One of my most often repeated mantras on relationship health is that lack of friction is not an indicator that all is going well, au contraire, it can actually be a sign that one or both parties are beyond negotiating.
I offer this example not to instill fear in the hearts of those experiencing a peaceful relationship, but to demonstrate that many stereotypes vastly oversimplify the complexity of quantifying relationship health. Or at the very least, are looking the wrong way.
So, if you ask me, it isn’t about how often you argue, it certainly isn’t about how different you may progressively become, because all of these facets are part-and-parcel of just about any relationship, healthy or not.
What it is about is how well a couple can keep step and evolve in the face of change (both romantic issues, as well as factors outside of the relationship that can come to influence it).
Pillars Of A Healthy Relationship
1. The relationship is not overly conditional.
Sure, there are always “conditions” to a relationship that stem from our own personal boundaries and expectations, but that isn’t precisely what I’m referring to here.
What I mean is that the relationship isn’t merely the fruit of a series of comfortable, timely or specific factors. In short, the relationship does not serve a specific (and thus fragile) purpose such as:
- Escaping or overwriting past relationship pain.
- Ease of accessibility (the classic better than nothing mentality).
- To stave off feelings of loneliness.
While the relationship may flourish and feel empowering in the present, what happens once the underlying need has been fulfilled? It no longer serves a functional purpose and is usually discarded in a cloud of bitterness and shock.
2. You’ve found a way to communicate and dissolve resentment.
Resentment has a tendency to build unless a means of releasing it is found. Please note, the method used is usually entirely tailored around the couple in question, and it really doesn’t matter how this mounting pile of pain is diffused, so long as it is. There’s really no right way to do it.
A few examples of rituals that are commonly used include:
- Intimacy and sex.
- Arguing, talking and confrontation (without spite). Again, there’s nothing wrong with arguing so long as it serves a communicative purpose, or helps you both negotiate issues which are vital to self-fulfillment! However, if it used solely as a stress dump to vent day-to-day frustration it will have the opposite effect — it will pile on further resentment.
- Changes of pace (traveling, getaways, time alone).
In the end, a healthy relationship will have developed a formal or informal communication avenue that works, no matter how bizarre or creative it is. If you’re constantly left to stomach and process resentment on your own, it is a sign that something in the communicative department needs to change.
3. You’ve found a way to balance subjective (and differing) needs.
Many otherwise healthy relationships suffer from a fundamental difference in outlook. For instance, some partners prefer to live the moment where feeling good is good enough, while others need to know that — regardless of how fulfilling the relationship is — there is a communal and realistic future ahead.
Admittedly, this does boil down to character traits that are typically non-negotiable (it is unfair to demand our partner to fit our expectation of them), but that doesn’t mean that both philosophies cannot in part be negotiated successfully.
All that can realistically be done is to not take the relationship for granted, and make a concrete effort to understand that fulfillment is determined through subjective need, and not through a sense of what we determine to be right or wrong, or what we believe the relationship should be. Right and wrong do not reflect how feelings work, and because of this, serve no real purpose towards empowerment.
A healthy relationship will attempt to serve the ambiguities of both partners’ needs without undue judgment. People need what they need, particularly if it makes no sense to us on a personal level.
4. You haven’t lost sight of your individuality.
A healthy relationship is one which empowers both inside, and outside of a relationship context. The two, in fact, often go hand in hand.
If one or both partners lose themselves within a maze of relationship fixation, the facets of life that previously improved our lives which were independent of the relationship will suffer (one of the risks of codependency).
In the words of Lennard J. Davis, a disabilities studies specialist,
…the codependent person is fixated on another person for approval, sustenance, and so on.
In order to foster a healthy outlook, a couple will need to revel in both the relationship itself, as well as protect the fruits of their individuality (and importantly, respect our partner’s right to their freedom and individuality). Something which I’m sure we all agree can be deceptively easy to forget, especially if the romance is intense and all-consuming.
One way to quickly and objectively quantify how adversely caught up in the relationship we are is to ask how we define ourselves. Through our eyes, or the eyes of our partner?
5. The relationship is not one-sided or parasitic.
It may seem like I’m pulling a Captain Obvious with this one, but love can blind us to an unhealthy relationship.
When I talk about one-sided relationships, much like my first point, I’m talking about relationships which fulfill a single, often superficial need, such as attaining financial security or improving status.
Why are these red flags? Well, because none of them actually consider who the partner actually is over what they selfishly represent, and thus in the long term are unstable. And once again, once the well runs dry, and it always does, so too does the will to keep the fire going.
Of course, there are other ways to define one-sided relationship, where the difference lies not in purpose, but in how priorities are managed. Typical examples include:
- Differences in willingness to communicate. One partner may appear to be unwilling to reciprocate in a timely or adequate fashion.
- Differences in willingness to engage in relationship house-cleaning.
- Differences in willingness to share and admit responsibility.
- Differences in willingness to make (and follow through with) plans.
In this case the intent might not be that of using the other person, but for all intents and purposes the result is the same. It all falls apart. While differences in tempo are absolutely normal even in the best of relationships (one person will always — rightly or wrongly — feel as if the equation is imbalanced), the two poles of “willingness” should not be so far apart that they never, at some point in time, meet.
What A Healthy Relationship Looks Like
A healthy relationship is an imperfect relationship, and having an expectation of imperfection greatly improves its outlook because it reduces the chance that both parties feel that it is immutable.
A healthy relationship realizes that change will occur, and accommodates it by expecting it and consistently beats the odds by willfully evolving with the inevitability of incoming change.
A healthy relationship is one where both parties realize that a romantic imbalance will occur, one way or the other, and that balancing it will require sacrifice.
A healthy relationship is one which is self-conscious enough to not take itself for granted, but refuses to define itself.
A happy, functional relationship is a result all of these things, and many, many more. But beyond all this, a happy relationship is one which is fundamentally worth experiencing.
Image courtesy of stuart miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net