At the start of the year, many of us choose to reflect upon and evaluate how our lives are going. We look at what’s working, what’s not, and any changes we may want to consider. Most often, this analysis is focused on basic lifestyle concerns—diet, weight, smoking, exercise, and the like. Sometimes, however, we uncover larger issues related to career, home life, and, most important, relationships.
To be honest, evaluating relationships is tough because they are never as perfect as we’d like them to be. If and when you choose to look at a particular relationship—a marriage, a romance, or even a close friendship—it is wise to begin by accepting the fact that no relationship is perfect. As such, you should focus less on your idealized version of a connection and more on whether the one you have meets important emotional (and perhaps physical) needs. Essentially, you need to determine if the relationship adds to or detracts from your overall happiness and emotional well-being. If it seems that it at least mostly meets your needs and that your connection to the other person is, overall, a positive thing, then you can work on eliminating some of the negative elements that may be dragging the relationship down.
Unfortunately, there is no cut-and-dried formula for deciding if a relationship is worth the effort you’re putting into it. That said, the following 12 questions are nearly always useful in this regard. Honest answers—especially when supplemented by honest, empathetic, and impartial feedback from a therapist, trusted friend, or supportive family member—will almost certainly help you understand if a relationship is worth keeping and striving to improve.
- Do you enjoy spending time together?
If you have come to genuinely dislike (or no longer appreciate) the other person, that’s an obvious red flag. If you do not enjoy spending time with someone, that alone might be enough reason to throw in the towel and move on. After all, one of the primary reasons for being around another person is that it’s fun and enjoyable at least some of the time.
- Do you trust him/her?
Trust is a key element in healthy relationships. If two people trust each other, if they know they have each other’s backs no matter what, that’s a solid foundation. In relationships of any kind, trust is worth a lot.
- Do you play well together?
When two people have at least a few common interests—hobbies and activities they can enjoy together—it’s a strong indicator of a relationship worth saving. This is especially true if those interests involve an important area of life for one or (preferably) both people. This means that if you and the other person find each other’s activities, recreational pursuits, and anecdotes fun and entertaining (or at least not boring), then the two of you probably enjoy being together. However, if one or both of you feels trapped or dragged along on an uninteresting ride, that bodes poorly for long-term relationship health. This does not mean that you have to love all of the other person’s interests, or vice versa. If the other person’s unmitigated love of knitting puts you to sleep, so be it, as long as the two of you both enjoy at least a few other things—restaurants, art galleries, hiking, sports, etc.
- Do you share core values and beliefs?
Two people are never going to agree on everything. But if there is at least a little common ground regarding religion, politics, finances, education, and the like, there is a decent foundation upon which to build. Conversely, a relationship’s potential is significantly diminished if/when one person feels forced into a certain belief system, accepting it only because he or she fears rejection.
- Are you able to agreeably disagree?
In relationships, conflict is inevitable. When a relationship is healthy, petty arguments and disagreements offer a growth opportunity—a chance to learn patience, empathy, and new ways of thinking and relating. When a relationship is not so healthy, even the smallest issue can become a smoldering resentment (usually tied to other, much deeper and more enduring concerns). So if you and the other person are able to amicably disagree once in a while, especially around the less important issues, your relationship is probably worth the effort.
- Are you free to be yourself?
Admittedly, we build good relationships on commonality, but too much closeness and agreement can feel smothering (to both of you). If you feel uncomfortable having your own interests, friends, and activities, you may be stuck in an overly entangled, fear-based relationship. That is far from ideal. The best relationships involve separate people with separate identities, in which each person is free to think and act as he or she sees fit.
- Is there mutual respect?
If you and the other person each bring something special and meaningful to the relationship, then it is much easier to respect each other’s opinions, interests, beliefs, and contributions. If the footing is drastically unequal, with one person running the show at all times, the relationship will likely struggle. In healthy relationships, each person values and respects the other exactly as he or she truly is. This is not to say there can’t be an imbalance of power in various aspects of healthy relationships. In a marriage, one partner may be the primary breadwinner, or one may be in charge of the house and kids. There is nothing wrong with this arrangement, so long as neither party feels used, put-upon, exploited, or unappreciated, and the lines of communication are open regarding growth and change.
- If your relationship is romantic, does the other person still turn you on?
You probably can’t duplicate your "puppy love" stage, when you first started dating and having sex, but you do want some continuing spark of physical attraction. As Dr. Charlotte Kasl writes in her terrific book, If the Buddha Dated, if another person is not at least a 7 on your personal 1-to-10 scale of physical attractiveness, you probably shouldn’t start a romance with that individual. The same is true when considering whether to stay in a relationship. It is also important to understand that this is your personal 1-to-10 scale, not society’s, or your best friend’s, or your mom’s. Who cares what they think? This is your relationship, not theirs. (Your age and overall interest in being sexual will also factor in, so 7 might be more of a guideline than a rule.)
- Does the other person support you?
If you feel like someone is not there for you when the going gets tough; if he or she expresses jealousy, negativity, or indifference toward your thoughts, beliefs, goals, desires, and/or activities, that’s not a great sign. If, however, that person works to help you succeed and feels joy when you do, your relationship is probably worth the effort.
- Does your relationship roll with the punches?
It is important that you and the other person both understand that relationships are not stagnant. If growth occurs or is sought, and both parties accept that, there is a great foundation upon which to continue and build. Conversely, the more resistance to change there is, the tougher it will be to have a healthy and enjoyable relationship moving forward.
- Are your expectations realistic?
As mentioned earlier, no person or relationship is perfect. If one of you consistently expects the other to look or act in a certain way, disappointment is inevitable. In a healthy relationship, both parties must accept and respect each other—warts and all. No person can consistently live up to another person’s fantasy of perfection; such expectations are a recipe for disaster.
- Are you both invested in the relationship?
It takes two to tango. If you want to keep your relationship alive but the other person seems determined to end it, there may not be much that you can do about that. It is possible that you might need to simply accept that things have deteriorated to the point where you cannot repair them. Put another way: If your desire to save your relationship is unrequited, there is not really a relationship to save. In such cases, the best you can do is accept and grieve this fact, learn from your mistakes, and move on to something better.
Again, there are no set rules for determining when a relationship is worth saving. However, if you find that you’ve answered yes to more than a few of the above questions, you’ve likely got something that is worth the effort. Of course, making changes in a relationship to address its negative aspects can be complicated. It may require a degree of honesty and vulnerability that will like make both you and the other person at least slightly uncomfortable. But if you want a stronger and healthier relationship moving forward, that is the price you will have to pay.
Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is Senior Vice President of National Clinical Development for Elements Behavioral Health, creating and overseeing addiction and mental health treatment programs for more than a dozen high-end treatment facilities, including Promises Treatment Centers in Malibu, The Ranch in rural Tennessee, and The Right Step in Texas.