Healthy relationships shouldn’t take much work. And if they do, it’s time to go our separate ways. We must be compatible. If we need therapy, our relationship is already doomed. My partner is supposed to know what I want, and what I need. Healthy couples never argue, because fighting ruins relationships.
These are just some of the common myths and misconceptions we cling to regarding what healthy romantic relationships really are, and what they really look like.
This is important. Because our beliefs affect our behavior—and how we determine the state of our relationship and our satisfaction with it. If you believe that therapy is only for couples nearing divorce or who have “real” problems, you might be missing out on a vital tool that could enhance and bolster your marriage. If you believe that your partner is supposed to instinctively know your needs, you won’t clearly express them, and you’ll be walking around feeling incredibly unsatisfied, resentful, and unfulfilled. If you think healthy relationships are effortless, you might flee at the first sign of conflict—which can actually be an opportunity to strengthen your connection, if done right.
In other words, our beliefs can set us up for relationship success—or failure. They can lead us to grow closer as a couple, or they can lead us to leave (or remain very unhappy).
As such, we spoke with several experts to shatter some common myths and share what everyone needs to know about healthy relationships.
Healthy relationships are not 50/50. In fact, some days, weeks, or months, healthy relationships might be 90/10, said Mara Hirschfeld, a licensed marriage and family therapist who has a private practice in Midtown Manhattan specializing in individuals and couples going through relationship distress.
The key is that both partners remain supportive, and have trust that these wide-ranging percentages won’t be the reality forever.
Hirschfeld shared this example: A wife feels overwhelmed at work, and needs to stay late at the office every night for a few weeks, which leaves her husband to take care of the kids and household responsibilities. The following month the husband’s mom is diagnosed with cancer, which means he needs more emotional and logistical support at home, which his wife then refocuses on.
According to Hirschfeld, the key takeaways are: “recognizing and identifying where you both are on the scale (90/10); communicating openly about this; and working hard to maintain trust and not assume malicious intent (i.e., ‘she stayed at work because she doesn’t care’ vs. ‘because she really needed to’).”
Healthy relationships have conflict. Every relationship has conflict, because human beings are complicated, and have different beliefs, desires, thoughts, and needs. After all, even siblings who share a lot of the same DNA raised in the same family are not the same.
The difference with healthy relationships is that “partners repair any distress they have caused each other in a timely fashion,” said Clinton Power, a clinical relationship counsellor and founder of Clinton Power + Associates in Sydney, Australia. This is critical, because over time unresolved conflict can fester into resentment and bitterness, he said.
Healthy couples honor their wedding vows. According to Peter Pearson, Ph.D, a psychologist and co-founder of The Couples Institute, “If you wrote your own wedding vows, you have within your hands the best marriage advice any one could give you.”
That’s because you penned your vows “from your higher self,” describing how you aspire to be in both good and bad times, and how you’ll be as a loving partner, he said. You likely made promises that aren’t so easy to keep, and maybe you mentioned how you’ll bring about the best in your partner, he said.
“I believe what Heinz Kohut said: ‘A healthy relationship is when only one person goes crazy at a time.’ That is how you become a hero to your partner and create a relationship that lasts.”
Healthy couples put each other first. In other words, partners prioritize each other over other people and things, Power said. He shared these examples: You planned on going out with friends, but your partner wants to spend the night at home. So you decide to see your friends another night, and stay in. Your partner wants to see a film you have zero interest in, but you decide to see it anyway so you can spend some quality time with each other. Your partner tells you they’ve been feeling disconnected lately, so you cancel several commitments to spend one-on-one time together.
Healthy relationships also can trigger our deepest attachment wounds. For example, according to Hirschfeld, one partner makes a playful sarcastic comment, and the other partner gets defensive. They yell or make rude remarks to protect themselves. This stems from growing up with an emotionally abusive parent, and becoming “extra sensitive to [their] partner’s tone, facial expressions, or comments that may appear judgmental.”
She noted that “usually we experience strong reactions to things that make us feel unwanted, unworthy, or unlovable or may remind us of a time in our lives when we felt hurt by someone we love.”
In other words, Hirschfeld said, our brain becomes hard-wired to respond a specific way based on our early childhood experiences with our caregivers. “If our attachment to them was insecure or unpredictable, it can influence our worldview about whether the world is safe and whether people can or cannot be trusted.”
Healthy couples protect each other. Power pointed out that this means protecting each other from painful situations, “including yourself!” This means having each other’s back, and not harming each other in public or private.
He shared these examples: You don’t take another person’s side over your partner. If you do have an issue with how your partner is handling a specific situation, you talk to them in private, instead of in front of others. If other people are putting your partner down, you defend your partner. If someone has an issue with your partner, instead of acting as a “middle man,” you tell them to address it directly with your partner.
Ultimately, according to Pearson, healthy relationships look like the relationship that you and your partner can agree on—and “are willing to take the emotional risks and sustained effort to bring about. And do it with loving patience. And a high tolerance for disappointment.”
Because, as Hirschfeld said, relationships need room for error and mistake making—and for forgiveness. It’s important to acknowledge, she said, that our partners are imperfect, just like us. Which is absolutely OK since
relationships don’t need to be perfect to be satisfying and fulfilling. They can have conflict and misunderstandings.
But relationships do need to be built on “trust and safety,” which make up “the foundation of any healthy relationship,” Power said.