There is no such thing as a perfect relationship. After all, every couple disagrees and runs into a range of challenges. So it isn’t that healthy, happy couples fight less than other couples. It isn’t that they are so alike and compatible that they’re somehow immune to conflict.
And yet there must be something that distinguishes their partnerships from unhealthy relationships, right?
There is. Mainly, it’s how couples view their relationship and how they cope with conflict, challenges and their differences that count. Below, seasoned couples therapists revealed six things that healthy, happy couples do and don’t do.
They acknowledge and accept that they need each other.
This is in contrast to the typical message we receive: We must be fiercely independent and not need anyone. “We’ve been trained to be ashamed of our needs for connection and love, when in fact it is a biologically wired in need. Yet we’ve been taught [that] ‘to need and love is to be weak or co-dependent,’” said Silvina Irwin, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist in Pasadena, Calif., who works with couples and is certified by the International Centre for Excellence in Emotionally Focused Therapy.
Couples in healthy, happy relationships eschew these messages. They ask their partner for comfort and care and respond to their partner’s need for connection. What does this look like? Irwin shared these examples: Instead of saying, “you are never around anymore, you are too busy all the time,” a partner says, “I miss you, let’s spend some time together.”
Instead of trying to work harder or perform in other ways to feel good enough, a partner might say, “I’m really having a hard time these days. I am feeling like I am constantly disappointing you. I need to know that you love me no matter what.”
They don’t let differences derail them.
We tend to bring significantly different habits, practices, beliefs and expectations to our relationships. This includes everything from how we handle finances to how we split up chores. It includes how we parent and how we process our emotions. It includes the hobbies we engage in and the ways we communicate.
“[I]t’s the healthier and happier relationships where we see partners normalizing their differences and seeing them as differences in style—rather than fighting over who is right or wrong,” said Chris Kingman, LCSW, a psychotherapist in the Flatiron District in New York City. Healthy couples seek to collaborate instead of compete, and to engage in open dialogue instead of debate, he said. “[T]hey are emotionally invested in win-win rather than win-lose.”
In other words, these “partners turn ‘differences’ into assets.”
They don’t hesitate to admit fault.
“This goes beyond just ‘not being afraid’ to admit when you’re wrong,” Kingman said. “What I observe in healthy and happy relationships is an actual eagerness in each partner to ‘admit and apologize’ when they’ve been hurtful.”
Because these couples have learned the power of vulnerability. They’ve learned that admitting they’re wrong “enhances rather than detracts from [their] self-esteem” and their relationship. They’ve learned that being accountable and respectful is empowering and actually feels good, he said.
They focus on willingness.
Willingness means many things, according to Shannon Kolakowski, PsyD, a clinical psychologist who specializes in couples and premarital counseling in Bellevue, Wash. “Willingness means listening even when it’s not what you want to hear, forgiving even when your feelings are hurt and being willing to accept your partner for who they are, even when they are not at their best.”
Willingness means treating your relationship as a top priority and with love and respect, she said. It means sharing who you are, being your partner’s biggest ally and making time for special moments, she said.
They appreciate each other.
Kolakowski has found appreciation to be a powerful quality in relationships because it fosters closeness. “Appreciation is an antidote to feeling unloved, alone or lonely in your relationship, and it’s a bridge to healing and connecting.” For instance, when you feel like your partner appreciates you, you feel that they see the best parts of you, she said. And when you regularly show appreciation for your partner, you magnify their positive traits.
“I also have seen that the happiest people are those couples who do appreciate what they have,” said Kolakowski, author of the book When Depression Hurts Your Relationship. They have goals and want to grow, while being happy with what they’ve built. “They know to appreciate the foundation that they have in their life.”
They don’t harbor resentment.
Resentment can be poison to a relationship. It grows and metastasizes until it chips away at your connection. Individuals ruminate about the grievance and it affects how they view and interact with their partner.
According to Kingman, partners in healthy, happy relationships address problematic issues in a timely and constructive manner. Or, if they decide not to address an issue, they let it go or forgive their partner, he said.
Couples in healthy, happy relationships have differences. They hurt each other. They have problems. But it’s how they navigate these issues—with compassion, understanding, love, respect—that strengthens their connection.