Being in a good relationship takes work. So does starting one. But it’s absolutely worthwhile. Not only does it steer you in the right direction for a fulfilling relationship, it also helps you get to know yourself.
Here, Mark E. Sharp, Ph.D, a psychologist in private practice who specializes in relationship issues, shares what makes a good relationship, and how you can prepare for one.
What Defines a Good Relationship
In a good relationship, according to Sharp, both partners feel connected. They respect each other and their differences, enjoy each other’s company and feel a sense of security and safety, he said.
Sharp said there’s also a good balance between wanting to make your partner happy but knowing that you’re not responsible for their feelings. He believes that relationships consist of three things: each person and the relationship. And couples in a good relationship have a strong sense of “we.”
Take the example of one partner getting a new job in another city. Both partners wouldn’t just consider the effect on them as individuals; they’d need to consider the result on their relationship as well, he said.
Preparing for a Good Relationship
One of the biggest barriers people face in preparing for a good relationship is vulnerability – or lack thereof. Many people prefer to wait to open up until they can trust a potential partner. This makes sense, especially if you’ve been burned before.
But many people construct sky-high, sturdy fences, and don’t feel comfortable sharing a smidge of themselves. And many get defensive, Sharp said.
That translates into paying attention to everything that’s wrong with a potential partner or creating inconsequential rules for rejection, he said. For instance, you might exclude an entire group of people based on their profession, interests or a physical attribute like height.
Attraction is important, but “if those rules are very strict and very rigid, it is often a case of either setting up walls or barriers for connection or looking for some sort of external validation [such as] ‘I want people to see me with this hot person so they know how great I am.’”
And, as Sharp said, “Nobody is perfect so you can find a reason to not pursue a relationship with everyone.” Plus, not opening up at all can be a turnoff. “If you don’t open up some emotionally you come across as someone who is distant and not particularly interesting,” Sharp said.
People usually have a hard time being vulnerable and fear rejection because they put the relationship on a pedestal, he said. “Some people depend on the validation, or love, of others in order to feel OK about themselves. That puts a lot of pressure on the relationship and makes rejection more intolerable, leading to a more protective, and less effective, stance toward relationships.”
One of the best ways you can prepare for a fulfilling relationship in the future is to lead a fulfilling life right now. “Too many people put their lives, and the experiences they would like to have, on hold while they wait for a relationship,” Sharp said.
For instance, he’s met people who love to travel but don’t because they’re single. “Single people should approach life with the idea that if there is something they would like to experience, it is worth experiencing it by themselves.”
Examining your own sticking points also helps you prepare yourself. Start by looking at yourself, your relationship history and the expectations you have for relationships, Sharp said.
He suggested these additional strategies:
Look for problematic patterns in past relationships. If it’s a problem that’s followed you into more than one relationship, it’s probably an issue you need to work on, Sharp said.
Examine how you grew up, and compare it to other families. Many of us assume that how we grew up is the only right approach. And we typically take these ideas and expectations into our romantic relationships. The problem? All families are different. Thinking that your family’s ways are best can lead to conflict and sabotage relationships.
Specifically, examine what you learned about conflict and problem solving; expressing anger; sharing personal information; expressing affection; and gender roles and behavior, he said. This can help you negotiate issues in your future relationship more effectively, and not take it so personally when you’re not treated the way you expected, Sharp said.
Ask honest friends for feedback. Ask close friends who can be honest with you and have good relationships themselves about your weaknesses and sticky points, Sharp said.
Pay attention to your emotions and triggers. “The stronger [your] responses, the more likely it is that you are dealing with a hot issue that may provide some problems,” Sharp said. Learn to spot the signs your body gives when you’re starting to experience an emotion, he said. This helps you figure out your triggers.
As you prepare for a healthy relationship, explore your own expectations and sticky points. Focus on becoming “the best possible and most confident individual [you] can be,” Sharp said.