Much has been written about unhealthy love and toxic relationships, but what about healthy love? When we think about healthy love in a relationship, what does that look like?
Maya Angelou said “The best love is the one that makes you a better person without changing you into someone other than yourself.” Along those lines, the definition of healthy love, as I have come to understand it in my years of practice, lies in a sense of responsibility to the self.
In other words, healthy love means we are responsible for our own happiness. I am not responsible for my partner’s happiness. I am responsible for ensuring that I am a whole person, that I have a healthy sense of self-identity, and that I can meet my own needs and self-esteem from within. For healthy love to exist between partners, they must first understand and accept that happiness in a relationship depends on whether the people in the relationship have developed (independently) into a whole, secure person.
The following are what I believe to be the seven characteristics of a strong, healthy relationship:
1. A solid sense of self-identity
People in a relationship that is healthy can think independently and are willing and able to articulate their wants and needs to partners. They are able to speak and act from an honest place within themselves. Partners can love themselves unconditionally, accepting the parts of themselves that are easy to love as well as the parts that are not as easy to love. Healthy partners love their own lives while still being open to growth, progress, and evolution with a partner.
2. The ability to compromise
Partners who are open to the idea of seeking mutually gratifying solutions to conflicts are more likely to have a strong, healthy relationship. Healthy partners can acknowledge the validity of their partner’s wants and needs and, even when they do not agree, still respect areas of difference. A cornerstone of compromise is finding solutions that are agreeable to both partners, and healthy relationships are marked by an ability to consider situations from a partner’s side of things.
3. Appropriate trust
This characteristic is one that can be determined at the beginning of a relationship. When both partners are available to begin a relationship, not still attached or otherwise holding on to a previous relationship, trust can be fostered. When trust has the opportunity to grow, partners feel more safe and may be better able to share their innermost thoughts and feelings with each other. They believe in their partner’s ability to listen and help, and there may be a mutual sense of faith that neither will be blindsided by surprises they don’t expect. Trust cultivates a stable relationship with predictability, reliability, and accountability.
Let’s be frank here. Even in a strong and healthy relationship, you are not going to agree on everything—and you don’t have to! Being able to express your own feelings or opinions, knowing it’s all right to disagree, and saying what you mean and meaning what you say are all aspects of effective communication. When we are able to communicate effectively with our partners, show compassion and concern for each other, and talk about problems and listen well, we effectively create a road map for a partner to be able to understand and meet our needs. Without this map, we might endlessly wander trying to find out partners, coming close to meeting their needs but never quite succeeding.
5. Loving detachment
Seeing a partner as a capable person is a critical component of healthy relationships. Couples can often confuse the concepts of whether their partner is good at something and whether they are simply capable of doing something. Believing these are the same thing can lead to conflict in a relationship. In reality, most people are capable of doing most things. However, sometimes partners may not be “good” at the things we want them to be good at. Loving detachment means we believe our partners have the ability to take care of themselves and their lives on their own. Allowing and encouraging our partners to have separate interests and maintain meaningful relationships with other people, and respecting their ability to do so, is an important part of loving detachment.
6. An understanding of the reality of love
Love is created, and it requires effort on our parts. The idea of “love at first sight” is romantic, and we may want to believe in it, but in reality, that’s just not the case. Love is not something that is acquired one day by chance. It must be developed with trust, shaped with effort, and fostered with understanding and patience over time. This may not seem idealistic, but it is simply the truth of long-lasting love.
7. An awareness of our attraction to familiarity
Have you ever heard the saying “We marry our parents”? We may not realize it, but many people partner (and eventually marry) someone who reminds them, in some way, of one or both of their parents. This is not necessarily a conscious decision. It’s simply that we tend to be attracted to and connect with people who are comfortable and familiar. So, whether our experiences with our parents are positive or negative or a little of both, we often are drawn to similarities in the partners we choose. If we are aware of this, and in tune with how our relationship with our parents has affected us, we are often better able to understand the type of person we might be attracted to. We might be fulfilling a desire to live out what we have learned as children or to fix what was broken in our childhood through our current relationships. Though we might logically know dysfunctional relationships with our parents cannot be fixed by our current relationships, we may still struggle with this emotionally. Identifying and working on ourselves to resolve any issues remaining from childhood will not guarantee a healthy relationship, but doing so may put us on the road to a better one.
Having a healthy relationship with our partners comes down to one thing—having a healthy relationship with ourselves. When discussing healthy love with the people I work with, I make it clear that I believe a healthy relationship with the self is necessary to have a healthy relationship with others. This healthy relationship with the self includes developing and maintaining a solid self-identity, recognizing our needs and being able to meet them on our own, and allowing our partners to live their own lives while sharing their lives with us. If you would like to explore any of these areas, on your own or with a partner, a compassionate counselor can offer guidance and support.
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