Whatever our take on Valentine’s Day, for those of us who are at all interested in pursuing romantic relationships, a key question remains: What makes a healthy relationship? In this feature, we give you an overview of what specialist studies have found.
“I’ve been making a list of the things they don’t teach you at school. They don’t teach you how to love somebody.”
So writes Neil Gaiman in the ninth volume of the comic book series The Sandman, “The Kindly Ones.”
Indeed, there is no single tried and true recipe for love and successful relationships that anyone can teach us. Different approaches work for different partnerships, and there is no point in trying to come up with strict guidelines for love.
Nevertheless, the reasons why relationship quality can deteriorate over time — or why relationships fail altogether — tend to be consistent.
Many researchers have studied what makes people leave a relationship, and what motivates them to stay together.
In this feature, we give you our top research-backed tips on what to look out for in building a meaningful, healthy, happy relationship.
1. Start your relationship with purpose
First of all, research suggests that there may be some truth to the phrase “start as you mean to go on” when it comes to relationships.
Recent studies suggest that, in many cases, people who are dating end up “falling” into a committed relationship out of a sense of inertia, and couples may end up living together even when they are unsure if they belong together.
“[M]any, if not most, couples slide from noncohabitation to cohabitation before fully realizing what is happening; it is often a nondeliberative and incremental process,” report researchers from the University of Denver in Colorado.
For instance, someone may end up deciding to move in, and, maybe, eventually, marry their partner simply because they have already spent a significant amount of time together and established a bond.
This can happen — argue dating and relationships researchers Samantha Joel, Ph.D., and Prof. Paul Eastwick — even when one or both partners are convinced, at the start of their relationship, that they are not necessarily well suited to each other.
Medical News Today spoke to Alex Psaila, clinical supervisor at Relate North and South West Sussex, a United Kingdom-based registered charity that provide relationship support and mediation. We asked him about early “red flags” that people may want to remember when starting a new relationship.
Blind love, he told us, can prevent individuals from acknowledging possible issues and personality clashes. It can also make them think that — no matter how bothersome some of their new partner’s behaviors might be — these will likely change with time. Not so, said Psaila:
“Does anyone go into a relationship with the idea that this relationship is flawed? If we are aware of something [being not quite right], we might tell ourselves that ‘we’ll fix it’ […] For the most part ‘being in love’ is like Cupid — blind — and we gloss over potential difficulties, wanting to believe it will go away and love will conquer all.“
Joel and Prof. Eastwick argue that if people took more time to do some — potentially difficult — soul searching before committing to a relationship, they might be able to avoid entering a situation that will prove unsatisfactory for both partners in the long run.
We should, that is, start new relationships with a sense of purpose, really thinking about what we want and need, and if the person we are dating is truly likely to align with those wants and needs — and we with theirs.
“People may be able to boost their own relational, health, and well-being trajectories by more selectively choosing and investing in new relationships that are right for them and rejecting those that are not right for them,” write Joel and Prof. Eastwick.
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2. Communicate to solve conflict
As with anything, open communication is necessary when it comes to building and maintaining a healthy relationship.
And in a long-term relationship, calm, open, and constructive communication is essential when it comes to solving conflict since no interpersonal bond ever comes truly free from conflict.
“Stress can arise in relationships when partners experience conflicting goals, motives and preferences,” write Profs Nickola Overall and James McNulty in a recent study about communication during conflict.
The possible reasons for conflict in a romantic relationship can vary widely, and Profs Overall and McNulty cite unmet expectations, financial difficulties, the distribution of responsibilities, parenting styles, and jealousy, among others.
“Unresolved conflicts and the stress associated with conflict put even the most satisfying relationship at risk. Moreover, managing and resolving conflict is difficult, and can itself be a significant source of stress,” they note.
So what is the best way to communicate when it comes to solving conflicts in an intimate relationship?
According to the researchers, it depends. However, burying one’s feelings and misgivings, and brushing disagreements quickly under the carpet is unlikely to help, they say.
Profs Overall and McNulty suggest that it is crucial for couples first to evaluate the context in which the conflict has arisen in order to decide how best to address it.
When a serious issue is at stake, the researchers explain, it is important for both partners to express their opposing views and negotiate the direction of change.
However, if the couple is having disagreements about minor issues, or issues outside their control, it may be more helpful for them to acknowledge the problem but express mutual validation, affection, and forgiveness.
Psaila expressed a similar perspective to MNT. People who maintain healthy, happy relationships, he says, “say sorry and make reparation [when they acknowledge that they have done something hurtful].”
However, Psaila adds, they “do not hang on to secretive, hidden shame,” following a discordant situation.
“They learn from mistakes and know that awareness of their vulnerability is a strength. They can and will seek help and advice from trusted relatives, friends, mentors (even [trained] counselors).“
– Alex Psaila
Psaila also notes that people who want their relationship to thrive also show openness to receiving support from a professional therapist, not just when things go wrong, but to make sure they stay the course.
3. Make time for couple activities
Life can sometimes get in the way of our spending time with the people we love, even when we share a living space. The demands of work, for instance, can leave us little time — and sometimes little energy — to do something enjoyable with our partners.
Yet research shows that couples who participate in fun activities together may also find it easier to stay together.
For instance, one study covered on MNT last year suggested that couples who make time to play board games together also had a good quality love life.
The study found a simple reason for this correlation: Partners who took part in these fun activities together saw an increase in oxytocin, the “love hormone,” so-called because it plays a key role in bonding behaviors.
Karen Melton, Ph.D., and her colleagues — who conducted the board games study — note that, for a couple’s activity to lead to the spike in oxytocin, it likely should involve interaction between the partners.
Simply attending an event together but not interacting, for instance, may not have the same bonding effect.
The researchers also found that the novelty factor influenced how much oxytocin they released: Couples who organized their fun activity in a new place outside their home saw a greater “love hormone” boost than those who played at home.
The takeaway? Doing fun things, ideally in new, unfamiliar surroundings, might help maintain relationship quality.
4. Carve your own space
Although spending quality time with your loved ones is essential, it is at least as important to spend quality time on our own — and allow partners to do the same.
“A healthy relationship is a bit like breathing in and then breathing out,” Psaila explained for MNT.
“There is a cycle of closeness and distance, of coming together, even merging and separation, individuation, [creating a] sense of self […] Both are important. If the relationship is too distant — little closeness — then the idea of seeking this elsewhere will arise (perhaps disguised as feeling abandoned and being unloved),” he noted.
Yet too much closeness can make a relationship feel like a trap and, taken to an extreme — if a partner gradually isolates their “significant other” from friends, family, and activities that they enjoy — could even be a mark of emotional abuse.
“If the relationship is too close, suffocating even, then the couple [becomes] merged and there is little scope for exploration and growth, of other interactions, of missing your loved one and wanting to return, bringing new ideas and energy into the relationship.“
– Alex Psaila
5. Show attention and appreciation
While couples are at the beginning of their relationship, in the “honeymoon” phase, the partners will shower each other with affection and words of appreciation.
But often, as time goes on, partners may start taking each other for granted and forget to show the same kind of admiration they once did.
According to a study from 2017, one of the main reasons for long-term couples splitting up was that one of the partners was no longer showing enough affection and attention to the other.
And a study from 2018 found that young adults — aged 18–29 — who perceived that their partner put a similar effort into initiating text conversations also reported greater relationship satisfaction.
Other research has shown that women who reported being satisfied in their romantic relationships also reported that their partners were appreciative of their bodies. And, they reported increased satisfaction with their sex lives.
Finally, although material gifts are not a measure of love in any relationship, some studies have shown that when a partner can and does offer gifts, this can contribute to relationship satisfaction if done correctly.
Research from last year suggests that for a gift to increase relationship satisfaction, it has to be well thought out. The gifts we offer to others, the researchers explain, can reflect the image they have of themselves or the image we have of them.
If the two do not coincide, then it is likely that the gift we pick will be disappointing to the receiver. But, the researchers say, if we know our partners well, we will manage to pick a gift that truly fits in with their personality and hobbies — and will reflect positively on our relationship.
No matter how you choose to show your affection, though, expressing your appreciation of your significant other — and not just on Valentine’s Day — is a safe bet when it comes to maintaining relationship quality.
However, even if you put in all the effort you can muster into a romantic relationship, sometimes, it will not work out, and that should necessarily be a cause for regret.
If a relationship does not make you feel happy, secure, and valued, it may be time to turn your attention to yourself and invest more in some self-love before you decide how or whether to start afresh with someone new.