Open communication, curiosity, individual interests, and teamwork are just a few ways to develop a healthy relationship. But it may also depend on your needs and those of your partner.
If you have or want a romantic relationship, you probably want a healthy one, right? But what’s a healthy relationship, exactly?
Well, it depends.
Healthy relationships don’t look the same for everyone since people have different needs. Your specific needs around communication, sex, affection, space, shared hobbies or values, and so on may change throughout life.
So, a relationship that works in your 20s may be nothing like the relationship you want in your 30s.
Relationships that don’t align with more traditional definitions of a relationship can still be healthy. For example, people who practice polyamory or ethical non-monogamy might define a healthy relationship somewhat differently than people who practice monogamy.
In short, “healthy relationship” is a broad term because what makes a relationship thrive depends on the needs of the people in it.
“One thing healthy relationships largely share is adaptability,” says Lindsey Antin, a therapist in Berkeley, California. “They adapt to circumstances and the fact we’re always changing and going through different phases in life.
Here’s a look at some other hallmarks of healthy relationships.
Partners in healthy relationships typically talk about the things going on in their lives: successes, failures, and everything in between.
You should be comfortable talking about any issues that come up, from things that happen in everyday life, such work or friend stress, to more serious issues, such as mental health symptoms or financial concerns.
Even if they have a different opinion, they listen without judgment and then share their perspective.
Communication goes both ways. It’s important you also feel that they’ll voice their own concerns or thoughts as they come up.
People in non-monogamous relationships may place even more value on emotional check-ins and frequent communication about what’s happening with other partners.
Trust involves honesty and integrity. You don’t keep secrets from each other. When you’re apart, you don’t worry about them pursuing other people.
But trust goes beyond believing they won’t cheat or lie to you.
It also means you feel safe and comfortable with them and know they won’t hurt you physically or emotionally. You know they have your best interests in mind but also respect you enough to encourage you to make your own choices.
Healthy relationships are best described as interdependent. Interdependence means you rely on each other for mutual support but still maintain your identity as a unique individual.
In other words, your relationship is balanced. You know you have their approval and love, but your self-esteem doesn’t depend on them. Although you’re there for each other, you don’t depend on each other to get all of your needs met.
You still have friends and connections outside the relationship and spend time pursuing your own interests and hobbies.
One key characteristic of healthy, long-term love is curiosity.
This means you’re interested in their thoughts, goals, and daily life. You want to watch them grow into their best self. You’re not fixated on who they used to be or who you think they should be.
“You hold flexible mindsets about each other,” Antin adds.
Curiosity also means you’re willing to consider or talk over changes to your relationship structure if aspects of your existing relationship become less fulfilling. It also involves realism. You see them for who they truly are and care about that person, not an idealized version of them.
Most people in healthy relationships prioritize spending time together, though the amount of time you spend together can vary based on personal needs, work and other commitments, living arrangements, and so on.
But you also recognize the need for personal space and time on your own. Maybe you spend this time relaxing solo, pursuing a hobby, or seeing friends or family.
Whatever you do, you don’t need to spend every moment together or believe your relationship suffers when you spend some time apart.
Playfulness or lightheartedness
It’s important to make time for fun and spontaneity when the mood is right. If you can joke and laugh together, that’s a good sign.
Sometimes life challenges or distress might affect one or both of you. This can temporarily change the tone of your relationship and make it hard to relate to each other in your usual ways.
But being able to share lighter moments that help relieve tension, even briefly, strengthens your relationship even in tough times.
Intimacy often refers to sex, but not always. Not everyone enjoys or wants sex. Your relationship can still be healthy without it — as long as you’re both on the same page about getting your needs met.
If neither of you has interest in sex, physical intimacy might involve kissing, hugging, cuddling, and sleeping together. Whatever type of intimacy you share, physically connecting and bonding is important.
If you both enjoy sex, your physical relationship is most likely healthy when you:
- feel comfortable initiating and talking about sex
- can positively handle rejection
- can discuss desires
- feel safe expressing your interest in more or less sex
Healthy intimacy also involves respecting sexual boundaries. This includes:
- not pressuring partners about sex or specific sex acts when they say no
- sharing information about other partners
- discussing sexual risk factors
A strong relationship can be considered a team. You work together and support each other, even when you don’t see eye to eye on something or have goals that aren’t exactly the same.
In short, you have each other’s back. You know you can turn to them when you’re struggling. And you’re always ready to offer support when they need you.
Even in a healthy relationship, you’ll have occasional disagreements and feel frustrated or angry with each other from time to time. That’s completely natural. It doesn’t mean your relationship is unhealthy.
What matters is how you address conflict. If you can talk about your differences politely, honestly, and with respect, you’re on the right track.
Partners who address conflict without judgment or contempt can often find a compromise or solution.
Your relationship should contribute to a sense of fulfillment, happiness, and connection. If you tend to feel more anxious, distressed, or unhappy around your partner, your relationship may be struggling.
Signs of unhealthy relationships can vary widely, so this list isn’t all-inclusive. But it may help point out some possible issues.
One of you tries to control or change the other
“We are never in control of changing another person,” Antin says.
If you’re concerned about a specific behavior, you should feel comfortable enough to bring it up. It’s OK to express your feelings and ask them to consider making changes. But it’s not OK to tell them what to do or attempt to control their behavior.
If they do something that really bothers you and you can’t accept it, the relationship may not have long-term potential.
Your partner doesn’t respect your boundaries
Boundaries can come into play across your relationship, from respectful communication to privacy needs. If you set a boundary and they push against it or pressure you to change it, that’s a serious red flag.
Maybe you’ve said, “I need personal space when I get home from work. I’m happy to see you, but I need to de-stress before any physical affection.”
But they continue to come up to you right when you get home, trying to kiss you and pull you into the bedroom. When you say no, they apologize and say “they just can’t help themselves.”
You might brush this off as a sign of affection and keep restating the boundary, hoping they’ll get it eventually. But their behavior shows disrespect for your needs.
You don’t spend much time together
Relationships often develop when people enjoy each other’s company and want to spend even more time together. Life events can sometimes get in the way of your time together, but these changes are usually temporary.
Your relationship might be struggling if you consistently see less of each other without a clear reason, such as family difficulties or more responsibilities at work.
Other warning signs include feeling distant with each other or relieved when you aren’t together. You might even try to find excuses to avoid spending time together.
The relationship feels unequal
Healthy relationships tend to be fairly well balanced. You might equally share finances, or balance out a lower income by running more errands.
But relationship equality can also relate to intangible things, such as affection, communication, and relationship expectations.
Periods of inequality can happen from time to time. One of you might temporarily lose your income, struggle to help with chores because of illness, or feel less affectionate due to stress or other emotional turmoil.
But if your relationship regularly feels unbalanced in any way, this can become problematic.
They say negative or hurtful things about you or others
There’s nothing wrong with showing concern when your partner does something that worries you. But in a healthy relationship, partners generally take care to express their feelings in helpful, productive ways.
It’s not healthy to constantly criticize each other or say intentionally hurtful things, especially about personal choices, such as food, clothing, or favorite TV shows. Criticism that makes you feel ashamed or bad about yourself is generally unproductive.
Also note how they talk about others. Your relationship with each other could seem perfectly healthy, but if they use hate speech, slurs, or make discriminatory remarks about others, consider what this behavior says about them as a person.
You don’t feel heard in the relationship
Maybe you don’t feel heard because they seem disinterested when you bring up a problem or share something that’s been on your mind. Or you might have a hard time sharing your opinion or talking about serious issues because you worry they’ll just brush you off.
Miscommunications can happen, of course. But if you do talk through an issue and they seem receptive but don’t make any changes or seem to have completely forgotten what you talked about by the next day, that’s also a warning sign.
You’re afraid of expressing disagreement
Partners should always feel safe to have their own opinions, even when this means they disagree. If your partner responds to your (different) viewpoint with dismissal, contempt, or other rudeness, this often suggests they don’t respect you or your ideas.
If you find yourself censoring everything you say because you worry about their reaction, or feel like you’re “walking on eggshells” every day, as Antin puts it, it may be time to seek professional help.
If you fear physical or mental abuse, talk with a therapist as soon as you can. Don’t hesitate to reach out to friends and family for additional support, too.
You don’t feel happy or comfortable around your partner
For many people, key relationship goals include increased happiness and life satisfaction. If you feel uneasy or unhappy all the time, the relationship may not be meeting your needs.
This can happen even when you’re both putting effort into the relationship. People change over time, so feeling dissatisfied and trapped doesn’t necessarily mean either of you has done anything “wrong.” You may have just become different people who no longer fit well together.
Disagreements or discussions don’t go anywhere
Healthy conflict resolution typically leads to solutions or compromise. Maintaining a relationship is an ongoing process, so you might not work everything out right away. But you usually feel good about your conversations afterward. You usually see some progress.
It’s generally not a good sign when you find yourself talking in circles or about the same issues all the time. Maybe there’s never any improvement, no matter how much you discuss something. Maybe they eventually just shut you out.
It’s difficult to apply the same standards to every relationship. However, if you’re looking for guidance on whether yours is healthy, there are a few things you can ask yourself as a sort of self-test.
Is your relationship healthy?
- Does my partner encourage me to grow?
- Do we share goals for the future?
- Do we want the same kind of relationship?
- Can I be myself with them?
- Do I accept them for who they are?
- Do we give and take from each other fairly equally?
- Is my life better with them in it?
- Does our time together have meaning?
If you answered yes to six or more of these questions, your relationship is probably a strong one.
If some (or several) of the relationship red flags struck home, couples counseling might be a good step.
“Couples therapy is about two people arriving to work on themselves,” Antin says. Getting help doesn’t mean you’ve failed. It means you want to work at improving, for yourselves and for each other.
But even the healthiest of relationships can sometimes use a little extra work. Here are some tips to make sure things stay on the right track.
Embrace each other’s differences
“They might be ambitious, while you’re more of a homebody,” Antin says. “But this is a good dynamic since one of you can initiate activity or go out and adventure, while one of you enjoys quiet time and keeps the home fire burning.”
Consider their perspective
“Be curious about the way they do and see things instead of trying to get them to see things your way,” Antin recommends.
Solve problems as a team
“Work together to solve problems, instead of making each other the problem,” Antin says.
Ask for what you want, and be equally ready to listen to their desires
You may not always agree, but that’s all right. You’re two different people, after all. Being able to find a compromise is key.
Try something new together
If your relationship seems stale or like it’s going nowhere, try taking it somewhere to see what happens. A change of scenery can sometimes change your perspective.
Talk about your goals and dreams
This can help you reconnect and make sure you still share similar hopes and values.
A shared love of hiking and a mutual fondness for Indian food might have helped you meet your partner, but these factors have little to do with keeping your relationship healthy over time.
At the end of the day, trust and feeling safe together are essential. Do you believe in your ability to learn and grow together?
If you’re worried about your relationship or believe it’s not as strong as it used to be, try to trust your instincts and explore what these feelings mean. A therapist can help offer guidance on when more effort might help and when it’s time to move on.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.