How To Begin and Maintain a Healthy Relationship – 2003

Fran Miller, Ph.D. ©

For one human being to love another, that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation. 

Ranier Marie Rilke

Our primary relationship is one of the very most important aspects of our life, and yet we receive no schooling or training for it. In the last several years there has been an increase in the number of books that provide help and guidelines. These are an invaluable resource. It is crucial to educate ourselves and also to develop ourselves in ways that will be beneficial to our primary relationship. To spend time with this effort is one of the most worthwhile of all our endeavors

Establishing A Healthy Relationship

The first major step we take in establishing a healthy relationship is choosing our partner. And the biggest mistake we can make is making this decision based on our heart and forgetting our reason. When chemistry is present and you feel you are falling in love, it is necessary to step back and to try to make a rational evaluation. At least you want to ask yourself if there are any major roadblocks or “red flags” present. A red flag would be the presence of an addiction such as alcoholism, drug addiction, gambling or some form of serious problem or disorder. If a problem or disorder is present, a careful evaluation needs to be made as to whether your partner is addressing the problem and is trying to solve it. There can be other types of stumbling blocks such as dishonesty, irresponsibility, or the attachment to a former relationship. 

Co-dependency can also be a problem. Dependency in itself is not necessarily a problem. Everyone has both dependent and independent needs. Co-dependency is when both partners stay in a dysfunctional relationship without addressing the real problems that are present. 

Workaholism is a trap professionals can fall into. It’s helpful to remember the general difference between a peak performer and a workaholic. A peak performer maintains healthy relationships at work and at home, maintains a balance between work, family, exercise, and recreation, and most importantly, a peak performer is able to relax when not at work. 

A subtle and often missed problem is sex addiction. If you suspect a sex addiction may be present, it would be necessary to do some research and reading, and to consult with a psychotherapist who is familiar with sex addiction.

Other considerations in establishing a healthy relationship are the interests, skills, qualities, and values that you have in common. A theory in social psychology is called The Matching Theory. The Matching Theory states that the more aspects you match on, the more likely you are to have a long lasting relationship. Serious consideration can be given to these areas as you are getting acquainted and establishing your relationship. Some aspects are more important than others, and some may be more important to you. Values are an extremely important area to consider when choosing a potential partner. 

Communication is the key element to value in getting acquainted and beginning a relationship. Both time and consideration should be given to your communication. This is the time to learn about each other, your histories, interests, and experiences. Pay attention to what events took place in your partner’s past. What attitudes did he or she adopt? What did he or she learn? What are the goals at this point in life? 

Also pay attention to how you are able to talk together. Is there a balance between self-disclosing and listening? Is your partner able to by sympathetic, supportive, empathic? These are crucial indicators for your future relationship. If you question your own abilities, ask family members or friends how you are doing in communication with them. If you feel that you or your partner could improve in these areas, talk about that together. Decide what to do to help yourselves improve your skills, such as reading about communication, taking a workshop, or seeing a therapist who can help. 

One last suggestion in establishing a relationship is sometimes one that is discouraging to implement. Try writing down a description of the person that you want to meet. What are some of their qualities, what kind of lifestyle would they have, how do they look, what is their fitness level, and what is their level of spiritual interest or practice? Then make an evaluation of yourself based on your description of your potential partner. On the areas where you do not meet the same standard, initiate plans to remediate, such as return to school or begin an exercise program.

All of these considerations will help to get you on the right track in establishing a healthy relationship.

Maintaining a Healthy Relationship

Have you ever thought about what the most important qualities are in a partner? The very most important qualities? What do you think they are? If I had to choose two qualities, I would pick generosity and consideration. By generosity, I do not mean only financial generosity, although we often think of generosity that way. I mean generosity that is a personal characteristic that is applied pretty much across the board. This is a quality that will be beneficial and appreciated in all areas throughout your relationship. Generosity means being willing to stop at the store on their way to your house. It means taking you to the hospital if needed. It means not keeping very good track of who is paying for what because each person is naturally trying to take the lions share. It means just the give and take that is required in a relationship without keeping score. 

Consideration is another quality that will impact the relationship in many ways and over the years. Consideration means asking how you are and really wanting to know the answer. It means anticipating your needs. It means listening to learn about you out of genuine interest. Consideration means that your partner really considers what you are telling him/her, reflects on it, and responds to you. Generosity and consideration are like gold. They are precious qualities to bring to relationship. 

Once you have given attention to the areas that you and your partner match on, naturally over the course of your relationship, you will want to continue to explore these areas, enjoying the things that you have in common, and giving each other space to pursue interests that are different. Going apart and coming together are natural rhythms in a relationship which you can honor and enjoy. Remember that dependence and independence are both needs in relationship. 

Masculine and feminine interests can be balanced and honored. Like with the Odd Couple, however, the combination of one neat person and one who tends towards chaos is very hard to integrate. One way to resolve this difference is to have parts of a house that are maintained neatly, and other parts are designated as “casual” or cluttered. Energetic or aggressive and apathetic or passive styles is also a difficult combination. It is probably better to pair high energy partners or less active partners together. Lifestyle preferences are also a crucial area to have in common. It is very problematic to try to live in a way that is not your preference or is not comfortable for you. It is best to find a partner that desires a similar lifestyle. You will be building your relationship for the rest of your life on the pillars of your lifestyle choices. 

Spirituality is a deep and meaningful area to share. Having the same religious or spiritual practice can solidify a bond between two people. Sharing in values is also something to appreciate, and values form the very foundation of your relationship. Values comprise or make up the meaning you will find together. Both values and what is meaningful to you, form the mission that you will build your life on. 

Communication skills can be developed over the course of your relationship, and it is helpful if both partners value working on and improving communication skills. Communication is the pathway to intimacy, and intimacy is the core of your relationship. A good exercise is to talk about and explore what intimacy consists of, and then to nurture the intimacy between you. Oftentimes, intimacy takes place without words, in a glance or a touch. But it is communication and the history that you create together that helps you build intimacy. Shared experiences deepen your connection. As time passes, the bond between you will grow if you are succeeding in building a healthy relationship. 

In the Old Testament, a beautiful Psalm describes the successful and happy couple:

Blessed are the man and the woman

who have grown beyond their greed

and have put an end to their hatred

and no longer nourish illusions.

But they delight in the way things are

and keep their hearts open, day and night.

They are like trees planted near flowing rivers,

which bear fruit when they are ready.

Their leaves will not fall or wither.

Everything they do will succeed.

Psalm 1

With commitment and a great deal of effort, you will be like trees planted near flowing rivers which bear fruit when they are ready. Your leaves will not fall or wither, and everything you do will succeed.