The question of what makes a healthy couple has been the subject of much research, writing, and theorizing. Through her years of experience as a couple therapist, Dr. Ellen Wachtel has come up with the seven qualities that she believes make for the kind of relationship we all strive for, or wish we had.
The following seven tips have been adapted from Wachtel’s book, The Heart of Couple Therapy: Knowing What to Do and How to Do It.
Tip #1: Aim to make your partner feel good about themselves.
It’s not the responsibility of one partner to build up the other’s low self-esteem or lack of self-worth, but for those with a generally healthy sense of self it’s important to engage in behaviors that build one another up.
Being mindful of how often you’re criticizing your partner, and aiming instead to engage in positive reinforcement and authentic compliments can go a long way. Criticism is likely to slip out every so often, but it shouldn’t be the dominant form of feedback you’re giving or receiving.
Tip #2: Do things together that you genuinely enjoy.
While “date nights” are popularly offered as a tip for struggling couples, Wachtel says the pressure and obligation of forced time together every week can zap the fun out of what’s meant to be enjoyable.
Instead of obligatory date nights, try coming up with things that you genuinely enjoy doing together, and do more of those.
Tip #3: Have a healthy competition around who can say “yes” more.
For the most part, healthy couples get along well. No two people will agree one hundred percent of the time, but those who are a good match for one another are generally in agreement on day-to-day activities as well as bigger or longer term plans. Wachtel suggests that couples aim to say “yes” to one another’s ideas as often as possible.
Of course, this should not apply to situations in which one partner feels unsafe or as if a boundary is being crossed, but shifting to agreeability in areas where it’s appropriate and safe can have significant positive impacts on improving a relationship.
Tip #4: Communicate your love physically.
As relationships mature, affection may give way to avoidance of physical contact, particularly if there has been a betrayal or other life event that has caused a couple to grow apart.
For those who may be in need of some ice breaking, Wachtel suggests starting small and in private. Put your hand on your partner’s arm or back when you walk past them, or commit to giving them a kiss in the morning or before bed at night.
Tip #5: Validate each other.
Security is a key component of a healthy relationship, and emotional security is a key part of feeling safe. Practice listening to your partner when they are distressed without giving in to the urge to fix, solve, or evaluate things.
No feeling is invalid, so even if you don’t agree with your partner’s point of view, you can always say, “I hear you,” or “I can understand why you would feel that way,” or “I can tell this is really hard for you,” when they are upset. Unconditionally validating your partner lets them know that you are a safe ally, and are on their side. This can work wonders in terms of establishing a secure relationship.
Tip #6: Stay interesting.
Even as time passes, Wachtel says that healthy couples are concerned with being attractive to one another. This isn’t only about physical attractiveness, it applies also to intellectual and energetic attractiveness as well. If you wouldn’t talk for hours on end about drama between coworkers to a friend, what makes you think your partner is interested in hearing it?
Wachtel suggests that couples make efforts to stay interesting to one another. Bring new ideas and perspectives, consider talking about things that are genuinely engaging to your partner, and in general, act like you care what they think.
Tip #7: Drop the perfectionism.
In The Heart of Couple Therapy, Wachtel reminds her readers that even the healthiest couples are not perfect. It’s simply not realistic to expect that all of our needs will be met one hundred percent of the time. Unrealistic expectations can be toxic to relationships, so leaving space for imperfection is an important part of having a healthy relationship.
For more about healthy couples, check out Dr. Ellen Wachtel’s book The Heart of Couple Therapy: Knowing What to Do and How to Do It.