The 5 essential elements of a healthy relationship

Two of the most frequently asked questions I get as a relationship therapist are,

“What makes a relationship sustainable?” and “How do I know my relationship will last?” 

In my experience, all the skills necessary to developing an amazingly healthy relationship fall into five areas of competence I call the five essential elements of a healthy relationship.  These essentials won’t prevent the slings and arrows of life’s outrageous fortune, but they do help build relationships that not only withstand adversity, but emerge on the other side closer, stronger and more confident. 

You can have the nice house, fancy cars, your kids in the best schools, and great careers, but if you neglect any one of these elements for too long your relationship is headed for rocky shoals.

The five essentials are:

#1 – Maintaining basic trust and respect
How will the two of you treat one another when there is stress or conflict – Yelling or talking calmly?  Will you resort to name calling or threats?  Will you judge and analyze one another or will you learn to talk authoritatively only about yourself?  Will you resort to complaining and blaming or will you make loving requests for what you want?  How will the two of you treat one another when you disagree – will you argue to win or will you acknowledge and validate one another even when you see things differently?

#2 – Developing good communication and problem solving
Can both of you express yourselves calmly, succinctly, authentically – on any subject – without walking on eggshells or being disrespectful?  Can you both listen so well that your partner feels truly understood and respected?  Can you resolve problems peacefully with solutions that find both of you feeling satisfied, acknowledged, and valued?

#3 – Establishing a shared feeling of being understood, accepted, valued
Do you both know one another’s deepest hopes and dreams?  Fears and insecurities?  Do you talk about the things you most want to accomplish in life?  Could you both accurately portray what your partner looks for most in their closest friendships?  Do you know one another’s short, medium and long term goals?  Love languages?  Favorite foods?  Sexual fantasies?  Biggest regrets?  Greatest accomplishments?  Healthy couples talk openly about all these things and more.  Healthy couples listen without judging and lovingly accept one another even when they are different.

#4 – Creating a mutually satisfying sexual relationship
Hot, steamy, exciting, warm, passionate, exotic, seductive, supportive, loving, safe, fulfilling, accepting, imaginative, validating, trusting, growing, and energetic sex.

Sound good?  Good sex is one of the most powerful elements that holds a relationship together.  A healthy sexual relationship automatically and unconsciously associates the other person with:

  • Pleasure
  • Need fulfillment
  • Gratification
  • Safety
  • Trust
  • Excitement
  • Acceptance

Good sex reinforces the oxytocin bond, which greatly increases our feelings of connection and our desire to please our mate.

#5 – Investing in common interests and values
Good friends love doing things together.  Lovers can’t wait to steal some time together at a movie, a romantic dinner or holding hands on a walk through the park.  It should seem obvious, but quality time spent together strongly reinforces feelings of love, belonging and closeness.  Research (and common sense) indicate that couples who regularly share novel experiences together are more likely to remain together.  Think about the things in life that inspire you to want to spend your time, your money and your conversations.  Hiking?  Cooking? Duck Pin Bowling?  Dungeons and Dragons?  Lawn Darts?  It doesn’t matter as long as it makes the two of you giggle.  And remember to mix it up and try new adventures frequently.

There are some relationship factors that are difficult to predict or control: sexual and emotional attraction, chemistry, that certain je ne sais quoi that makes the difference between someone who makes our heart skip a beat and someone who leaves us flat.  While these factors are significant in terms of who we are initially attracted to, they turn out to be very poor predictors of long term relationship success.  I’m not saying that if you are strongly attracted to someone that your relationship is doomed, just that strong initial attraction has very little to do with long term success.