What are some of the general characteristics of a healthy relationship? It all boils down to communication and boundaries. Do you and your partner/spouse communicate honestly in a non-judgmental style, do you each “own” the patterns and idiosyncrasies you bring to the relationship? And, do you treat each other with respect, and yourselves with self-respect? Here are some tips to apply to your own relationship:

  • Being joined at the soul isn’t the same as being joined at the hip. You can each enjoy activities on your own, that doesn’t mean lack of love or commitment. I once knew a lesbian couple I’ll call Barb and Joan. Barb once knew told me proudly that the only time they conducted separate activities was when they went to the bathroom. Three years into the relationship, Joan felt so stifled, she broke up with Barb. The break-up might not have been necessary had Barb not felt the world was coming to an end when Joan wanted to go to a movie with a mutual friend of theirs. Barb had not been interested in that particular movie; Joan and the friend were. Given Barb’s reaction, Joan felt she could never do anything on her own. Her perception of the relationship shifted from “committed” to “chained.”
  • Self-respect is often overlooked as a component of a healthy relationship. Too often, you hear a lot about partners respecting each other. But a healthy boundary is a two-way street. If you respect your partner without having sufficient self-respect, you may find yourself always giving in to them, never standing your ground in an argument, never feeling your wishes are as important as theirs. There isn’t a bright line in these situations; there will be times when you are going through something huge in your own life (a death in your family, for instance) and would like your partner to be extra-supportive for a time. And vice versa. But if the overall pattern of the relationship is that one person is always putting their own needs on the back burner for their partner, this may be indicative of lack of self-respect. It may also indicate self-centeredness on the part of the one getting more attention – why aren’t they noticing this pattern and calling for more balance?
  • Be kind in word and deed. This is easier said than done in the heat of an argument. A deep breath before making a retaliatory comment can make a world of difference. People tend to remember cutting remarks, and those from a partner cut deepest of all. Partners often know each other’s vulnerabilities better than anyone else, and know exactly where the buttons are that they can push to inflict maximum emotional pain. A truly effective argument is one in which each partner can really “hear” what the other is saying, using statements such as “I feel…” rather than “You’re making me feel…”
  • What keeps people together for the long haul isn’t how well they get along when things are going great, it’s how well they argue. So, what’s the point of arguing? Isn’t it better if a relationship has no conflict at all? This would seem like a component of a perfect marriage or relationship, but it’s also unrealistic that people in relationship are always going to agree about everything. Mutual respect and self-respect are the keys to “arguing well.” The point of arguing isn’t really to win, the point is to come to some negotiated agreement about what the course of action is going to be. A by-product of this process is a better understanding of each other. Owning your own feelings, as well as believing you have a right to feel your feelings, and expressing those feelings as being solely yours (again, “I feel…” rather than “You’re making me feel…”) are the primary keys to successful arguments.
  • Support does not mean caving in silently in martyrdom. This gets back to self-respect again. You may choose to support your partner by putting a project of your own on hold for a time while you help them. But you can also say this is what you’re doing, owning that you are putting them first for a time. For example: “I will gladly give you a ride to work early all this week so you can meet that work deadline. I’m sad I’ll miss my yoga class, but I want to help you to be successful at work.”
  • Understand and respect your partner’s strengths and weaknesses. Don’t exploit the weaknesses to get your way, or make yourself feel more powerful. Don’t undermine your partner’s strengths to make yourself feel more powerful. This is a position of weakness and low self-esteem, a lack of self-respect. You are enough all by yourself; you don’t have to diminish your partner. You also don’t have to allow your partner to treat you in this manner. If this sounds familiar to you as a dynamic of your relationship, either because of your behavior or your partner’s, this is something to look at.
  • Sex is a game as in mutual fun, not as in a power game for control. Sex is a powerful drive, and a lot of fun. But because it’s so powerful, it’s also one of the things people sometimes latch onto as a way to control their partner. Mutual respect/self-respect and boundaries both come into play here. We’ve all heard the phrase “no means no.” But there are other phrases to keep in mind:
    (1) “Yes” doesn’t mean, “Yes, but I’m only saying that so you will do _______ tomorrow”
    (2) “Yes” doesn’t mean, “I’m giving in because I see you want it”
    (3) “No” doesn’t mean, “I don’t love you anymore”
    (4) “No” shouldn’t mean, “I’m in the mood, but I want to punish you for _______”
  • Are you straying beyond the bounds of what’s okay in your relationship? I am not talking here about having an affair when you’re in a supposedly-monogamous relationship, it would indeed be worrisome if someone didn’t already know that’s outside the bounds of what’s okay with your partner. I’m talking about more insidious things, such as how you talk about your partner when they’re not there. A rule of thumb: Ask yourself, “Would I significantly change my behavior or language if my partner walked in the room right now?” If the answer comes back, “Yes,” then that’s something to look at.
  • Forgiveness is priceless. Forgiving isn’t the same as forgetting. If your partner has an affair with someone else, you aren’t going to forget that. True forgiveness would mean the affair no longer has power over your attitudes and reactions to your partner. It’s very hard to achieve, because it also means allowing yourself to trust your partner again. For instance, if your partner is held up at work and late for dinner, with no chance to let you know, do you automatically assume there is another affair going on? Perhaps before you knew of the affair, your first thought would not be, “I wonder if they’re with…” but to think, “That project must be requiring overtime again…” Your partner is flawed, as you are, and some mistakes are much more difficult to forgive than others. It may help to remember there is no such thing as a perfect partner or perfect relationship, just right for each other.

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