What makes a relationship work?
Communication, boundaries, consent, trust, equality, and healthy conflict resolution are all important parts of a relationship.
A healthy relationship starts with mutual respect, including respect for each other's emotional, physical and digital boundaries. Setting boundaries can be an ongoing process in a relationship. It's important for partners to know each other's concerns, limits, desires and feelings, and to be prepared to respect them. People and relationships evolve, and everyone has the right to change or adjust their boundaries as they see fit. Creating open conversations about boundaries in a relationship can help ensure that all partners' boundaries are respected at all times. Here are some helpful questions to ask yourself when considering setting boundaries in your relationship:
Does each partner get the space they need to live healthy lives as individuals?
As great as it is to want to spend time with your partner, it's important to have some time away from each other, too. It's not healthy for either partner to try to set limits or use guilt or pressure to control where their partner goes or who they spend time with. Everyone should feel free to spend time alone or with friends and family without having to get permission from their partner or check in and explain their whereabouts. If boundaries around personal space are not being respected, that may be a sign that one or both partners is having trouble with trust.
Is intimacy comfortable and consensual at all times?
Sexual consent is absolutely essential in a relationship, whether you're just starting to date or you've been married for years. Sex should never feel obligatory, and you should always feel that your partner cares about your comfort and boundaries. Everyone has different backgrounds, desires, and comfort levels when it comes to intimacy, sex and methods of protection. It's important to feel comfortable communicating your boundaries around intimacy and to trust that your partner will always respect them. It can help to talk with your partner about boundaries and expectations around sex before you're in the moment, as well as talking about how you'd like to communicate with each other in the moment to make sure you are both aware of each other's boundaries throughout. While discussing boundaries beforehand can help, even in the moment you always have the right to set boundaries or change your mind. People's levels of comfort and desire change, so it should never be assumed that just because someone was okay with something in the past, they will always be okay with it. No matter how long you've been with someone or how many times you've done something, you have the right to say no at any time for any reason. Learn more about consent in a healthy relationship here.
Is there mutual respect for privacy?
Everyone has the right to privacy, and that's not something you should have to give up to be in a relationship. While it's okay to share personal information like passwords to social media, bank accounts, email, phone, etc. if you wish to, it should never feel required, and it's completely reasonable to keep those private. Having access to another's personal accounts or information also doesn't give anyone the right to look through them without the owner's permission. Even if you have shared passwords with your partner, you have every right to expect them to respect your privacy and boundaries. Leaving your private accounts open is never an invitation to invade your privacy. Talking with your partner about what you do and don't wish to share can be a great way to lay some ground rules around privacy.
Do you and your partner respect each other's boundaries without getting angry or making each other feel bad?
Everyone has the right to set boundaries. You should always feel comfortable communicating your boundaries to your partner without being afraid of how they'll react. Personal boundaries shouldn't feel like castle walls during a siege. Once you have set boundaries, you shouldn't feel like you have to actively defend or reiterate them to have them be respected by your partner, and vice versa. In a healthy relationship, both people want their partner to feel happy, respected and comfortable, and they use knowledge of each other's boundaries to help them understand how to keep the relationship happy and healthy. Using pressure, making you feel guilty, or arguing with you about whether your boundaries are reasonable is not respectful or healthy. If you don't feel comfortable or safe setting boundaries, or if your boundaries are not being respected by your partner, that can be a red flag for unhealthy or abusive dynamics in the relationship. Learn more about setting boundaries in a relationship on the loveisrespect website.
If you answered “yes” to all of these questions, congratulations! It sounds like there are healthy boundaries in your relationship. If you answered “no” to one or more questions, this could be an indication that you and your partner might want to work on creating more boundaries in your relationship, or that you might want to assess for red flags for unhealthy or abusive dynamics in the relationship.
Relationship Spectrum: Healthy, Harmful, and Abusive
A healthy relationship means that you and your partner(s):
- openly communicate about problems and listen to one another
- respect and value each other's opinions
- believe what your partner has to say without a need to "prove" trustworthiness
- are honest with each other but can still keep some things private
- make decisions together and hold each other to the same standard
- recognize each other's need for spending time apart, alone or with others
- talk openly about sexual and reproductive choices together. All partners willingly consent to sexual activity and can safely discuss what they are and are not comfortable with
- have equal say with regard to finances. All partners have access to the resources they need
- are able to parent in a way they feel comfortable with. You communicate together about the needs of the child(ren), as well as the needs of the parents
A harmful relationship means you or your partner(s):
- don't communicate or discuss when problems arise
- are not considerate or respectful of the other(s)
- doesn't believe what the other says or feels entitled to invade their privacy
- are dishonest and tells lies or omits important information
- tries to take control due to feeling their desires and choices are more important
- only spend time with their partner, or their partner's community is the only one they socialize in
- uses pressure or guilt on the other to have sex or do anything sexual at any point
- assumes only one partner is responsible for making informed decisions
- assumes only one partner is in charge of finances or does not discuss money or resources
Abuse may be present in the relationship when one partner:
- communicates in a hurtful, threatening, insulting or demeaning way
- does not respect their partner(s)' feelings, thoughts, decisions, opinions or safety
- (repeatedly) accuses the other of cheating or having an affair
- denies and blames their partner for the harm they're doing, makes excuses or minimizes their abusive behavior
- controls all, or most, decisions for the couple without equal input
- isolates their partner and controls where they go and who they talk to
- forces sexual activity or pregnancy
- controls the money and access to resources, prevents dialogue about finances, prevents their partner from earning an income or takes their money
- manipulates the child(ren) to gain power and control over the other partner, including telling the child(ren) lies or negative things about the other partner
Consent is about open, honest communication. Consent is a mutual agreement about what people want to experience. When it comes to consent, the phrase “no means no” doesn't really provide a complete picture because it puts the responsibility on one person to resist or accept. People communicate in different ways that they're not comfortable with something (like freezing up or simply pulling away). The saying “yes means yes” can be useful in thinking about what consent really means: consent is a safe, open and ongoing conversation about what both people are actively want to experience together.
Consent needs to happen every time. Consent is a process to be established on an ongoing basis. In a healthy relationship, you always have the right to set and adjust your own boundaries based on what feels right to you in the moment. Your relationship status does not make consent automatic. Whether it's the first time or the hundredth time, a hook-up, a committed relationship or a marriage, nobody is ever obligated to give consent, even if they have done so in the past. You are the only one who ever has ownership of your body.
Consent is not a free pass. Saying yes to one act doesn't mean you have any obligation to consent to other acts. Every act of physical intimacy requires consent. If you're in the midst of something and feeling uncomfortable, or if things are going further than what feels right to you at that moment, you always have the right to stop, even if you agreed to it earlier. There's no such thing as implied consent. Flirting with someone, talking, showing interest or any other actions do not equal consent. Consent only happens when both people voluntarily, explicitly and enthusiastically agree to engage in what's happening.
The absence of 'no' is not consent. It's not consent if, for any reason, you're afraid or unable to say no. It's not consent if you're being manipulated, pressured, or threatened to say yes. It's also not consent if you or a partner is unable to legitimately give consent, which includes being asleep, unconscious or under the influence of conscious-altering substances like alcohol, some prescription medications and other drugs. Nonconsent means stop. If anyone involved isn't consenting, then what is happening is or could be rape, sexual assault or abuse.
Open, honest communication should be part of every healthy relationship. The guidelines below can help open up the channels of communication between you and your partner. If you're in an unhealthy or abusive relationship, use these tips with caution.
You know your relationship best. If any of these tips would put you in danger, we don’t recommend that you try them. For healthier communication, try to:
Find the right time
When having a serious conversation with your partner about something that's bothering you, it's a good idea to pick the right time to talk. Try to find a time when both you and your partner are calm and not distracted, stressed or in a rush. You might even consider scheduling a time to talk if one or both of you are really busy.
Talk face to face
Avoid discussing serious matters or issues in writing. Text messages, letters and emails can be misinterpreted. As long as you feel safe doing so, talk in person so that there aren't any unnecessary miscommunications.
Do not attack
Even when we mean well, we can sometimes come across as harsh because of our word choices. Using “you” can sound like you’re attacking, which could make your partner defensive and less receptive to your message. Instead, try using “I” or “we.” For example, say “I feel like we haven’t been as close lately” instead of “You have been distant with me.”
Sometimes the truth hurts, but it's the key to a healthy relationship. Admit that you aren't always perfect and apologize when you make a mistake instead of making excuses. You will feel better, and it will help strengthen your relationship.
Check your body language
Make eye contact when speaking. Sit up and face your partner. Let your partner know you’re listening. Show them you really care. Don’t take a phone call, text or be distracted while you’re having a conversation.
Use the 48-hour rule
If your partner does something that makes you angry, it’s important to talk to them about it. But you don’t have to do so right away; taking a little time to process how you’re feeling can be helpful for reacting in a healthy way. If you’re still hurt 48 hours later, say something (and try using the tips on this page!). If not, consider forgetting about it. But remember, your partner can’t read your mind. If you don’t speak up when you’re upset, there is no way for them to apologize or change their behavior. Once you do mention your hurt feelings and your partner sincerely apologies, let it go. Don’t bring up past issues if they’re not relevant.
How to Communicate if You Are Angry
Everyone gets angry at some point in a relationship. What’s important is that you and your partner are able to resolve conflicts in a healthy way, even while angry. If you get angry with your partner, here are a few steps you can take:
If you’re really angry about something, stop, take a step back and breathe. Give yourself time to calm down by watching TV, talking to a friend, taking a walk, listening to some music or do whatever helps you relax. Taking a break can keep the situation from getting worse — and help you decide what needs to happen in order to make it better.
After you’re no longer upset, think about the situation and why you got so angry. Was it how your partner spoke or something they did? Figure out the real problem, then think about how to explain your feelings.
Finally, talk to your partner. When you do, follow the tips for healthy communication above.
After you tell your partner how you feel, remember to stop talking and listen to what they have to say. You both deserve the opportunity to express how you feel in a safe and healthy environment.
Communicating isn’t always easy. At first, some of these tips may feel unnatural or awkward, but they will help you communicate better and build a healthy relationship.
Trust is an important part of a healthy relationship, but it’s something that many people struggle with, for a lot of different reasons. What does trust mean? Trusting someone means that you think they are reliable, you have confidence in them and you feel safe with them physically and emotionally. Trust is something that two people in a relationship can build together when they decide to trust each other. You can’t demand or prove trust; trusting someone is a choice that you make.
How Do I Build Mutual Trust in a Relationship?
Building trust within a healthy relationship is something that happens gradually. How do you know if you should trust someone? This can be a hard question to answer, especially at the beginning of a relationship. Your own instincts about a person and the way they behave over time are two important things to consider when making that decision. Of course, in a healthy relationship, it’s important for both partners to trust and be trusted, to open up and be vulnerable with each other. Trust can’t be built if only one partner is willing to do this and the other isn’t. Building trust requires mutual commitment. So, as your relationship progresses, ask yourself:
Are we both there for each other?
When there is trust, partners are there for each other not just physically, but emotionally as well. Does your partner listen to you and support you? Are they sensitive to your problems, worries and fears? Do they show compassion and genuinely care about you? A person who is trustworthy is able to demonstrate consideration and care of others. This also means that they trust you to know what’s best for yourself. A partner who tells you that they know best or that you don’t know how you really feel isn’t showing that they trust you. It’s also important to keep in mind that in a healthy relationship, you can trust that no matter what happens, your partner won’t react in a way that threatens your safety or harms you. Everyone deserves to be in a relationship with someone who can resolve conflicts in a healthy, respectful way.
Are we both consistent with each other?
Each person in a relationship demonstrates their trustworthiness through consistency in their actions. The first behaviors you look at might be relatively small, like showing up for dates at agreed-upon times. Keeping private information just between the two of you and respecting boundaries even when it doesn’t make one of you happy are other clues someone is dependable. Again, learning these things in a relationship happens gradually, as you both show that you are consistent with your actions not just occasionally, but all the time.
Do we both say what we mean and do what we say?
Another way a person shows they are trustworthy is when their words and behaviors match up. For example, if someone says they love you, and then they act abusively toward you, their words and actions don’t match. When you love someone, you do not abuse them.
Dealing with Jealousy
Jealousy typically arises when one partner feels insecure or lacks trust in the other partner. Feeling jealous occasionally is normal, but how a person deals with their jealous feelings is what determines whether relationship behaviors are healthy, unhealthy or abusive. Constantly checking in, asking where the other partner is at all times and/or trying to control who a partner spends time with are not healthy reactions to jealousy. These are signs that there is a lack of trust in a relationship. When there is trust, a person doesn’t feel a need to monitor or control their partner. They don’t need their partner to “prove” their love and faithfulness. If you trust someone, you trust them regardless of who they spend time with or where they go. Since there are so many different ways to go about confronting feelings of jealousy, we want to break down some of the common issues related to jealousy and/or lack of trust:
Having friendships or communicating with other people outside the relationship
In a healthy relationship, both partners should encourage each other to have friends of any gender outside of the relationship. It is important to set boundaries to make sure you’re both on the same page about what might constitute cheating, but you and your partner should feel supported and empowered to have fulfilling friendships with other people. If your partner is telling you that you aren’t allowed to talk to other people because they might be interested in you, then your partner isn’t trusting you. When one partner tries to tell the other who to talk to, what to wear or where to go, they are asserting power and control, which is unhealthy and can even become abusive.
Going through a partner’s phone, email and social media to make sure they’re not cheating
Even if you suspect your partner may be cheating, it’s never acceptable to look through your partner’s phone, email or social media without their permission. In a healthy relationship, if you are worried your partner might be cheating or behaving in a way that doesn’t honor your relationship, it’s important to communicate with them openly about your feelings. Remember, it’s more effective to approach this as a conversation, rather than an accusation.
Rebuilding trust after cheating
It’s natural to be hurt by cheating or dishonesty, but it’s not okay to use the past against your partner. Trust is something we decide to give, rather than being something that can be earned back. Not trusting your partner isn’t fair to them or to you. If you’re unsure whether or not you can trust your partner, think about what it would take for you to trust them again. If your answer has anything to do with checking up on them or trying to control their actions, then you aren’t really trusting them. Instead, try adjusting your own feelings of jealousy and behaviors, and you may be able to go on to have a healthy relationship. If you feel you cannot trust your partner again, then it might be time to consider whether or not the relationship is right for you.
Everyone deserves to be in a healthy relationship where both partners are treated like equals, all the time. Equality can mean different things to different partners; what matters most is how you and your partner define it for your relationship on an ongoing basis.
It's important to communicate openly about the balance in your relationship, especially if one or more of you feel unhappy or uncomfortable. In an abusive relationship, one partner uses abusive tactics to gain power and control over the other. This type of relationship is extremely unbalanced and unequal. If you feel concerned about the level of equality in your relationship, here are some questions that could help clarify the dynamics:
Do both sides get heard in an argument, and do you both compromise and negotiate respectfully?
Conflict is a normal part of every relationship, but how you and your partner handle conflict is what counts. Are you able to openly and safely express your feelings and opinions to your partner, and vice versa, every time you have a disagreement? Does your partner listen respectfully to your needs and concerns and treat them as equally important as their own?
Do you both feel comfortable with the financial balance in the relationship?
Making mutual financial decisions that both people are comfortable with is an important part of a healthy relationship. Even though discussing money can feel difficult, keeping communication open about how the financial balance feels to both partners is important for maintaining equality. However you and your partner choose to divide (or not divide) financial responsibility in the relationship is entirely up to the two of you. What isn’t healthy is when one partner tries to control shared financial resources, limits the other person’s ability to earn an income, or makes financial decisions without their partner’s consent. Both people’s needs and goals should be equally respected in financial decisions, even if one person is the breadwinner.
If you have kids together, do you and your partner have equal weight in parenting decisions?
In a healthy co-parenting relationship, both people listen to each other’s concerns and have equal say in parenting choices. Disagreements are resolved through open communication and respectful compromise. If you feel like your partner dismisses your concerns, tries to control parenting decisions, or does not share parenting responsibilities as agreed upon by both partners, it could be a red flag for unhealthy imbalance in the relationship.
Do you feel safe with and respected by your partner?
Respect is so important in a healthy, equal relationship, and you and your partner both deserve to be feel respected as autonomous individuals. Feeling safe is important, too. You shouldn’t be afraid to express your thoughts, feelings or needs to your partner. If you fear your partner may put you down, treat you like a lesser in the relationship, or become violent, that’s a red flag. If you answered “yes” to all of these questions, congratulations: it sounds like your relationship is pretty equal! If you answered “no” to one or more questions, this could be an indication that you and your partner might want to work on creating more balance in your relationship, or that you might want to assess for red flags for unhealthy or abusive dynamics in the relationship.
Healthy Conflict Resolution
Conflicts, such as verbal disagreements and arguments, happen in every relationship. While conflict is normal, it could also be a sign that parts of your relationship aren’t working.
Healthy communication skills are the key to resolving conflict respectfully. When conflict arises, the tips below can help you resolve these arguments in a healthy way:
Everyone deserves to be treated with respect — even during an argument. If your partner curses at you, calls you names or ridicules you, you can let them know those behaviors are not okay. If they don’t stop, walk away and tell them you can continue the discussion after a break.
Find the real issue
Typically, arguments happen when one partner’s needs or wants are not being met. Try to get to the heart of the matter. If your partner seems needy, maybe they are just feeling insecure and need your encouragement. If you’re angry that your partner isn’t taking out the trash, maybe you’re really upset because you feel like you do all the work around the house. Learn to talk about the real issue so you can avoid constant fighting.
Agree to disagree
If you and your partner can’t resolve an issue, sometimes it’s best to drop it. You don’t have to agree on everything. Focus on what matters. If the issue is too important for you to drop and you can’t agree to disagree, there may be a compatibility issue.
Compromise when possible
Compromise is a major part of conflict resolution and any successful relationship. It’s not always easy, but strive to find a middle ground that can allow both of you to feel satisfied with the outcome.
Is this issue really important? Does it change how the two of you feel about each other? Are you compromising your beliefs or morals? If yes, it’s important that you feel comfortable standing up for how you feel. If not, maybe this is a time for compromise. Also, consider your partner’s arguments. Why are they upset? What does the issue look like from their point of view? Is it unusual for your partner to get this upset? Does your partner usually compromise? Are you being inconsiderate?
Still arguing? If you try these tips but still argue constantly, consider whether the relationship is right for the both of you. If you wish to continue the relationship, you might consider attending counseling together (but only if there is no abuse present in the relationship). You both deserve a healthy relationship without constant conflict.
Conflict in Unhealthy Relationships
Although conflict is normal, your arguments shouldn’t turn into personal attacks and should never become physical. If you can’t express yourself without fear of retaliation from your partner, you may be experiencing abuse. Learn more about verbal/emotional abuse and how to draw the line between it and normal disagreements.
Remember, one sign of an abusive relationship is a partner who tries to control or manipulate you. For example, does your partner get upset because:
- You occasionally spend time with friends or family instead of spending all your time with them?
- They check your phone and don’t like the texts or calls you received?
- Whenever you leave the house they accuse you of cheating?
If you feel that your relationship might be unhealthy or abusive, call or chat with one of our advocates. We can help!