s inevitable that at some point, one or both of you will do or say something that causes the other pain.
But in a healthy relationship, Kanaris says, the person that causes the harm will take responsibility for the action and apologize without excuses.
“[They have to be] willing to take the heat of being responsible for doing wrong without saying ‘Oh, you’re never going to get over this — snap out of it,’ or ‘This again? We’re back at square one,’” he says.
It takes time for a hurt to heal, so in a healthy relationship, he says, after you apologize, you both have to have the patience to “let the scab heal without ripping it off.” You can’t demand that they immediately ‘get over it.’
In addition, you have to try to work to avoid repeating the action you’re apologizing for. “[Your partner] has to honestly try to do better,” Kanaris continues. “The apology can’t just be lip service. You should see that they’re backing it up with differences in their behavior.”
8. You’re Willing to Compromise
In a true partnership, neither of you will get your way all the time.
Compromise involves meeting in the middle. Sometimes it will mean doing something you don’t really want to do to support your significant other in their ambitions and goals. And sometimes, it simply means taking your partner’s opinions, thoughts, and feelings into account when making decisions so that you don’t hurt each other.
“I often urge people to be leaders within their relationship on compromise,” says Bognar.
“People worry that their partners will walk all over them, or that it’s some kind of weak surrender [to compromise], but in my experience, partners respond gratefully to compromise. If you can reframe ‘surrender’ as ‘act of generosity,’ you’re going to be a much happier person, and your partner will be much happier, too.”
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