We all have relationships. Some good, some bad, and some in between. These relationships are filled with different stages and often have different roles that we’re required to fill in each one.
These interactions affect how we see the world and where we fit in it. Relationship roles vary depending on the type of relationship, parent/child, coworker, friend, classmate, or dating partner just to name a few. But how can we be sure that a relationship is healthy or unhealthy?
Characteristics of Healthy Relationships
Obviously, different types of relationships require different things. For example, a parent-child relationship will look different than a friendship. However, a few characteristics can be applied to all relationships that will help them thrive. Trust, respect, effective communication, honesty, reciprocation, freedom, and independence all work together to form healthy relationships.
Now, don’t get the wrong idea. We’re all human and we all make mistakes from time to time. In fact, you will never find the perfect relationship, but that doesn’t mean that you should settle for unhealthy ones.
Personally, I believe that this is the most important aspect of a healthy relationship. In fact, all of the other characteristics lead back to this one.
According to Oxford Languages, trust is “the firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability, or strength of someone or something.”
Let’s look at a few different ways we apply trust in our lives.
Unless your car has seen better days, you trust that when you climb behind the wheel and turn the key, it will start. Of course, maybe your car is on its last leg and sometimes decides it’s too tired to crank, would you still trust it to make a 12-hour drive without having it serviced? Probably not.
What about trusting a class partner to do their part for the group project? Five minutes before class, you realize they never finished their section. Would you trust them in the future? Relationships can be similar. Trust can be a hard thing to earn once it’s been broken.
This doesn’t mean we won’t disappoint others or be disappointed ourselves, but if you continually distrust your partner, it’s nearly impossible to have a healthy relationship.
This one is also fundamental for healthy relationships. Respect involves realizing the value that this person has. As a Christian, my belief is that every human being was created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27) and deserves respect. There is value and potential in that. In respecting others (as well as ourselves) we’re expressing that we believe they are worthy to be valued as people and that their thoughts, feelings, and emotions matter.
Communication is hard! When my daughter was born, we had no idea she was allergic to milk. We spent months trying to figure out what was going on and how to fix it, and if you’ve never seen an angry baby, let’s just say, it’s a site to behold.
Her screams were angry. We didn’t know it at the time, but the poor baby was in constant pain from the allergy and her only way to communicate was through her screams. She didn’t have the skills and tools to effectively communicate her discomfort. Thankfully, as we grow up we learn to regulate ourselves and express our needs, hopefully, in an effective way.
Honesty can also be a tough characteristic as well. I know as a native South Carolinian, vulnerability and honesty can be frowned upon, especially if it makes others uncomfortable. Emotions and expressing our needs are often seen as a weakness in our culture. Judgment or fear of judgment can be debilitating.
Think back to your childhood, was there a time you feared disappointing a parent or other adult who was responsible for you? Feelings of shame and fear can keep us stuck in a cycle of dishonesty if we allow it. However, honesty and vulnerability can strengthen trust in relationships.
We live in America, the Land of the Free, but if we don’t have the freedom to share ourselves in a relationship, we can feel trapped.
Have you ever been in a relationship that felt like you were walking on eggshells just to maintain the peace? You feel like you have to agree on everything. You have the same likes, interests, and opinions or the relationship may fall apart.
Does this sound healthy? Not really, but do you know why? We were created for individuality, and we all have something of value to share with the world. I think, especially in today’s culture, we forget that it’s ok to disagree with others and still maintain a relationship. Different opinions become a problem when a person isn’t respected and “allowed” to deviate from the beliefs of the majority.
All relationships are about give and take and depending on the stage, they are often not a 50/50 exchange.
Think about the relationship between a parent and child. Babies are born without any natural defenses besides their cuteness that literally causes a chemical reaction in their caregivers' brains to make them want to care for the baby. During this stage of life, parents can often feel as if they’re losing a part of themselves. From midnight feedings to teething fevers, babies rely on us to regulate their lives, it’s definitely not a 50/50 exchange.
Another example could be the sickness of a loved one. A friend, family member, or spouse may need extra care, or maybe you’re the one needing extra care at this stage in life. While the caregiver is giving their all, cooking, cleaning, or just loving on a person, what is the other person providing in the relationship? This doesn’t mean the one being cared for has less value than the caregiver or vice versa. It means that the roles may be changed from 50/50 to 20/80 for a time. Examples like this do not have to decrease the health and strength of a relationship. It can actually have the opposite effect if healthy characteristics are already in place.
We’ve talked about the different ways relationships can be reliable, but it’s important to remember that being defined only by a relationship can be unhealthy. Without proper self-awareness, relationships can be hard to navigate, it can even become your only source of identity.
Have you ever described your identity in the form of a relationship? For example, “I’m ______’s daughter,” “that’s _____’s husband,” or “She’s _____’s friend.” Labels are fine, they’re important for effective communication. Labels become a problem when we solely identify with that role instead of the many different parts that make us who we are.
Of course, a lot more goes into healthy relationships, but each of these characteristics can be spotted in successful relationships. However, it’s important to remember that every relationship looks different, requires different roles, and consists of different life stages. Just because a relationship looks different doesn’t mean it’s not healthy or successful.