8 elements of a healthy relationship
Many who have experienced original family dysfunction or trauma have grown up with bad examples of relationships, leaving us with limited reference of what is healthy. Many enter their own relationships only to repeat patterns they have sworn to avoid, but familiarity takes over in the absence of healthier coping skills.
Healthy relationships may seem unfamiliar to survivors of family trauma, but they are possible.
In my work with survivors struggling to overcome family and relationship trauma, we move toward developing new expectations for romantic relationships, which often includes relearning how to engage with others in ways that strengthen healthy behaviors. Here are eight elements of a healthy relationship that we focus on:
1. Mutual respect for each other’s boundaries. It goes beyond the basics, like not reading each other’s emails or logs, and moves into deeper territory. Our boundaries are the metaphorical lines we draw around ourselves and others in the way that makes us most comfortable. These can be things like the limits of what we allow with physical contact, who we want in our personal space, and what topics we are comfortable discussing. Healthy partners understand that trying to force themselves to bend or change boundaries will make them feel uncomfortable and could lead to resentment or arguments.
2. Open communication. For those who grew up in families with a lot of conflict, or even conflict avoidance, communication can feel scary and uncomfortable. This doesn’t mean that healthy, open communication is out of reach for you – it may just feel foreign to you at first and may take some practice. Communication is essential for expressing needs and wants and for discussing boundaries, all of which are healthy parts of a relationship. When a couple tells me, “We have no borders” or a family tells me, “We already know everyone’s wants and needs, we don’t need to talk about them”— I know there is work to be done.
3. It can sometimes seem boring, especially for those of us who grew up with chaotic or dysfunctional families. For someone with an anxious attachment, boredom can signal distress in the brain. When we grow up in environments where there’s a lot of fighting, tension, and strained relationships, we learn that’s how we can expect people to engage with each other. It can become normal to get used to the high that comes from the honeymoon period after an argument, and then it becomes a cycle. Healthy relationships allow their needs to be met without the cycle of conflict, which can seem boring at first. Boredom is normal. It’s healthy, and it’s safe.
Children growing up in chaotic and dysfunctional environments know that dull moments were rare and usually followed or preceded a chaotic or traumatic event. Just as we associate the calm before the storm, these children then become uncomfortable adults when things are calm. “We get from the world what we project into the world, but what you project is based on what happened to you as a child.” (Perry et al, 2021).
4. They know how to fight. Rather, they work together to effectively solve problems. They face conflict head-on, but in an assertive and respectful way. In families where caregivers do not model healthy communication, children learn that conflict is uncomfortable, even frightening, because of the way it was handled. When conflict is treated as punishment, whether through aggression or passive aggression, children learn that it is something to be avoided or even feared.
Healthy couples argue sometimes, and that’s OK. Sometimes they argue over big things, and sometimes over little things, like who misplaced the butter — and that’s all okay. But the real test is whether you can turn to each other afterwards and say, “I’m sorry, that was silly.”
5. Both parties provide equal effort. It takes a lot of work to relearn behaviors that contribute to a healthy relationship, and often that means doing the work of unlearning behaviors that are toxic, dysfunctional, and counterproductive. But both people have to do the work to have a healthy partnership, instead of just one person putting in more effort. If one person bears the heaviest burden, that’s when it starts to blur the lines of co-dependency or empowerment, or even caregiving – all of which are common among family trauma survivors who have not done their healing work.
6. Feel understood: Many couples, when reflecting on what initially attracted them to each other, will notice that they felt the other person “got” them, or understood them. Just like in romantic comedies where quirky characters come together, people want to feel like they’ve found “their person”, or at least someone who understands and loves them for who they really are, and not for whom society wants them to do it. be.
7. Trust and security. Each partner must feel that their partnership is a secure base. There’s a lot of growth in couples who have their own interests and are able to embrace them. Traveling alone, attending classes or events alone, and having friends you see one-on-one are all part of healthy individuality. If you don’t trust your partner to do occasional solo activities, ask yourself, “Why not?” And explore what comes up. It could be that you are following your instincts or it could be something deeper within yourself.
8. Intimacy through shared interests and passions. Much like the previous quality emphasizes the importance of solo interests, couples who have shared the fun of their relationship tend to report more purpose and longevity (Murray et al, 2021). It’s not about the frequency or quality of sexual interactions, which is a common question among many couples who wonder if their relationship is “normal”, but rather all areas of what the couple identifies like their shared intimacy. Whether you share coffee every morning, a yoga class on Sunday morning, or a late-night walk around the neighborhood every night, these rituals are part of your shared intimacy.