I would love to say that I’m one of those happy, well-adjusted humans who naturally navigates healthy relationships. But I’m not. Healthy relationships scared the hell out of me. In some ways, they still do.
It took years of experience (read: mistakes) and lessons (read: therapy, self-help books, and classes) to understand what a healthy relationship looked like. I had been informed by childhood dysfunction and the media about what relationships should be. To have a healthy one, I had to unlearn most of what I’d been taught.
We become used to the environments we exist inside. Anxiety and drama become normalized. Our self-worth becomes tied to things like attention and achievement. We don’t understand how to just be happy and healthy in a relationship with another human being.
Those healthy and well-adjusted humans may balk at this idea, but it’s true: The lack of stress sometimes stresses us out. Or the unfamiliar experience of not being put through trauma leaves us wondering how we’re supposed to act and what we’re supposed to feel.
We’ve been conditioned to respond to trauma — not to love, respect, or kindness. For this reason, healthy relationships can be scary. They demand more of us, and they won’t let us function as our most unhealthy selves.
I am one of love’s late bloomers. I’m in my late 30s, and I’ve only just begun navigating healthy relationships. While it can still be terrifying, I’m learning how to embrace that challenge rather than hide from it. It’s never too late to learn how to be healthy in our relationships.
So, here are 15 things we might want to start doing if we want our relationships to be healthy rather than repeating cycles of trauma:
For those of us who grew up learning unhealthy ways of relating in relationships, fighting fair can be one of the greatest relationship challenges. It takes the willingness to learn new ways of being and to practice what we learn. It requires that we speak to each other with respect and kindness — even during conflict.
Instead of resorting to character assassination, name-calling, the silent treatment, or passive-aggressive behaviors, we address our problems directly — centering our energy on finding solutions rather than criticizing, shaming, or blaming.
Say thank you.
This one is so basic and yet so undervalued. No matter how long we’ve been with someone, we can always show appreciation for what they bring to the relationship. I’m not talking about patting them on the back for the one time out of ten they took out the trash.
Instead, we should appreciate when someone buys us dinner or listens to us when we vent after a bad day. Being appreciative of the small things on a regular basis keeps us from taking the other person for granted.
Love them for who they are.
This one is huge in terms of being able to have a healthy relationship. We need to love our partners for who they are — not who we want them to be. Potential is for individual self-actualization, not a reason to partner someone. Being loved for ourselves, flaws and all, is powerful and helps us to have realistic expectations for our partners rather than demanding their perfection or complete and total dedication to the relationship only.
We cannot allow ourselves to love and be loved fully if we can’t ever show vulnerability. We should be able to get mad, cry, have a bad day, and admit to our mistakes. A healthy relationship should be a safe place to be exactly who we are without having to be “on” all the time, only ever showing our best selves.
Ask for what we want and need.
This one is tough for those of us who grew up in unhealthy environments where we didn’t get our needs met. Being able to voice our wants and needs to our partners is healthy — and something we’ll become more comfortable doing with practice.
It can be as easy as asking for our partner’s undivided attention during a conversation or opening up about a sexual fantasy. It can be as simple as explaining our love language or asking for our partner’s support in an endeavor. Note: this isn’t the part where we expect them to meet all of our individual wants and needs.
Celebrate separate identities.
I’m looking at you, joint social media accounts. It’s okay (and entirely healthy) to have separate identities. While my partner and I share many interests and have introduced each other to them, we also have the things we enjoy on our own. Making time for our own interests and for general self-care is entirely healthy. Couples aren’t supposed to be an island of two with no outside interests or social support.
It can be easy to fall into routines or to get involved in our own workaday drama. But if laughter is the best medicine, our relationships need more of it to stay healthy. I love that my partner can make me laugh even on my worst days. I don’t think a sense of humor and having fun together can be under-valued in a relationship.
I don’t think that we can ever really know everything about another person. Continuing to learn about the one we’re with is a powerful way to build intimacy and maintain interest. We should be curious about our partners and their stories when we love them. Continuing to learn about who they are, especially as people change over time, is a great way to nurture our connections.
Be healthy individuals.
This is one of the most powerful and important things we can do in our relationships to keep them healthy. We need to be healthy individuals. This means physically and emotionally. When we take good care of ourselves and love ourselves well, we’ll naturally be more healthy in our relationships. This also puts the responsibility for our own happiness on ourselves, not our partners.
Say how we feel.
Growing up, we tossed out “I love you” with every goodbye — in person or on the phone. It was fear-based. We’d been taught that we should always say it in case we never saw the person again. Even in arguments, it was expected we would still say the words whether we felt them or not. I don’t think we should do that, but I do think it’s important that we let our partners know how we feel. That we love them, that we care, that we miss them, that we appreciate them.
For those of us who come from backgrounds of trauma, hearing these things can be incredibly important in our relationships.
Call a time-out when overthinking.
There are days when I get trapped in my worst-case scenario thoughts. Those are not the days I address conflicts in my relationship. Those are the days I take care of myself. Those are the days when I give myself time to think through how I’m feeling to trace it back to the source. I don’t let these thoughts drive me toward destruction — of myself or the relationship.
It’s okay to take a time out when we’re feeling overwhelmed and overthinking. This can be a valuable time to be accountable for our feelings without automatically assume it’s our partner’s problem to deal with. However, being vulnerable requires that we’re able to admit how we feel and let our partners know what’s going on when we’re quiet and need that self-care time.
Be a friend.
I wish this went without saying, but I’ve seen so many full-grown adults bad mouth their partners on social media. It’s appalling — not because it’s honest but because that’s better dealt with in the relationship directly. Venting to friends during a difficult time is understandable, but publicly criticizing our partners is immature. We should be their biggest fan (and they, ours).
This doesn’t mean we think they’re perfect (or that we are) or that we don’t ever admit to having a hard time. But we should at least treat them with the same respect we would a friend when we struggle.
Don’t underestimate sex.
Sexual issues in relationships should be addressed as directly as anything else. Both partners should feel satisfied with the quality (and quantity) of sex in the relationship. This can be a difficult conversation where dysfunction is involved, and we can feel defensive or triggered. But admitting there’s a problem doesn’t mean we’re criticizing the person (at least, it shouldn’t).
Sometimes, the problem could be mental health, medication, or physical issue. Other times, the problem could lie with one or both partners not feeling a connection that would lead to quality intimacy. If we don’t talk about it, we can’t find solutions.
Add a dash of romance.
I believe that healthy relationships require romance outside of birthdays and national holidays. It doesn’t have to be some grand gesture or anything expensive. It can be simple and thoughtful and still count. Hand-written letters, a sweet poem or meme, a loving text, flowers for no reason, or a considerate gesture. If romance isn’t your thing, Google exists for just such an occasion.
Trust and be trustworthy.
This should also go without saying, but jealousy isn’t romantic. It’s not healthy either. Trusting our partners and being a trustworthy (read: honest) person is essential for a healthy relationship. If you’re lying to your partner, you aren’t in one. If your partner is lying to you, the same goes.
Part of building trust involves practicing courage and vulnerability in the way we interact in our relationships — in the fighting fair and admitting to mistakes, in asking for what we want and need, and allowing each person to have a separate identity.
Maybe I came to healthy relationships late, but I got there. It’s not easy. Maybe it won’t ever be easy for me. But I keep learning and trying. I don’t want a relationship that feels like I settled or one where so much of what’s going on is never said aloud. I’ve been in those relationships.
A truly healthy relationship allows us to love and be loved and to learn how to be a better person. Sometimes I think of Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets saying, You make me want to be a better man.
Healthy relationships require us to be healthy, to want to be healthier for ourselves as well as the other person. It’s not about living up to their idea of us or attaining perfection. It’s about loving the other person for exactly who they are, knowing they love us back for the same reason. It does challenge us to be better, but the rewards are worth the work.
I don’t know if I’ll ever be all sunshine and rainbows. Maybe I’ll always overthink. Maybe fighting fair will always feel like the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But breaking the cycle was never going to be easy. So, I’ll bloom and love and laugh instead. I think I can live with that.