Your most toxic ex might make for viral-worthy TikTok content, but they’re definitely not worth the trust issues. The thing about unhealthy relationships is that it’s not always so glaringly obvious you’re in one—until you’re out of it. Love clouds judgment, and before you know it, you’re that couple scream-fighting over anything and everything.
A healthy relationship can look different within different dynamics (there’s no one-size-fits-all mold when it comes to dating!), but there are a few benchmarks to check off: trust, communication, respect. The basics! You need all three, says Jack Hazan, MA, LMHC, CSAT, a relationship therapist in New York City.
It’s also important to note that just because your relationship was once healthy, doesn’t mean that it’s a get-out-of-jail-free card for the future. “A healthy relationship can become unhealthy. Over time, a lot can happen and a lot can change,” says Caitlin Cantor, LCSW, CST, a couples and sex therapist who sees clients in Philadelphia and New Jersey. “…Old traumas get triggered; new traumas happen; people get complacent; people get distracted. [A lot] can happen that leads a once healthy relationship to become unhealthy.”
Meet the Experts:
Jack Hazan, MA, LMHC, CSAT, is a relationship therapist in New York City.
Caitlin Cantor, LCSW, CST, is a couples and sex therapist who sees clients in Philadelphia and New Jersey.
Melissa Fulgieri, LCSW, is a therapist and the author of Couples Therapy Activity Book.
Granted, no relationship is perfect 24/7—that’s just the reality of two flawed human beings trying to navigate life together. But do you and your S.O. have the fundamental hallmarks of a solid, nourishing, and mutually-beneficial bond? Here, experts explain what a healthy relationship *actually* looks like in practice—and how to maintain one with your partner.
What are the signs of a healthy relationship?
While there are a lot of different indicators of a healthy relationship, a few are non-negotiable, according to experts. Here are the signs to look out for, and how to foster them.
It’s a buzzword for a reason. The ability to trust your partner, and vice versa, is the number one way to maintain a healthy relationship. “Trust and safety with your partner is integral,” Hazan says. “This means not keeping secrets, maintaining a sense of security, and knowing they won’t physically, emotionally, or mentally hurt you.”
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Establishing trust in a relationship is often a slow and steady development. And it’s about the little things, says Melissa Fulgieri, LCSW, a therapist and author of Couples Therapy Activity Book. “Consistency and communication build trust,” Fulgieri says, adding that you should think about it like a bank account. “You put in deposits in the form of doing what you say you will, being consistent, being kind, and you take withdrawals when you criticize, defend, shut your partner down, blame them, et cetera.”
Effective and kind communication
You need to not only be able to communicate, but communicate effectively, kindly, and with respect. It’s a part of building that aforementioned sense of trust. “Having open communication with your partner is extremely important,” Hazan adds. “Being able to talk to your partner about your feelings helps to build trust and a mutual understanding of each other.”
Now what does that look like, exactly? According to Fulgieri, effective communication includes leading with your emotions and asking for your specific needs to be met. That also means “seeking to understand your partner’s perspective instead of engaging them in a conversation to try and further prove your point,” explains Fulgieri. “It looks like focusing on one problem at a time instead of saying things like ‘you always,’ ‘you never.’” That will help you avoid blaming your partner, so you can remain a team and work together on a productive solution.
Remember: There’s no right or wrong in an argument, but rather two sides.
The ability to take ownership of your actions
This goes both ways. A relationship just simply won’t work if you can’t empathize with your partner’s hurt and take ownership over your actions that may have caused said hurt. Cantor puts it simply: “Defensiveness is a relationship killer.” Here’s why: It all goes back to effective communication.
“Defensiveness limits the opportunity to communicate to your partner that you hear their perspective, understand their perspective, and see it as valid,” Fulgieri explains. “If you are too busy defending your perspective, you miss an opportunity to connect with your partner, which can only come from your partner feeling heard and understood.”
Believe it or not, there is enough space in the relationship for both partner’s opinions, thoughts, and feelings—even if they don’t perfectly align. “Take ownership for your part, your life, your healing instead of blaming others,” Cantor says. “Look inward and learn how to own your part and do better for yourself, your relationship, and your partner.”
You need to be accountable for your own actions and mistakes, because guess what? You are going to mess up—that’s just a part of being human. So just understand how your actions affect your significant other, and take responsibility for them. Sometimes you need to listen to get there, and that’s okay, too. That’s why you have to leave the defensiveness at the door.
Mutual interest in each other’s needs
For a relationship to work, you need to set aside some of your own selfish instincts. There’s another person involved now. Their feelings, beliefs, wants, and needs matter, too—and they should matter to you. While, frankly, no one is capable of meeting another person’s needs 100 percent of the time, you should prioritize them as much as possible, says Cantor.
Prioritizing your partner’s needs can look like compromise, simple communication (yep, there’s that buzzword again!), self-awareness, and just being attuned to one another, Fulgieri says. Just don’t abandon your own needs in the process of prioritizing theirs. That’s not healthy, either.
An ability to forgive and grow from it
Hey, your partner is bound to mess up, and so are you. A healthy relationship doesn’t mean partners don’t make mistakes—but it is dependent on the ability to forgive and grow from those mistakes,” says Hazan. “That’s not to say you should forgive everything your partner does, he clarifies. “But being able to choose your battles and decide what’s worth forgiving is crucial.”
If you still can’t determine whether your relationship is healthy or not, Hazan suggests taking a look at your dynamic and asking yourself the following questions:
- Can I tell this to my partner with healthy communication?
- Are my expectations of the relationship being met?
- Do I feel I can personally grow with my partner?
- Can I be myself with them or do I put on a new personality?
- Is my life better with them in it?
What are the signs of an unhealthy relationship?
Contrary to popular belief, you can’t and shouldn’t ignore a person’s red flags just because they’re over six feet tall, or whatever your dating kryptonite is. An unhealthy relationship requires action—be it therapy, or a breakup. Sure, sometimes you can stop the cycle (more on that in a min), but it’s also important to know and look out for signs that you might be embroiled in a toxic dynamic with your significant other. Here are some of the biggest warning signals, per experts.
1. You’re anxious or emotionally drained.
If you’re feeling these extremes, it’s probably not on you. Rather, it’s more than likely you’re not in a healthy partnership to begin with—an unhealthy relationship is the breeding ground for anxiety and emotional distress. Those feelings are basically a subconscious alarm bell.
If you’re feeling that way—no matter the state of your relationship—you should seek help from a mental health professional. Maybe the stress is the result of an unhealthy ‘ship, maybe there’s something deeper at play like an anxiety disorder, or maybe it’s a combo of sorts. That’s where a professional will come in handy—they can help you sort through those things. Because, as Hazan puts it, “Relationships shouldn’t drain you. They should build you up and push you to grow.”
2. You feel like you can’t be yourself around them.
If you’re living your life walking on eggshells around your partner, spoiler alert: They aren’t it. “You should feel free to share your thoughts and feelings with your partner… healthy relationships come with acceptance,” Hazan says. “While we can dislike things a partner does, constantly wanting to change them or control them isn’t healthy.”
3. You feel repeatedly disappointed.
No, you’re not being selfish! Repeated disappointment—especially when you’re consistently communicating your needs with your partner—is a red flag, Cantor warns.
“You could have a very rational request for your partner, but they are unwilling or unable to meet your request,” Fulgieri says. “You may ultimately decide you are not compatible but it was not because your need was unrealistic overall, it was only specifically unrealistic for that person to meet.”
Of course, there is a caveat here, and that’s the possibility that you are expressing unrealistic expectations. Those exist! But only in unhealthy relationship structures. “Actual unrealistic requests may fall into a controlling category,” Fulgieri adds. It’s unrealistic, for example, “to know or want to know where your partner is at every moment of the day.” File that one, in particular, as a red flag.
4. Your relationship feels unbalanced.
This might look different depending on the relationship, but if there is an emotional or power imbalance in your ’ship, it could be a sign things are headed south.
Now let’s talk about both. An emotional imbalance looks like a lack of reciprocity in the relationship, i.e. one person might be (unhappily) giving more in the dynamic emotionally. They’re always available to listen, comfort, communicate, and show affection, while the other person does not repay the favor. A power imbalance, however, might mean that one person in the relationship has more privilege, money, or maybe professional power, Fulgieri explains.
“If only one person is interested in working and improving, that can be problematic,” and another sign of a relationship imbalance, Cantor adds. “Sometimes one person working on it is enough to make big changes, but often both people have to be willing to make changes.”
How can I make my relationship healthier?
Here’s the good news: Much as a healthy relationship can become unhealthy, an unhealthy relationship isn’t necessarily doomed—emphasis on necessarily. While you should tread lightly and prioritize yourself, it is possible to redirect the relationship with the appropriate help, Cantor says. “Usually this would require both people to work on themselves and the relationship,” she explains. “Without getting professional help, it’s unlikely for an unhealthy relationship to become healthy. But with help, it’s possible.”
The first step, really, is to analyze your own relationship. Trust your gut, understand what a healthy relationship looks like, and ask both yourself and your partner the important (and yes, often difficult) questions, like the ones listed above, about whether your current relationship is working.
Once you’ve done that—and possibly identified a few red flags along the way—seek help. As a rule of thumb, “if you think you need to start seeing a therapist for relationship issues, it’s probably time,” Hazan says. Having an unbiased, third party to moderate might be the antidote you need.
If your partner is unwilling to seek therapy, however, Fulgieri suggests asking yourself a series of questions:
- Are they aware of what behavior I need them to exhibit or stop exhibiting or what dynamic I need us to change?
- Are they willing to change it?
- Is there evidence of change?
- Is that evidence enough to stay?
“Both people are always co-creating their dynamic. That means that it’s never one person’s fault if things are unhealthy,” Cantor says. “It’s not even about fault, but recognizing how both people are participating in furthering the unhealthy dynamic gives either person (and both people) the power to change.”
Now here’s a caveat: Not every relationship should be saved—or can be, for that matter. Sometimes, you need to realize the healthy decision is actually to end the relationship altogether. There’s not always a way through these toxic situations, but rather, just a way out. Sometimes that’s the healthy choice—and the choice that will ultimately lead you into a genuinely healthy relationship, too.
Megan Schaltegger is an NYC-based writer. She loves strong coffee, eating her way through the Manhattan food scene, and her dog, Murray. She promises not to talk about herself in third person IRL.
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