Maintaining healthy relationships
Even the happiest, most joyful, and loving relationships require work and need maintenance from time to time. The ins and outs of daily life can leave us feeling disconnected and distant from our partner, which can lead to conflict. Conflict within a relationship is normal and expected, and can even be beneficial to a relationship when it is respectful. While no relationship is perfect, healthy relationships usually have a combination of the following traits:
- Trust: Building trust in a relationship happens gradually over time and requires a mutual commitment. It is an important part of knowing that you can be open and vulnerable to share intimate thoughts, feelings, and experiences with your partner.
- Open and Honest Communication: Communication is essential in relationships, and yet it isn’t always easy. Being able to talk openly to your partner about your needs is important and helps to resolve conflict.
- Mutual Respect and Boundaries: People in healthy relationships are able to set clear and respectful boundaries with each other around their own needs and are able to respect their partner’s boundaries even if they don’t understand it or agree with it.
- Affection and Interest: Healthy relationships are dependent on showing affection and taking interest in the other person.
Sometimes it can be difficult to put forth the effort it takes to maintain a relationship. Time, family, work, other commitments, etc. can strain relationships and disconnect us from the people we love the most. It is important to take time to prioritize your relationship and to reconnect with your partner when needed. The tips below can help to successfully manage conflict to help grow and strengthen your relationship.
- Trust is built on consistency in positive behaviors over time. When trust has been broken, it may take time to heal and to build that trust again. Showing up when you say you will, keeping sensitive information private, respecting boundaries, being honest about your feelings are all ways to help rebuild trust.
- Say what you mean, and do what you say
- Admit mistakes- No one is perfect and we all make mistakes. Admitting that you have made a mistake, taking ownership, and apologizing goes a long way in building trust.
- Strike while the iron is cold- You may have heard the saying “Strike while the iron is hot” and while this can be helpful in other situations, it often doesn’t apply to having a difficult conversation. Difficult conversations can get heated quickly. Finding the right time when everyone’s calm and not distracted, rushed, or stressed can be helpful. Consider scheduling time to talk if one or both of you are particularly busy.
- Talk face to face- Tone, body language, facial expressions, etc. can be hard to interpret through texts or email and sometimes can be misinterpreted. If you have difficulty talking face to face, it may be helpful to write down what you want to say while you are talking to your partner so that you don’t forget key points you want to make.
- Avoid Attacks- Using “I feel…” statements without blaming or shaming your partner can be helpful in having a productive conversation. When people feel attacked they become defensive and are less likely to engage in a productive conversation. For example, saying “I feel we have been more disconnected lately” rather than “You are always so distant” can allow space for your partner to engage in the conversation in a different way.
- Be honest- If something is bothering you, it is important to share it, even if it is difficult. Your partner cannot read your mind, even though you may wish they could.
- Take a break- If the conversation gets too heated, you can always ask for some time before continuing the conversation. Taking time to calm down can prevent creating more conflict.
- Check your body language- 98% of all communication is non-verbal, meaning that it isn’t necessarily what you say, but rather how you communicate it. Make eye contact, sit facing toward the person, appear confident and interested in what the other person has to say.
- Listen- So often we are busy forming our reply to what the other person is saying that we don’t really hear them. Try to find the meaning behind what they are telling you. You don’t have to agree with everything they are saying, but try to find a piece of what they are saying that you can build upon.
- Negotiate- Sometimes offering up a solution that meets both needs can be helpful. Can’t think of one? Ask the other person if they have any ideas on how you can come to a compromise.
- Be a Broken Record- It is easy to get thrown off track when a partner tries to bring up other issues during a conversation. Having a short sentence prepared that you can repeat each time when this happens can be helpful. For example, “We can talk about who takes the trash out later, right now we’re talking about how we can connect more often.”
- Use communication as a form of meaningful connection- At times communication can limit our ability to be seen or heard. Oftentimes we go about our day without really connecting with people. How many times have you passed someone and asked “Hey, how are you?” only to get a response of “I’m good” or “fine” and wondered if the other person was actually fine or good? At times, we follow social norms that can leave us, or the other person, feeling unseen and unheard by others. By checking in with your partner to see how they really are, you let them know you want to connect with them in a different way.
Mutual Respect and Boundaries
- Assume the other person is doing the best they can with what they have. When you assume that people have negative intentions it shifts the lens of respect and we assume the other person is trying to be disrespectful or hurtful in some way. If you assume the other person has positive intentions and is doing the best they can with a situation, it then becomes a problem to work on together, rather than separate.
- Show empathy- be able to put yourself in your partner’s shoes and see the experience from their point of view. This does not mean that you have to agree with them, but that you are able to see their point of view and how they came to a decision or conclusion.
- Boundaries are based on your values and what is important to you. When boundaries are not clear, it is easy for someone to impose on those values without even knowing. Being aware of your limits and in touch with your emotions can help guide you to knowing where your boundaries are so that you can communicate them to your partner.
Affection and Interest
- Going back and remembering why you fell in love in the first place can be helpful in decreasing tension in relationships. Try to think of things you and your partner used to do before daily stressors began to creep in. Make a plan to engage in some of those activities.
- Sending quick texts letting your partner know you are thinking about them during the day
- A small touch or wink when you pass them
- Engaging in small acts of love, often can build intimacy and help the other person to know that you see them and value them.
The key to healthy relationships is putting the time and energy it takes into maintaining them. You and your partner are each 50% responsible for your relationship, one person can never take full responsibility. However, at times, one partner may be carrying a heavier share of their load. This may be ok from time to time, however, finding balance in how this is done is part of the work within a relationship. Sometimes, couples need assistance in figuring out how to manage this balance or have difficulty in one of the areas above. If this is happening for you and your partner, finding a couple’s therapist in your area may be helpful. Many couples who go to therapy find that it increases and strengthens the bond they share. You do not have to wait until your relationship is on the brink of disaster. Many couples with strong relationships go to therapy just to make sure that their relationship is as good as it can be. Times of transition (like when a couple is TTC/pregnant or postpartum) are good opportunities to see a therapist for a “tune-up”.
Recognizing Unhealthy Relationships and Emergency Resources
While healthy relationships can require a lot of work, it is also important to know when a relationship may cross over to being unsafe. Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) is a pattern of behaviors used by one partner to maintain power and control over another partner in an intimate relationship. These behaviors may include, but are not limited to:
- Repeatedly using words, yelling, or screaming in a way that frightens you, threatens you, puts you down, or makes you feel rejected
- Making you afraid that you could be physically hurt
- Threatening you with a weapon to scare or hurt you
- Forcing or coercing you to have sex, or controlling or denying you access to birth control
- Slapping, kicking, pushing, choking, or punching you
According to the Futures Without Violence, 1 in 4 women in the US have experienced violence by a partner at some point in their lives. It is important to know that this is not your fault and you are not alone. If you, or someone you know, ever feels unsafe in their relationship, there is help. The National Domestic Violence Hotline is available 24/7 by phone, text, or live chat:
- To reach them by phone, call 1-800-799-7233
- If you are unable to speak safely, you can log onto thehotline.org and click the “Chat Now” button for a live chat on their website
- And finally, you can access the text line by texting “LOVEIS” to 22522
Further Reading and Resources
7 Principles for Making Marriage Work by John Gottman
The Gottman Institute https://www.gottman.com/
5 Love Languages by Gary Chapman
Free assessments on how you give and receive love https://www.5lovelanguages.com/
Esther Perel- https://www.estherperel.com/
Thehotline.org – National Domestic Violence Hotline