A Question I'm Asked Surprisingly Often: "How Do You Know If Your Relationship Is Healthy?"
Updated: Feb 2, 2022
Whether it be in month two or in year five, there comes a time in every great love story when the illusions begin to fade and the sloppy realities of being human shine through.
After falling from the dopamine high of early infatuation, the butterflies in your stomach start to settle and the bathroom habits have been exposed, the red-hot fireworks may've begun to vanish. As they say, maybe you start to wonder if the thrill is gone. Or, instead, you're feeling like the thrill is alive and well, but is proving to be toxic to your sense of self.
But, while all couples ebb and flow in terms of attraction, compatibility and intimacy, and while no romance will ever be a vision board of perfection, there are some specific hallmarks of a love story that points to one of vitality and promise.
As a journalist who's interviewed hundreds of top mental health and relationship experts, and who's championed dozens of articles covering the nuances of what makes a bond warm, enriching and worthwhile, here's what I've come to believe: a healthy love story enhances the beautiful evolution of self.
I know this through my work, through the feedback I've gotten from readers and through my own (nearly) decade-long marriage as well. There's no way around it; a relationship worth having encourages your fulfillment and growth.
It shouts, in a myriad of ways, "Shine! Stretch out! Become your best version, baby!" Healthy love involves two people who boldly choose each other, but never at the risk of denying themselves. It strives to meet the other's needs for companionship and connection, all the while encouraging each other to progress through their individual journeys.
So, if you're scratching your head about whether or not a relationship is a recipe for lasting love, or is headed for romantic disaster, I may have some heart-sparing insight for you. Ahead are some signs that you and your plus one are building a bond that's healthy and real... or, instead, that you might consider searching for cleaner air.
Your thoughts and opinions aren't silenced, but given a mic.
Your partner cares what you think and how you feel, even when they disagree. Whether a political debate, a documentary or a new album release, your opinion and perspective shimmers with value. They care what you want to eat for dinner and what kind of milk you prefer in your morning coffee.
They want to know your opinion on choosing paint colors for your living room, selecting a destination for your weekend getaway or deciding where your kids will attend school.
Because all of those things illuminate different angles of you: the person they love.
You're allowed to set a boundary or voice a concern without feeling guilt-tripped or attacked.
Is something your partner habitually says or does starting to give you a sick feeling in your stomach? Do you feel like the habitual joke is going too far, perhaps jabbing an area of immense vulnerability? Or, say, perhaps you feel like your partner is allowing their family members to intrude upon your personal affairs and space? If so, you're confident that you can give your concerns volume in a loving way, and that the two of you will come to an understanding.
Research shows that negative communication patterns can have bond-destroying effects on a relationship over time. Being dismissed or gaslighted when illuminating a problem can wreak havoc on trust and intimacy. Because no one wants to feel like their boundaries and feelings aren't being respected.
The ways you raise and receive concerns with your partner can either crystallize your bond or rip it apart. Which is also to say that, in a healthy relationship, communication habits are handled and delivered with care.
While you deeply value your partner's comfort level, you're not governed by it–especially if it means denying yourself.
A healthy romance doesn't ask that you turn your back on yourself in order to make your partner feel happy and secure. When someone loves you, they don't want to take ownership of you, but play a leading role in the story of you–the kind where you govern yourself.
Say, for example, you've been invited out for a night of lobster tail and fizzy cocktails with your best girlfriends–ones you haven't hung out with in months. You're itching to slide on a kittenish party dress and curl your hair and gloss your lips.
It's been so long since you felt fancy. Except there's that pit in your stomach again–the one that suggests you meet your friends for a coffee powwow instead. The kind where a bare face, yoga pants and a disheveled top-bun will be the attire.
You badly need this dazzling girl's night out with your friends, sure. But you don't want to arouse your partner's jealousy or suspicion. And you don't want to deal with them giving you the cold shoulder for a week, either.
In such a case, your relationship is almost certainly tipping the scale toward unhealthy. Because, essentially, it's corrupting your right to govern–and be– yourself.
Your desire for personal space is respectfully honored.
You need a night to yourself to finish up a hair-yanking work project, or maybe just recover from a setback, by binge-watching Emily in Paris with your dog and your favorite Rosé spritzer? That's totally cool with them, even if they'll miss you.
Your partner loves you so much that they want you to be at your happiest and most peaceful. They want you to have whatever it is you need to recharge and emerge as your most whole and present self.
This is a facet of a healthy relationship that took me so painfully long to embrace. In my 20's, when I was still in the grips of unresolved childhood trauma, I believed that enmeshment and jealousy were the results of deep, incomparable, can't-get-enough-of-you love.
But, oh my god, was I so dangerously wrong. The truth is, if your partner wants to control you and dominate your image, thoughts, space or time, they either don't love you or are stuck in behavioral defaults and patterns that make it impossible for them to safely love you.
Possession isn't a part of a healthy love story, but is a death sentence to your sense of self.
You're never made to feel weird for the ways you're evolving.
Want to go back to school and earn the masters degree in marketing? Although there might be financial reservations or other obligations that give them pause, your partner will do their best to support this dream.
Tossing around the idea of going vegan? Cool. While your partner might not share the same goals, they support the ways you choose to improve your quality of life. Even if it means you won't be sharing platters of chili cheese fries or pints of Haagin Daauz with them any time soon.
The bottom line? Your partner will respectfully adapt to the ways you wish to grow and evolve. Because they love you.
Secrets? You won't be needing those. Because honesty is always on the table.
In a 2012 study, a social psychologist determined that keeping secrets in a relationship creates a damaging cycle of self-concealment–one that becomes increasingly difficult to squirm out of over time. This breeds mistrust and wreaks havoc on connection. Because a relationship is only as real and as strong as the foundation of truth it's built upon.
Your individuality is applauded and empowered to shine.
You uphold your own ambitions, friendships and hobbies. Perhaps your own art nook or fitness routine. Your partner knows this and encourages it. Because they never wish to dampen your shine; only empower it. They aren't intimidated by your hard-earned achievements or brilliance; instead, they're cheering you on and clapping for you every step of the way.
In essence, your plus one has no desire to hide you away from the world, but to lift you up on their shoulders. Because they feel like everyone should know how lovely you are.
While passionate arguments happen, volatility isn't a common theme.
Slamming doors and zig-zagging across traffic? Random disappearing acts and ghosting in text messages? Screaming fights that stretch on into the witching hours of the night?
While some disagreements might reach explosive levels, those instances are rare. And, when the fiery battles do happen, they end quickly and resolutely. Sincere apologies and humble sentiments are always exchanged, and true resolve is never not the goal.
Because your love story isn't a swing of exalting highs and lows. More than anything, it's a haven.
Nobody's keeping score.
You and your love boat aren't opponents, but a team. Even when embroiled in an argument, you're still pulling for their side, too. While you fight to be understood, sure, your aim is not solely to prove that you're right and that they're wrong.
Because, ultimately, it's about fighting for the glory of the union. The kind where love is the ultimate prize.
You prioritize stress-relievers in your relationship–especially of the intimate variety.
Research in psychology has revealed that prolonged stress can cause even the healthiest of relationships to crumble over time. But it's preventable!
Things like pillow talk, holding hands, sharing a laugh and locking eye contact are great, for starters. You might try leaning in for a tender kiss when you pass your plus one in the kitchen. Or flash them a smile when your child does something cute. Or bring them a tall glass of water when they're up with the baby in the middle of the night.
Couples massages and sexy coastal getaways, while lovely, aren't in everyone's budget, but that doesn't mean there aren't a world of thoughtful and creative ways to consciously reduce the stress of career obligations, finances, in-laws, parenthood, etc. Intimate gestures–from steamy rendezvous to simple love notes strewn by the coffee pot–are a fabulous gateway.
Your core values are harmoniously aligned.
While you might have different interests, passions, musical tastes and personality types (hey, perhaps even opposing political stances), the two of you are gazing onward at the same vision board. Morally and ethically, you're reading from the same map–always aiming for the same destination.
It's made clear that you're appreciated.
Dr. Harville Hendrix and Dr. Helen LaKelly Hunt, neuroscientists and New York Times bestselling authors of Getting the Love You Want: A Guide for Couples, stress the power of mutual appreciation in a relationship. Whether it be when one of you puts away the dishes or hangs a fresh towel while the other is showering, expressing gratitude is not only a hallmark of a healthy relationship, but a key strengthener as well.
"One of the things that creates the most positive neurochemistry, triggering endorphins and dopamine, is what we call 'positive flooding.' With an elevated voice, say 'You are amazing!' or 'What a great person I’m married to!' This increases the neurochemistry for both you and your partner, supporting the notion that what you put in is what you get out," suggest Dr. Hendrix and Dr. Hunt.
You rarely, if ever, doubt where you stand in the romance.
While it's normal for every relationship to have areas of insecurity, the overarching theme is one of safety and support. You don't find yourself curling over the sink, trembling and growing queasy, when you and your partner have a bad day or week.
In other words, you're not living in constant fear of being abandoned or replaced by someone else. You know where their heart is–and you know it's with you.
At the end of the day, you recognize a healthy relationship by the way it enhances your overall life experience.
When you're in an unhealthy love story, it casts a darkness over nearly every other area of your life. You might be more stressed out at work. Perhaps you find yourself hiding dirty secrets from your family or friends. Or, you might find yourself bypassing certain opportunities or shunning an important lunch meeting because you fear it'll cause a storm in your relationship. If so, you could be starring in an unhealthy love story–maybe even one of the tragic variety.
Because, while good and bad times are guaranteed to find even the most functional and thriving of romances, in general, a healthy relationship expands and illuminates the most capable and hopeful parts of you. It magnifies your confidence, motivation and presence within the world.
You'll know you're in a healthy relationship when you've never been more sure of the way that you love you.
Note: A previous version of this article was published to Lacey's former brand, TheWonderReport.com, in 2021.