We, humans, get lost in the open sea of romantic relationships with ease. When I was a 19-year-old kid, I stayed in an unhealthy relationship for a long time. I was green behind my ears and certified in cluelessness. In hindsight, I overstayed because I was too proud to give up and had no idea what a relationship should be like. I didn't know that a relationship doesn't have to entail constant fighting.
This piece is not meant as a perfect blueprint for every relationship. A discrepancy between my words and your current relationship doesn't mean that you are doomed. True love requires work. Always. You might happen to identify some things you’d like to be different. You can change them. It’s your relationship. You have that power. The three key ingredients to make a successful change in your daily life are:
- You and your partner are openly communicating about your emotions
- You are aligned in your mission to create a wonderful relationship for both of you
- You are both willing to put in the work
You and your romantic partner have the potential to grow together. Most times, you can make it work. Don't recklessly throw that opportunity away. This Reddit comment frames it beautifully. Love is a matter where it’s worth striving for greatness - a quest that requires commitment and effort.
Let's have a look at the success factors of a healthy relationship. We will first cover emotional indicators where you get an idea of the feelings that accompany a good relationship. Then, we cover behavioral indicators that help to give a reference based on your actions in daily life.
Emotional indicators of a healthy relationship
You feel comfortable
Everyone in your relationship should feel physically safe and generally relaxed with the partner around. In a way, being with your partner should instill the metaphorical feeling of laying on your couch while being wrapped in a cozy blanket and sipping your favorite jasmine tea. The Danish call it hygge.
After spending a day with your partner you should typically feel recharged instead of drained.
You can be yourself around them
There are so many people who feel this pressure to pretend to be something else for their partner. They are servants of that idea that their partner fell in love with. Dead wood from the time you were dating. “Fake it until you make it” comes back like a boomerang. Your future rests on a ramshackle foundation.
Having nothing to hide in front of your partner is when you feel truly accepted. Acceptance and belonging are some of the most fundamental human needs. That's why I believe in being absolutely transparent about all aspects of your life. Trusting your partner that they are accepting you fully if you pour your heart out to them, that's where it's at.
Peer-reviewed studies back this as trying to change a partner is only resulting in a decline in relationship satisfaction (Hira & Overall, 2011). It turns out that humans are who they are and a partner is not going to change that against their will. That’s why happy couples accept each other 's flaws (South, Doss & Christensen, 2010).
Your life goals are aligned
Being in a relationship means being on a team. This only works if you have goals in your life that complement each other. If that's the case, you can wholeheartedly support each other on your mission. A beautiful thing. In a strong relationship, we are subject to the Michelangelo Phenomenon. This concept describes when a partner’s affirmation of one’s life goals helps to actualize them (Rusbult, Finkel & Kumashiro, 2009).
If you are missing this support, then you must be willing to step back and accept that being in this relationship means that you have to alter your life goals. In this scenario, the partner who makes the bigger sacrifices needs to be careful not to accumulate resentment over time. Tread carefully.
You feel secure and connected
It’s almost impossible to open up emotionally when you doubt whether your partner is committed to you and your relationship. It’s no wonder that research (Tan, Agnew & Hadden, 2020) shows that mutual commitment correlates with positive relationship outcomes. Therefore, when you feel emotionally secure about your current partner’s relationship intentions you will be able to connect on a deeper level.
You feel sexually satisfied
It’s not a secret that if you feel overall sexually satisfied you are more likely to be happy with your relationship (Sprecher & Cate, 2004). Mind blown, I know.
What’s interesting though is that men feel more relationship satisfaction if they feel like their partner is sexually satisfied according to studies (Yoo et al., 2014). Let that sink in. Getting your partner off is not just good for your partner but also for your own well-being. So make sure to check out some of my guides under the Enjoying Amazing Sex category 💦
You trust each other
Trust is important for all aspects of your relationship. Building trust takes time and even a one-time breach can be hard to recover from. That’s how we humans work. The benefits of trust are omni-evident. Trust and commitment share a positive reinforcement cycle and through that, your relationship becomes much stronger (Wieselquist, Rusbult & Foster, 1999). Mutual trust equals personal freedom. Without trust, even hanging out with friends becomes a rollercoaster of jealousy. With trust, everything is possible. Trust enables you to walk far without worry.
Having nothing to hide from your partner is one of the best feelings. Many people don’t know what it’s like to have a clean consciousness because they hide some aspects of their identity. Some humans hide that they like drugs, some humans hide their queer selves, some humans hide their affairs. It’s always a gamble and the integrity of your relationship are the stakes. With honest communication, even in the small things, you're building your relationship into a fortress rather than a shackle.
Behavioral indicators of a healthy relationship
You are seeing your friends
Of course, new relationships are exciting and you want to spend all the time in the world with your partner. However, in the long run, you need to keep connecting to other humans like your friends and family. Being able to meet people without your partner is a great sign that you are not too attached or even in a codependent relationship.
A codependent person makes their happiness dependent on their partner. In our Disney princess-infested world too many people get this wrong. We are supposed to be happy by ourselves. Making our personal life satisfaction dependent on another person undermines our autonomy. We become addicted to our partner who needs to be needed and the whole system gets out of balance. Too much attachment ain't good for us. Codependency is much more complex than this, if you are interested in the concept then I suggest you check out this article.
You address problems openly
Things don’t always go smoothly and they don’t have to. Relationships are meant to be bumpy sometimes. Some emotional turmoil is normal and okay. Communication is irreplaceable because we, humans, lack the ability to read minds - for now. Until the 6th gen of Neuralink devices hits the market, it’s important to provide verbal feedback. When you do it’s vital that you are not criticizing your partner as an individual as the Gottman Institute suggests.
Don’t do: “You are a bad person for never taking out the trash.”
Instead, try to refer to a specific action and express constructively what you would like your partner to do differently.
Do: “Please try to remember to take the trash out from time to time. You’d make me feel appreciated and heard.”
You are honest with your partner
Trust depends on honesty. When we feel that our partner is holding us to a standard that we didn’t sign up for, we tend to bend the truth. Therefore, if it’s easy for you to tell your partner the truth then that’s strong evidence that your relationship is healthy. Even if it’s hard, you should opt for honesty. Deception is often the easy way out. However, a habit forms quickly and lies accumulate. Once the avalanche gets rolling it’s hard to stop. Keep things real, even in the small. You don’t like these leopard pants? Don’t say that you do.
You have sex regularly
What constitutes as regularly is quite vague. It could be once every two weeks or twice per day. It all depends on your sexual needs and schedules. For most couples (yes, there are asexuals on this planet) sexual attraction and a healthy amount of physical intimacy are good indicators for their feeling of emotional connectedness (Van Lankveld, et al., 2018). Some studies even suggest that sexual satisfaction leads to emotional intimacy (Yoo et al., 2014). This means that having sex with your partner could foster your emotional connectedness. My take: Do what works for you and talk about sex often.
You share exciting experiences
Boredom is killing more relationships than anything else. Research shows that couples who do exciting- over pleasant things together are more satisfied with their relationship (Reissman, Aron & Bergen, 1993). Here, pleasant things relate to activities that you have done relatively often and know that you like them. The strongest example for most couples would be watching Netflix. Whereas exciting activities are things that you haven’t done or haven’t done often and are ideally a bit out of your comfort zone. What’s exciting to you is very personal. It might be a couple tantra workshop, a rafting tour, salsa dancing. The list is endless as long as you are ready to escape the cage that is your habit.
You respect each other's boundaries
This is an absolute must and you shall never slip. While other factors I discussed are expected to fluctuate, respecting each other’s boundaries is not up for negotiation. 100% mandatory, 24/7/365. Boundaries in a sexual context are the things that you are comfortable engaging in. Consent is not a one-time thing. Consent needs to be requested whenever you engage physically with your partner. Just because your partner agreed to try anal once, it doesn’t mean that you can shove your dick up their butt without asking the next time. Ideally, you want to become thoughtful of your partner’s body language. Sometimes your partner doesn’t feel comfortable doing something and you need to be able to sense that even if they don’t speak up.
Boundaries in other contexts refer to the other aspects of life. For instance, if your partner can’t afford to eat at fancy restaurants and you have a rule to always split the bill, then always suggesting to go to these places would be considered overstepping a boundary. Generally, being aware of what your partner feels comfortable with and not pushing or manipulating them so that you get your way is what respecting non-sexual boundaries is about.
You are doing each other favors
You understand that a relationship means putting in the work. We’ve covered the 5 love Languages in another article already and so you know that you and your partner might express love differently. Accommodating your partner’s needs and going the extra mile to make them happy makes a difference. If you find yourself doing a favor or two, you are on the right track.
When to walk away?
Abusive relationships weren't half as dangerous if the people in them would be able to recognize their harm. We slide in gradually. Like a frog in a pot on the stove. We don't recognize the increase in temperature until we are medium-rare. Staying in bad relationships has negative consequences for our mental health (Mackinnon et al., 2021). Please know that an abusive relationship doesn't have to contain physically abusive behavior. If you have the feeling that you might be in a toxic relationship you can check this article and see if you recognize any patterns or symptoms.
Committed relationships grow
Happy relationships are beautifully empowering for everyone involved. We might be striving for perfection, yet we might never get there. In Germany, we have a saying “der Weg ist das Ziel” which means the journey is the reward. Don’t focus on a goal sometime in the future. Instead, try to be grateful for what you have at this moment. Never stop working on your committed relationship. Appreciate your partner and seize the time you share with them.
Hira, S. N., & Overall, N. C. (2011). Improving intimate relationships: Targeting the partner versus changing the self. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 28(5), 610-633.
Mackinnon, S. P., Sherry, S. B., Antony, M. M., Stewart, S. H., Sherry, D. L., & Hartling, N. (2012). Caught in a bad romance: perfectionism, conflict, and depression in romantic relationships. Journal of Family Psychology, 26(2), 215.
Reissman, C., Aron, A., & Bergen, M. R. (1993). Shared activities and marital satisfaction: Causal direction and self-expansion versus boredom. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 10(2), 243-254.
Rusbult, C. E., Finkel, E. J., & Kumashiro, M. (2009). The michelangelo phenomenon. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 18(6), 305-309.
South, S. C., Doss, B. D., & Christensen, A. (2010). Through the eyes of the beholder: The mediating role of relationship acceptance in the impact of partner behavior. Family Relations, 59(5), 611-622.
Sprecher, S., & Cate, R. M. (2004). Sexual satisfaction and sexual expression as predictors of relationship satisfaction and stability. In The handbook of sexuality in close relationships (pp. 245-266). Psychology Press.
Tan, K., Agnew, C. R., & Hadden, B. W. (2020). Seeking and ensuring interdependence: Desiring commitment and the strategic initiation and maintenance of close relationships. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 46(1), 36-50.
Van Lankveld, J., Jacobs, N., Thewissen, V., Dewitte, M., & Verboon, P. (2018). The associations of intimacy and sexuality in daily life: Temporal dynamics and gender effects within romantic relationships. Journal of social and personal relationships, 35(4), 557-576.
Wieselquist, J., Rusbult, C. E., Foster, C. A., & Agnew, C. R. (1999). Commitment, pro-relationship behavior, and trust in close relationships. Journal of personality and social psychology, 77(5), 942.
Yoo, H., Bartle-Haring, S., Day, R. D., & Gangamma, R. (2014). Couple communication, emotional and sexual intimacy, and relationship satisfaction. Journal of sex & marital therapy, 40(4), 275-293.