Relationship Advice for a Healthy Relationship
Healthy relationships are a gift that add deep meaning, joy and fulfillment to our lives. Researchers now tell us that we are “hard-wired” for attachment, that we thrive when we’re in a loving and secure union. But you probably don’t need research to tell you what you already know at some level:
Your capacity to give and receive love, to form a strong connection with someone you trust and deeply care about, is a driving force in your life—an experience that can make you feel more alive and emotionally vibrant.
In my work as a psychologist and couples therapist over the last twenty years, I’ve witnessed firsthand the transformative power that a loving, healthy marriage or relationship can have on a couple. When couples feel connected and emotionally safe with one another, when they feel seen and understood by the person that matters most to them, a profound sense of emotional wholeness becomes possible. Considerable research now exists showing that a stable and fulfilling relationship has dramatic emotional and physical health benefits (see NY Times article for a review).
But being in a marriage or relationship isn’t enough. It is the quality of the relationship that matters, either tipping the scale toward the positive or negative side of the well-being ledger. If your relationship is chronically negative or unfulfilling in some way, it will take both an emotional and physical toll on you.
Let’s take a closer look at what goes into making a relationship healthy.
Signs of a Healthy Marriage or Relationship
Effective Couples Communication
In my article, Relationship Building Blocks, I spell out seven fundamentals of a fulfilling union. One of the fundamentals is effective communication, as well as the willingness and courage needed to open yourself up emotionally in order to form a deep connection with your partner.
When couples communication goes well, we aren’t necessarily doing more talking. Rather, effective communication creates and maintains the relationship conditions needed for emotional safety, mutual vulnerability and connection. Couples can exhaust themselves talking and still not feel connected and secure with one another. As you’ll discover in the hundreds of free relationship advice articles on this site, effective couples communication must include empathic listening, emotional attunement, and an understanding of one another’s core emotional needs.
In counseling, couples frequently complain about breakdowns in communication. This might take the form of one partner shutting down emotionally and barely communicating; or when the couple does try to have discussions, conflict quickly results; or in some instances, couples complain that when they do talk, it’s usually not about anything meaningful—as one wife exclaimed to her husband, “I’m tired of talking about nothing all the time!”
In the couples communication section you’ll find dozens of “How to communicate more effectively” articles that can start you on the path to a healthier, more productive interpersonal exchange with your mate.
Emotional Connection and Intimacy
Emotional intimacy is a powerful marker to determine whether or not your marriage or relationship is working well. One of the questions I ask the couples I work with is how deeply connected or emotionally close they feel toward each other. While it’s unrealistic to always feel close to your partner (emotional intimacy will ebb and flow over time and across circumstances), there does need to be a solid foundation of trust and connection established in your relationship. This experience of emotional security, the sense that “We’re OK with each other despite our differences and in spite of the ups and downs we might be dealing with” is what gives a relationship its firm footing. Once established, this sense of security often quietly recedes into the background where it goes almost unnoticed, working seamlessly until it is threatened in some way.
There are aspects of your relationship that will either nurture or hinder this emotional connection. Some might feel obvious, like unresolved conflict, avoiding important discussions needed to clear the air, and chronic defensiveness that creates a negative vortex that consumes you both. And just as there are relationship issues that will impact your ability to reach across the divide and connect with your partner, there are also individual issues that we each bring to our relationship—our long-standing emotional baggage that holds us back.
Remaining withdrawn emotionally is another major hurdle to connecting with each other. When we remain closed off out of a fear of intimacy, it becomes important for us to do some self-work in order to uncover the inner emotional blocks that might be hurting our relationship.
Men and Intimacy
The men who come to see me for therapy frequently struggle with and fight against their own emotional vulnerability—the very same emotional vulnerability that is needed in order to connect deeply to their wives/partners. As long as men remain cut off from their capacity to share their emotional lives with their partners, intimacy will suffer. In a recent men and intimacy article, I explore some of the issues that prevent men from connecting with their loved ones.
The struggles men have with intimacy is so prevalent that I’ve created an entire relationship advice for men section for you and your partner to explore. The men I work with often express deep love for their wives/partners, and it is a painful reality for them to realize they are not making their partner happy.
There is a great deal of information to explore in the relationship advice for men section—so please take your time!
Sexual Intimacy and Passion
Sex is a powerful way in which couples express the love they feel for one another. A rich sex life brings a deeper sense of emotional closeness, and sexual expression gives us a powerful way to discover one another beyond what words can communicate. When our feelings are communicated through sexual longing and expression, love can lift a marriage or relationship to remarkable heights. Couples frequently describe how close they feel to each other when they are able to connect and share themselves sexually.
You each deserve the rewards that a meaningful sex life can offer your relationship.
But, as you may have come to painfully realize over the course of your relationship, sexual fulfillment isn’t always simple and straightforward. In fact, for many couples, sexual passion and intimacy can be a significant challenge, a gift that once existed but one that now remains beyond their reach.
If you and your partner are struggling with dwindling sexual desire and/or a loss of sexual activity, you’re not alone. Many of the couples I work with are trying to find ways to maintain a satisfying intimate life. And this is a significant loss for many couples, a loss not only of the joyous pleasures that are part of sex, but a loss of the deeper sense of connection that is part of making love to someone you care deeply about.
In the sex and passion section of Strengthen Your Relationship, we examine the psychology that drives sexual desire and fulfillment, as well as the many hurdles that can stand in the way of a rewarding sex life. Like emotional intimacy, some of the hurdles to greater sexual fulfillment may reflect a deeper relationship problem that needs addressing (often what happens outside of the bedroom dramatically impacts what happens within the bedroom). If you do not fully trust your partner and do not believe that you’ll be accepted sexually, then you will hide aspects of yourself, causing sexual intimacy to suffer. In addition, there may be internal emotional blocks, conflicts regarding sex and sexuality that followed you into the relationship that will need to be addressed for fulfilling sex to occur.
And you’ll discover that your sexuality is profoundly impacted by your deep-seated (at times unconscious) attitudes about sex.
It’s important to note that meaningful sex doesn’t have to be fiery and passionately intense. For some couples, meaningful sex has a quiet, slow energy to it, a sexual energy that fosters an emotional openness to the mutual pleasures that are unfolding. Discovering what works for you and your partner is what matters, not trying to achieve some unrealistically Hollywood standard of what great sex should look like.
And despite what some people in their 20s might think, recent research shows that couples in their 60s, 70s and 80s are enjoying a rich sex life (click Later-Life Sex for a review of this study). So you are never too old to experience the joys of sex!
Signs of an Unhealthy Relationship
Despite our best intentions, and notwithstanding the benefits of premarital counseling, marriage and long-term relationships remain a gamble and the stakes are high. The divorce rate is sobering (40% – 50% of marriages will end in divorce in the United States), and the pain and emotional turmoil that result from failed relationships shake us at our core.
The couples who come to see me are in serious emotional pain. Too often, they wait until their relationship is almost over before seeking help. Cycles of negativity and defensiveness have strangled the couple, overtaking the love, respect and mutual kindness that once existed. This goes well beyond the typical bickering or periodic conflict that most of us will deal with from time to time.
There is a certain level of marital or relationship conflict and negativity that severs the emotional connection that is so vital for a healthy union. At some point it almost appears as though the couple is helpless against the powerful currents of negativity. When couples exist in an ongoing state of disconnection, the pain of loneliness sets in, a loneliness that is a cruel and daily reminder of how the relationship is failing. When your partner’s presence reminds you of what should be but isn’t, then the relationship itself takes on a punishing quality.
What is evident is that no relationship or marriage is immune to the toxins of unresolved negativity.
It’s important for all of us to remember that the hostile ending of so many relationships is only a small part of the distressed couple’s story. They, like many of us, once began their relationship with deep love and great hope. I’ve worked with many couples on the brink of divorce who initially believed that the person they are now leaving was their soulmate. The very same person they imagined spending a life-time of fulfillment with now provokes such pain and anger that they can no longer imagine even spending another day together.
The Pain of Infidelity
When we are overcome by the distress of disconnection, when we feel unappreciated and not seen for who we truly are, when it feels painfully evident that we no longer matter to our partner, then some of us become vulnerable to getting our needs met outside the marriage/relationship.
There are different reasons why someone might have an affair. Approximately 60% of the couples who come to see me are dealing with the devastating fallout of infidelity. Affairs by their very nature involve betrayal and deceit. For more information about this important topic, you can check out my articles on why affairs occur and the steps needed to heal from infidelity.
We all know that a healthy marriage or relationship takes work—no relationship (including yours) is immune to the challenges that all couples face at some point.
That’s why I created Strengthen Your Relationship.
Whether you’re seeking information on how to keep your relationship running on all cylinders, or whether you’re struggling with a specific marital or relationship problem, I hope you’ll find what you’re looking for at Strengthen Your Relationship. I invite you to take your time and look around.
Wishing you and your partner a fulfilling and loving union!
Dr. Rich Nicastro
PS: Don’t forget to check out my Relationship Help Blog for more advice and tips.
1st featured image credit: 5 by Claudia Salazar under CC BY-SA 2.0
2nd featured image credit: Couple by Tom Godber under CC BY-SA 2.0
3rd featured image credit: “Edinburgh” by Andy Rennie 90 under CC BY-SA 2.0
4th featured image credit: “Broken heart sign, loss of love concept by Cuteimage. Freedigitalphotos.net.