What is a healthy relationship? I won’t forget sitting beside a man in his 50’s coming back from the West Coast. In sharing his story with me, he told me that he and his wife lived across the country from each other. He was a doctor in Chicago and she was living with their children in California to be closer to her family.
I didn’t understand how that could work and proceeded to ask him several questions. Through our conversation I realized that I was projecting my perception of a healthy relationship on his. The expectations and desires I had for my own marriage were different than his. He was a good man and gave me several insightful things to think about, and I walked away from that conversation reconsidering my definition of a healthy relationship.
Just like how each of us lives our lives, there is no “one right way.” We have to figure out what works for us, but along the way there are some foundational elements that can help.
Clarify your values. Values are a person’s beliefs about what’s important and what matters most. They impact the way we see the world, influence our decisions, inform our thoughts, words and actions and they help us set boundaries and prioritize our time. Here are some questions to help you clarify your values:
- What do I believe about myself? Others? The world?
- What is meaningful and valuable to me?
- What matters most?
- What will matter at the end of my life?
Each of us grew up differently and share different perspectives on these questions based on what we have experienced. I held some unhealthy beliefs about money and sex that were a source of contention in my own relationships until I was willing to examine what those beliefs were and where they came from. Being honest with myself about my values and beliefs, and then talking openly with my husband about them changed our relationship in a really positive way and helped us understand each other better.
When we have clarity about values, we can move into setting boundaries. Boundaries are the rules and limits you set in a relationship that determine what is okay and what is not okay. They help us practice self-care and self-respect, allow us to communicate our needs, and make time and space for positive interactions. Many of us have not been shown what healthy boundaries look like. We take on other people’s emotions, we rescue other people from the consequences of their actions, we people-please and do so much for others that we end up compromising our own values, the list goes on. Use these questions to help you better define your boundaries:
- Does how I spend my time, energy and money reflect my values?
- Do I feel comfortable setting time limits?
- Can I say “no” without feeling guilty?
- Can I attend to important aspects of my life without feeling pressure in others?
- Can I identify my emotions and express them?
In our marriage, Mitch and I have tried to put boundaries in place that protect our time with each other. It’s easy to get swept up in all the invites and the busyness of a week and leave little to no time left over for each other. We work to keep two nights a week and one day a weekend open for the two of us to do what we want. Sometimes that’s nothing more than sitting together on the couch to talk or watch a show. We also have boundaries around the time we need to be alone. These boundaries have improved our connection and help us make sure we spend quality time together. Something of note about boundaries: we can be consistently redefining them based on what’s happening in our life, what season we’re in, and what’s most important.
Another element that builds healthy relationships is our ability to practice trust, respect and communication. I say practice because this takes constant and consistent effort. Many of us want trust, respect and communication given to us before we will give it but that’s not the way it works. We can’t get it without giving it. We have to make a choice to trust and respect each other, and we have to continue to choose it. None of us are perfect, and we will certainly do things that break trust or compromise respect. It’s up to us to keep choosing to trust and respect the other in spite of our imperfections. Here are some questions to evaluate whether you have some work to do around trust, respect and communication:
- Do I confidently ask for what I need?
- Do I ask others what they need?
- Am I comfortable asking for help?
- Do I offer help with no judgment?
- Am I safe in my relationships to express my inner world?
- Do others feel safe enough to share their inner thoughts and feelings with me?
When we find ourselves frustrated, we can choose communication over shutting down. Tell the other person how you feel and invite a conversation. When Mitch first started traveling for work, we had to have several conversations about things. I was worried about shouldering the load of things at home and upset that often we didn’t get a chance to talk on the phone because of his busy schedule. I took my frustration out on him at first, and then decided to tell him how I felt and we found solutions that worked for both of us. Too many of us are walking around full of resentment because we aren’t willing to ask for what we need. This is up to you to change.
When we do start to speak up, we won’t always get what we want. We have to learn commitment and compromise. We have to want to “get it right” rather than “be right.” I find myself consistently needing to set aside my own ego for what really matters, and to choose the relationship over a particular situation. How about you? Consider the following:
- What am I committed to?
- Who am I committed to?
- Am I comfortable sharing a different perspective?
- Do I accept the perspectives of others?
- Can I accept that my feelings, thoughts and preferences change?
- Do I honor the thoughts, feelings and preferences of others when they change?
We recently had a team meeting that didn’t go well. My partner, Brooke, and I both came into the meeting tired and frustrated. Instead of giving her the space she needed, I kept pushing for answers and pushing her to share what she wasn’t ready to share. I wanted to resolve things then and there, and my desire to talk it out got in the way of what she needed. The meeting didn’t end as we wanted and we took the weekend before talking things out. Looking back, the whole thing could have been prevented had we both honored the other instead of wanting to be right or do it our way. Had we compromised for each other, things would have been better. We did get to the right spot ultimately, because each of us was committed to working it out.
What your relationships look like is up to you. Be intentional about making them what you want.