We know the importance of healthy relationships intuitively. When we feel connected in our communities and with our friends, we feel happier, experience less depression and anxiety and find greater joy in living, even when we are on our own. We have lower blood pressure, are less likely to develop stress related illnesses and recover better from grief and trauma.
One study, for example, found that lack of close relationships in later life increased the risk of premature death by 50%, a rate comparable with smoking.
Our closest relationships have the biggest effect on our happiness. So how do we know that we are falling in love with someone that is good for us? Or whether our friendships are nourishing and strong?
Here are some signs that you are in a healthy relationship:
You like yourself
Someone very wise once asked me; “But do you like you when you’re with them?” It is easy to focus on what we like about the other person, but how do they make us feel about ourselves?
You feel good (mostly) after you connect with them
Watch how you feel after seeing them; do you feel happy, energised, sad, peaceful, ashamed, depleted?
You have your own space
There is room for you to pursue your own life, interests and relationships outside of the the main relationship. And even more than that, it is actively encouraged; both of you understand that your lives ‘outside’ draw nourishment into the relationship and keep it, and you, healthy.
You both prioritise the relationship
Togetherness is important to you both. You like spending time together and take care of each other’s feelings.
You can say ‘No’
Your partner respects your boundaries. You can say ‘No’ without being coerced, threatened, shamed or manipulated.
You can talk about the difficult stuff
It is ordinary to need to have conversations that are tricky; in a relationship, you are navigating two people’s different experiences, wants and needs. Life can be complicated, with children and parents and finances and work, and all the other various complexities that we experience as we go along. You need to be able to have the difficult conversations in a way that is constructive.
There is room for both of you in the relationship
You both, reasonably speaking, should ‘count’. Although of course there will be times of stress where one partner needs more, there should ordinarily be room for each of you to draw on the supportive presence of the other.
You can argue
This follows on from the last two points; you should be able to argue, or at least disagree, knowing that this will not break your relationship. And you do this (mostly) in a way that is not destructive. And if you do err, there is space for you both to apologise and move on.
You feel/are safe
This is a big one. There is no room for physical, psychological or sexual abuse in a loving relationship. If you are, or you fear you might be experiencing any of these, seek more information and specialist support if necessary. A good relationship is one where you feel safe. Where you feel kindness, rather than contempt, both for and from your partner.
(This is said with the caveat that sometimes, when we have experienced abuse in a previous relationship, we can experience current relationships as more threatening then they are. We become wired for protection rather than connection. It might be appropriate to seek specialist support if you feel that this is the case so you can unpick what is past and what is present.)
The above is not to suggest that we should be perfectly happy and perfectly balanced at all times in our relationships. Life can be hard and wearing, and inevitably, these times have an impact on our closest relationships.
But despite that we should know that when the chips are down, those closest to us have our backs.