It’s February, so you know what that means! Valentine’s Day, candy hearts, chocolates, flowers, gushiness, consensual hugs and kisses, and bright and shiny relationships with no imperfections at all!
Okay, so that’s not actually real life. Relationships can bring us joy, comfort and life-sustaining emotional nourishment. They can also be challenging, unsettling and anxiety-inducing. So, this month we are offering tips on how to make your relationship healthier, happier, and more connected. After all, we are social creatures—healthy relationships are key to thriving in this world!
Establishing and maintaining healthy relationships is a process, but it is possible. Here are some practical steps you can take to prioritize and realize healthier relationships not only with intimate partners, but also with friends, family members, and even coworkers.
1. Think about what’s important to you in a relationship.
To have the kind of relationship you want, you actually have to know what you want out of the relationship. Ask yourself these questions and write down your answers:
- Who are some people who love you? How do they show that they love you?
- How do you want to be treated by a relationship partner?
- How do you want to treat your relationship partner?
Use your responses to these questions to identify what your personal and relationship boundaries are. Boundaries are guidelines, rules, or limits a person creates to identify what are reasonable, safe, and permissible ways for other people to treat them or behave around them. They can be physical, emotional, or intellectual, and they are not fixed, rather they vary depending on the situation.
If you expect to be treated with respect and someone else verbally berates you, they are violating your boundaries. Boundaries are relatively easy to identify in your mind and on paper, but it can be harder to negotiate the boundaries of a relationship made up of two different people. This leads us to our second tip.
2. Communicate about, set, and respect mutually agreed-upon boundaries with your relationship partner.
Often, conflict in relationships arises due to conflicting expectations about boundaries. Once you’ve determined what’s important to you in a relationship, bring the topic up with current or potential relationship partners. Share your boundaries with them, and ask them to think about and share theirs.
If two people are engaging with one another, even informally, they are participating in a relationship whether or not there is a label attached to it. How we treat others in these situations has real impacts on their lives, and this is what makes conversations about boundaries so important when beginning to relate romantically or intimately with another person.
This process of communication shouldn’t be viewed as a burden, either. Think of it as a liberating and fundamental process of openly asking and answering questions about your intentions, interests, desires, and boundaries regarding a relationship. It’s a way of acknowledging and respecting your partner’s value and humanity, and a way to connect and build intimacy. In compatible relationships, it will bring loads of warm, fuzzy feelings.
You may find that some people are open to these conversations and that others feel threatened by them. Keep in mind that it takes two to make a healthy relationship. Both you and your partner have to be willing to make respect, open communication, and boundary-setting a priority.
3. Know your relationship rights and responsibilities.
In a relationship, you have the right to…
- Have and express your own feelings and opinions.
- Make decisions about yourself and have equal decision-making power.
- Say “no” to physical closeness or any other act that makes you uncomfortable, at any time.
- Choose your own friends and maintain relationships with those friends.
- Participate in activities that do not include your partner.
- Control your own money and possessions.
- Live free from fear and abuse.
- End the relationship.
In a relationship, you have the responsibility to…
- Determine your boundaries and values.
- Respect your partner’s limits, values, feelings, and beliefs.
- Communicate clearly and honestly.
- Give your partner space to be their own person.
- Be accountable for your actions.
- Ask for help when you need it.
- Not intimidate or abuse your partner in any way.
- Compromise when necessary.
- Be considerate.
To build and maintain healthy and happy relationships, keep these relationship rights and responsibilities in mind at all times.
4. Recognize red flags of relationship abuse.
Sometimes relationship problems are more than conflict—sometimes they amount to abuse. Here are some common red flags of abuse in relationships that should be taken very seriously:
- Criticizing or putting down your relationship partner
- Making your relationship partner feel bad about themselves or like no one else will ever want to be with them
- Making your partner feel guilty about spending time with friends or family by getting sad or angry when they do so
- Expecting your relationship partner to always spend time with you
- Using verbal threats or name-calling against your relationship partner
- Making your partner feel like they can’t say what’s on their mind because of how you will respond
- Feeling unable to control or constructively communicate about your feelings of anger or frustration
- Having rigid beliefs about how women and men should behave
- Forcing or pressuring your relationship partner to do sexual things that they are not comfortable doing
- Fighting others with the intention of establishing and/or maintaining ownership or authority over your relationship partner
- Physically assaulting your relationship partner
Manipulation, control, isolation, guilt-tripping, threats, intimidation, disrespect, and violence have no place in relationships, and such patterns of behavior constitute abuse. Check out the Power and Control Wheel for more information on relationship abuse and the Louisiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence for resources.
5. Accept that the healthiest outcome may be for the relationship to end.
Relationships are whatever participants mutually agree that they should be, but sometimes mutual agreement isn’t possible. When there’s true incompatibility of boundaries, values, and expectations, it’s not going to work, and that’s okay! It may feel painful or shameful, and that’s normal. For many, the end of an intimate relationship feels like a failure and a negative reflection on one’s self-worth. We even call them “failed relationships,” which is a pretty negative way of looking at the situation.
It can be difficult to choose singledom over a relationship that’s just not working even after so much effort has been put into it, or when you’re at an age where you feel you should be settled down, but there’s nothing successful about keeping a mostly bad relationship going. Ending a relationship that is bad or abusive can be difficult, yet it can ultimately be the most successful and empowering choice you can make for yourself.*
Remember: all endings are also beginnings. Even if it’s hard to envision, you likely have the ability to garner the strength, resources and social support it will take to get through the rough times and on the path to more positive beginnings.
*If you fear ending your relationship due to threat of violence, call the Louisiana Domestic Violence hotline at 888-411-1333 to seek confidential support.
6. Make engaging in healthy, positive relationships a life goal.
Relationships are a fact of life, and healthy relationships are a possibility depending on the decisions you make and actions you take. Be proactive by setting a standard of communicating about boundaries and expectations. Value and respect the people you’re in relationships with, and expect them to value and respect you. Choose honesty, even when it’s difficult.
When things get challenging, remind yourself of your positive vision for relationships. When you don’t know where to turn, seek out trusted, nonjudgmental support. Make an appointment to see a therapist who is trained to assist others in figuring out and working through life’s challenging situations. Set boundaries with explanation but without apology. Surround yourself with those people who will value, support, and constructively challenge you to grow into the person you want to be.
It’s your life. What kind of relationships are you going to build? Follow these tips and you’ll be six steps closer to the bright, shiny relationships you want — with a few imperfections, maybe, but lots of love, care, meaning, and substance.
Additional resources for setting, communicating about, and enforcing healthy boundaries:
Additional resources for gaining understanding about yourself and your partner:
In addition to bringing us Valentine’s Day, February is Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month. To prevent teen dating violence and promote healthy relationships among youth in the Capital Area, request a STAR education session.