Signs of a Healthy Relationship
In the simplest terms, a healthy romantic and/or sexual relationship is one that makes one feel good about oneself and one’s partner(s). All relationships are different, of course, but healthy ones have at least five important qualities in common. The acronym S.H.A.R.E. can help you remember these qualities:
Safety in a relationship mean that partners have no worry of harm, and no actual harm, either physical, emotional, or sexual. If harm is done, partners are able to hold each other accountable or safely end the relationship. Safety also means that partners do not have any inclination to jeopardize each other’s safety in the future. It is possible to try new things (like taking a night class) or change one’s mind about something (such as engaging in a sexual activity) without fearing the reaction of one’s partner.
Honesty means that partners can express their thoughts and feelings without fear of censure or repercussions. Honesty also means that all partners are kept in the loop on information pertinent to the relationship, and can have open dialogues and voice opinions freely. An honest relationship is also one where disagreements are resolved by communicating truth.
Acceptance means all partners accept each other as they are, and appreciate each other for their unique qualities (like shyness or emotionality). In an accepting relationship, no one is trying to fix or change each other. To say that acceptance is key to a healthy relationship doesn’t imply that partners can never be frustrated with one another, or can never ask each other to stop doing something. Acceptance doesn’t mean unilateral tolerance. It means accepting people’s personalities, needs, and quirks. Acceptance also that if they don’t like another partner’s qualities, they may want to examine their motivations for being with that partner. If partners truly do not get along as people, then that is a relationship that should probably be ended.
Respect means that all partners in a relationship think highly of each other, and do not experience feelings of superiority or inferiority relative to other partners. Respect in a relationship also means letting partners have their own identities, opinions, and ideas, and knowing that they are a separate person with their own individual autonomy. This is not to say that they have to tolerate everything another partner does or does not do. Setting limits is a sign of self-respect. Respecting each other’s boundaries and limits is incredibly important and worth noting for sexual relationships.
A healthy relationship is not just about how people treat each other – it also has to be enjoyable. In a healthy relationship, people feel energized and happy in each other’s presence, and there is a good amount of shared fun activities and laughter between them.
Even the healthiest of relationships can have hard times. For example, a common issue in relationships is desire discrepancy, when partners’ libidos do not match.
Note that relationships do not have to take any particular form to be healthy. You don’t need to follow certain steps (i.e., date, then commitment, then marriage), you don’t need a fairy tale, and you don’t need to follow expected societal rules (such as monogamy). As long as your relationship is safe, honest, accepting, respecting, and enjoyable, you can define your relationships as you wish.
That being said, there are a number of factors that may indicate that a relationship is unhealthy, which we summarize below:
Signs of an Unhealthy Relationship
Isolation is deliberately separating a partner from others, including their friends and family. Isolation tactics may be overt, such as moving your partner away from others, or may be covert, such as making no effort to connect with your partner’s loved ones, or guilting them for spending time with others.
Blaming or denying actions is often about displacing responsibility for wrong actions onto the other partner. Blaming often looks like circling back with accusations about how your partner caused your poor actions. Denying is exactly what it sounds like - simply opposing what your partner claims, and taking no accountability.
Threatening means giving partners a “If this, then that” scenario and then claiming something negative will happen or they will do something negative. Often, threats in unhealthy relationships are framed as natural consequences to a partner’s actions, and coupled with guilt to imply that one partner left the other with no choice but to do something negative.
Economic manipulation is all about using money, assets, or property to control your partner. Economic manipulation does not always involve shared money, and can be exercised as blatant theft.
Controlling behaviour is a pretty broad term, but involves violating your partner’s autonomy by forcing or telling them what to do.
Gaslighting and lying is all about making your partner feel as if the things they know and remember are not true. Gaslighting is a specifically manipulative tactic used to make a partner feel like they are ‘crazy.’ Lying may be more explicit, but can be equally damaging.
Relationships that involve one or more of those unhealthy relationship red flags can be considered abusive. Abuse in a relationship is defined as one or more partners acting in ways to deliberately hurt or harm another partner. Harm can include physical harm, verbal attacks or derogatory language, extreme dependency and overreliance on a partner, or excessive jealousy or possessiveness. Sexual assault or coercion is also abuse, as are threats of harm.
If you suspect you’re in an unhealthy or abusive relationship, there’s a good chance you are. Perhaps you know deep down that you’d be better off without the relationship but are afraid to leave it. You may depend on your partner’s income, you may fear being on your own, or you may rationalize the relationship as “better than nothing.” In the long run, an abusive relationship can do far more damage to your self-esteem than the absence of a relationship (and the opportunity to find a healthy one). If you need support leaving an abusive or unhealthy relationship, we can help connect you to resources.