6 Characteristics of a Healthy Relationship
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Experts detail the characteristics of a healthy relationship, including trust, respect, and communication, and tips on how to achieve them.
What is a healthy relationship?
When you think of a healthy, successful relationship, different examples might pop into your head: an in-sync couple who never seems to fight. Or maybe it’s a duo with a seemingly better sex life. The truth is that there are several factors that make up a healthy relationship. Emotional qualities lead the charge.
“A healthy relationship is founded on trust, mutual respect for one another, love, compassion, vulnerability, forgiveness, humor and intimacy—not necessarily just sex,” says Bethany Cook, a clinical psychologist and author of For What It’s Worth: A Perspective on How to Thrive and Survive.
Creating a safe space where each person in the relationship feels valued is especially important.
“Healthy relationships are characterized by mutual kindness, compassion, and respect,” says Kristen Carter, life and family coach and author of ISPEAQ: How to Speak Up for Yourself and Have Difficult Conversations. “The partners feel safe with each other. Each of you is able to be honest without being judged or criticized. You are forgiving and compassionate, knowing that each of you is human and therefore imperfect. You put a high priority on your relationship, nurturing it as if it were a living entity.”
Here’s what you need to know about the characteristics of a healthy vs. unhealthy relationship, the key to success, and tips for how to apply the healthy traits to your own relationships. (Here’s a quick habit to improve your relationship.)
What are the characteristics of a healthy relationship?
Healthy relationships are defined by a number of necessary components. Our experts identified six key characteristics of a healthy relationship, including empathy, trust, respect, compromise, laughter, and communication.
Chief among them is communication, says Stephanie Newman, PhD, a psychoanalyst and psychologist in New York. “Partners should make a point of agreeing to resolve disputes. The process of airing out grievances and addressing concerns should be regular and ongoing,” she says, adding that listening closely and compromise are both essential.
But before you can really understand what makes a healthy relationship, it’s important to recognize the traits of an unhealthy one.
What are the characteristics of an unhealthy relationship?
Unhealthy relationships frequently fall into the trap of power struggles, explains Newman, with somebody attempting to assert power and control in a hierarchical relationship, rather than a mutual partnership.
“One person decides and the other gets no vote. One controls the money, the schedule, the social arrangements. The other has no say,” Newman says, adding that these “push pull” relationships lack communication and dispute resolution.
“Partners of the ‘alpha’ do not feel valued if they are not seen as truly separate and are viewed and treated as an extension of the partner with no voice, no needs, and no say,” Newman says. This can lead to resentment, passive-aggression, or out and out fighting, among other issues.
Carter cites psychologist John Gottman, PhD, a relationship researcher and clinician, who has identified the four negative behaviors that can ruin a relationship known as “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.”
They include: criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling.
Contempt can be particularly damaging, Carter says, calling it the nuclear bomb of relationships. “By showing contempt, you convey that you think you are better than the other person. Think how toxic that would feel if it were directed at you.”
Instead, she recommends focusing on the things you appreciate, admire, and respect about the other person. “Imagine what you’d miss if they weren’t in your life,” Carter suggests. “Ask them what they think are their good qualities; see them through the eyes of someone who loves them.”
Worried your partner might be passive-aggressive? Here are the signs of passive-aggressive behavior.
Can you “fix” a relationship prone to unhealthy behaviors?
Relationships take work. However, Mary Jo Podgurski, certified in sexuality education and counseling, counsels against spending too much effort trying to change persistently problematic behavior in others.
“One of the biggest mistakes people make is the hope that they can change unhealthy behavior,” she says. “I ask my students a simple question: Do you want to spend your precious time working on another person’s negative characteristics or do you want to enjoy your own growth?”
What’s more, she adds, “trying to change another person in a relationship will suck the joy from life.” (These are signs you’re in a toxic relationship.)
And don’t fall into the trap of thinking your otherwise healthy relationship can’t benefit from self-reflection. “Consistent counseling at least once a month can keep couples on track,” says Bonnie Winston, a celebrity matchmaker. “Even a Mercedes needs a tune-up from time to time!”
Reena B. Patel, San Diego-based licensed educational psychologist, board-certified behavior analyst, and author of Winnie & Her Worries, agrees that behavioral change is possible, so long as partners are open to the change in the first place.
“Relationships are always evolving,” she says. “What worked two years ago can be different now. You may have a new job, kids, a house.”
Why do some people seem more successful at relationships than others?
It’s easy to look at your friends—or even celebrity relationships you admire—and feel as if they’ve got it all figured out. However, experts caution against comparing your relationship, as each is unique because of the individuals in it; namely, you and your partner. (Experts break down the true science behind happy relationships.)
“We all see people that we feel ‘have it all’ and no matter how hard we try, we just feel we are not as successful at relationships as others,” says Sharron Frederick, a psychotherapist at Clarity Health Solutions in Jupiter, Florida.
“So what is it that others have that we do not? While there are many factors that can affect a successful relationship—such as mental health, childhood traumas, cultures, and beliefs—it all comes down to our relationship with ourselves.”
Frederick stresses the importance of open communication, positive boundaries, and a clear understanding of your own goals and dreams.
Here’s what you need to know about the six characteristics of a healthy relationship.
The ability to empathize with your partner and step into their shoes is essential. In fact, “there’s no authentic relating or healthy partnership without this important skill,” says Newman, explaining that people who lack empathy often see their partners as extensions of themselves. This point of view can be corrosive. “Someone like this might lack the ability to understand that their partner has desires and needs, and thus, cannot view the partner as a separate person.” (What is an empath? Find out more about this personality type.)
Even when disputes arise, empathy allows you to listen respectfully—or be heard—without playing the blame game. This, in turn, makes your partner feel valued and can help successfully resolve disputes. (Here’s how to tell if you’re an empathetic person.)
“Partners should make a point of agreeing to resolve disputes,” Newman says, adding that listening closely and compromise are both essential.
While empathy can be scary, the healthiest relationships open themselves up to that vulnerability, Podgurski says. “Your partner will see you at your worst. You should not face judgment in your relationship. It is the safe harbor you come home to when the world judges.” (Follow these tips to increase your empathy.)
From empathy, critical factors such as trust can bloom, allowing you to blossom into your best self. (Learn how to build trust in a relationship.)
For Austin-based life coach Robin Emmerich, self-love, self-trust, and self-accountability are all key factors in a successful relationship. “When we choose to be responsible for our own happiness and take charge of our lives, we have the confidence to have fulfilling relationships, work, health, creative pursuits, and seek a partner to share life’s adventures with,” says Emmerich, author of Love the Mess.
Raise your hand if you want to be with a partner who looks down on you or treats you with contempt.
“We all need to feel respected in our relationships or we won’t want to stay in them,” explains Carter. In fact, when a relationship is lacking in respect, the people within may start to doubt themselves and what they bring to the table, which can lead to further problems, Podgurski explains. “A healthy relationship honors each person’s worth. Respect for each person is the foundation.”
Patel agrees that respect is crucial. “When there is respect, you are less likely to engage in behaviors that will hurt your partner,” she explains.
Respect creates a safe space which shows that you value your partner, helps create trust, and increases happiness. (Respecting each other’s goals is one of the healthy habits to adopt as a family.)
And, as always, it takes two to tango. Emmerich believes that respect for your partner goes hand in hand with self-respect. She calls it “the foundation of mutual respect.”
Ultimately, there’s no such thing as a perfect relationship: simply two people willing to respect each other as they work together on issues as they arise. Even the best relationship will run into disagreements—but if each person is ready to communicate and willing to put themselves in their partner’s shoes, issues can be addressed successfully.
Podgurski experienced the importance of compromise firsthand after getting engaged to her now-husband of 46 years. The two each wrote down the most important things in their lives and, while there was overlap—each cited their relationship, family and children, and career—their prioritization was different.
“We talked all night and agreed to compromise,” says Podgurski, author of Sex Ed is in Session. “I would support his career when our children were young; he would reverse roles when my career took off and the children were older. That is exactly what we have done. I earned my doctorate in my early fifties. He is my number one fan, and I am his.”
Meanwhile, Frederick stresses that “it is important that we trust ourselves to make the right decisions, but also admit when we are wrong.”
She adds: “In short, it is respecting who we are without judgment, which allows us to enter into relationships where other people have that same self-respect. The result is a successful relationship.”
Perhaps this is counterintuitive, but it doesn’t all need to be serious, says Winston, explaining that joy and humor help you to lower your guard. You can even keep a laughter journal which can change your outlook.
“Laughter between you and your partner can form the strongest bond,” she says. “If you can make each other laugh, you will feel good being with one another. It contributes to feeling emotionally safe with that person that you can truly be yourself.”
Most experts agree that communication is paramount in a healthy relationship, stemming from openness and thoughtful listening, and leading to a better connection.
“Communication comes second to respect in sustaining a healthy relationship,” says Cook. “You must be able to share your needs and have them be heard for a mutually beneficial relationship to occur.”
However, good communication within a healthy relationship is a two-way street. People can sometimes fixate on improving their partner rather than owning up to their own behavioral patterns.
The last word
A happy and healthy relationship is possible with the right person. However, you need to have a healthy relationship with yourself first before you can do that with anyone else. “If you are able to be kind, honest, compassionate, respectful, and forgiving with yourself, you will be able to be these things with another person,” says Carter. “Start with you.”
Winston adds: “Remember there are only two emotions in relationships: fear and love,” she says. “With fear comes pettiness, negativity, insecurity. But love conquers all.”
Here are the small ways to make your partner feel loved.
- Bethany Cook, PsyD, clinical psychologist, health service psychologist, board-certified music therapist, and author of For What It's Worth: A Perspective on How to Thrive and Survive
- Kristen Carter, life and family coach and author of ISPEAQ: How to Stand Up for Yourself and Have Difficult Conversations
- Bonnie Winston, celebrity matchmaker and relationship expert
- Stephanie Newman, PhD, author of Barbarians at the PTA
- Sharron Frederick, LCSW, psychotherapist at Clarity Health Solutions in Jupiter, Florida
- Mary Jo Podgurski, EdD, author of Sex Ed is in Session
- Reena B. Patel, San Diego-based licensed educational psychologist, board-certified behavior analyst, and author of Winnie & Her Worries
- Robin Emmerich, DPSc, author of Love the Mess