Relationships take work – we’ve all heard that one before. And it’s true. Having a fulfilling relationship takes constant effort and emotional investment.
But it’s also true that for the work to pay off, you need to build on a solid foundation. If you don’t have one, things can get shaky pretty quickly. Or it might seem fine but then suddenly fall apart.
So what makes for a solid foundation? Experts agree it’s all about how you communicate with and treat each other.
Here experts share seven signs of a healthy relationship and why they’re a good indicator of whether you and your partner will be able to go the distance.
1. YOU RESPECT EACH OTHER’S BOUNDARIES
“Boundaries are just two people recognising each other’s limits, their values, their past, their personal space and their privacy,” says Irish psychotherapist Darren Magee, who discusses mental-health issues on his YouTube channel. “And it must work both ways.”
Couples in a healthy relationship feel comfortable setting boundaries and are confident their partner will respect those boundaries.
It isn’t up to your partner to decide whether a boundary is reasonable or not, says Lauren Moss, a counselling psychologist based in Sandton, Johannesburg. “Respecting your partner as an autonomous adult means you also respect that they can decide what their boundaries are.
“In a healthy relationship, this is shown by honouring the boundary, even if it doesn’t make sense to you,” she tells YOU.
It’s all about respecting your partner’s beliefs and opinions. “You shouldn’t try to coerce, convince or manipulate your partner into changing their position,” says Joburg-based relationship expert Paula Quinsee.
2. YOU AGREE TO DISAGREE SOMETIMES
Disagreement is normal – in fact, it would be abnormal if you and your partner agreed on everything all the time. But it’s how you handle conflict or disagreement that matters, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be resolved.
It’s unrealistic to expect that you’re always going to agree on everything because you and your partner are individuals with different upbringings and perspectives, Quinsee says. “Embracing your differences and seeing them as ways to complement each other rather than clash will go a long way,” she adds.
Perhaps one of you is good at organising and planning while the other isn’t, and is good at being spontaneous instead. You can both benefit from this by learning to leverage each other’s strengths in different situations.
You need to agree on the big stuff – what you want from the relationship and how to discipline your kids, for example. But when it comes to things such as how the dishwasher is packed you need to be able to accept that some people do it differently from you.
You should be able to argue without it becoming a fight, Magee says. “Because you can’t be on the same page all the time. But you need to actively listen to the other person and validate them.”
Validating someone doesn’t mean you agree with them or even understand why they feel a certain way – it’s about saying, “I care enough to hear you,” he points out.
3. YOU DON’T LOSE YOUR IDENTITY
As your relationship grows you merge into a partnership but it’s important that you don’t end up losing yourself. You should feel free to be yourself, to do things on your own without your partner (within established boundaries) and to voice your views, ideas and opinions even when these differ from your partner’s.
A healthy relationship has a balance between your individual sense of self and your sense of togetherness as a couple, Moss says.
“A healthy relationship entails two people retaining their individuality but at the same time coming together to co-create the us/we/ours,” Quinsee adds.
4. YOU ENCOURAGE EACH OTHER
Being in a healthy relationship means being each other’s cheerleader.
“This doesn’t mean blind encouragement even when you can see your partner is making a bad decision,” Moss says. “Supporting someone also means pointing out when they’re misguided. But it’s done with the right intention.”
In a healthy relationship, partners can express concerns or worries about things that might be going wrong or making them unhappy, secure in the knowledge they’ll find a supportive sounding board.
For example, if your partner tells you they feel as if they’re being victimised at work, a critical partner who’s always looking to find fault might say, “You’re probably just imagining things”, rather than asking questions to help them make sense of the situation.
“Knowing that your partner has your back and that you can rely and depend on them helps build emotional safety and connection in a relationship,” Quinsee says.
5. YOU MANAGE YOUR EXPECTATIONS
Many people have an idealised version of what they want their partner to be, but reality and the ideal often don’t match. “It’s important to have realistic expectations of yourself and the other person,” Magee says.
Unmet expectations can cause a lot of hurt in a relationship, yet few couples sit down and clarify their expectations of each other and their relationship, Quinsee says.
Couples in a healthy relationship don’t simply assume they know what their partner needs, she adds. They have regular conversations and check-ins as their relationship evolves.
It’s also about taking responsibility for getting your own needs met, says Jana Lazarus, a clinical psychologist from Cape Town. “We can’t sit around hoping that love turns our partner into a mind-reader.”
“Communication is the key,” Moss adds. “Openly sharing what you expect means your partner knows what you want and has a better chance of meeting it.”
6. YOU TRUST EACH OTHER
This is about more than trusting that your partner won’t be unfaithful. It means you’re confident your partner won’t intentionally do anything to hurt you or damage the relationship, and that you don’t question their intentions.
It also means you never feel as if you’re being put through a test to prove your loyalty.
7. YOU PRIORITISE EACH OTHER’S NEEDS
Your relationship feels balanced and you both put effort into ensuring the other’s needs are met. You don’t let one person’s needs or opinions dominate, and both feel that your wishes and interests are just as important as the other person’s.
This is essentially about being equal in the relationship, and while one partner might sometimes put in more than the other – whether it’s time, effort, money or emotional support – this is part of a natural rhythm and the outcome always feels equitable.
People have different needs at different times, says Michael Kallenbach, a couples therapist based in Parkhurst, Joburg.
“Also, some people are more needy than others, and that’s okay,” he tells YOU. What’s important is that there’s open communication about it.
SIGNS OF AN UNHEALTHY RELATIONSHIP
It won’t always be smooth sailing, but certain dynamics and behaviours are warning signs that all isn’t well in your relationship. These are the ones you shouldn’t ignore:
If your partner makes excuses for bad behaviour or constantly blames you or others for the things they do, alarm bells should ring.
Making you feel guilty
Does your partner make you feel as if it’s your job to keep them happy? Or blame you for things that are out of your control? Not a good sign.
If you need to walk on eggshells around your partner because of their intense, extreme or unpredictable reactions, it’s time to rethink the relationship.
When your partner tries to keep you away from family and friends, or gradually insists you spend more and more of your time with only him or her, don’t ignore it.
EXTRA SOURCES: DARRENMAGEE/YOUTUBE.COM, PSYCHOLOGYTODAY.COM, VERYWELLMIND.COM