What Do Healthy Relationships Look Like?
And what can we learn from them?
Posted Sep 12, 2019 | Reviewed by Matt Huston
Do You Wonder What Healthy Relationships Look Like?
If we don't see them that often, that may be because they are pretty rare. Researchers estimate that only 10% of marriages in the US are highly healthy and happy.1 In several studies using fMRI scans of the brain, Acevedo and Aron found that one in 10 of the mature couples (married an average of 21 years) exhibited the same neuro-chemical reactions when shown photographs of their loved ones as people commonly do in the early stages of a relationship. These still passionate couples, they called "swans."
What can we learn from these healthy relationships so that you can create one for yourself. Even if you have had lots of challenges in the love department.
Thinking about what makes for a healthy relationship is great thing to do whether you are single, dating The One, or involved in a committed relationship that has been unfulfilling for a while. Let's take a peek at one of these happy couples that I know.
Sue is an angel of a woman with a mass of super-curly hair and a few extra pounds. She is sitting on her husband Ralph's lap, laughing and whispering in his ear. Ralph, a lanky tall salesman is guffawing at Sue's whispered jokes as he tells her she is a brilliant Lucille Ball. He gently pushes a wisp of hair from her forehead and plants a kiss on her. Sue beams at him and says "Thanks!" The couple is in their own world, even though they are at a party with 25 people.
A young woman approaches the couple and asked if they just got married. Sue and Ralph laugh heartily and say "yes" even though the answer is obviously no. They have been married for 12 years. But they are still madly in love. They have shared intimacy and humor, strong appreciation for each other and ongoing affection. And their positive exchanges outnumber their negative ones 5 to 1. Sue and Ralph are a healthy happy couple. But don't despair. They are not the only ones.
What's Your Relationship Goal?
If your goal is being in a happy, committed, lasting love relationship, the first step is to understand and clearly visualize what that relationship would look like. Unfortunately, a soul mate does not just come to you as a perfectly fitting puzzle piece or twin personality. A soul mate is a person who develops and maintains a state of living love in word and in action with you.
Chances are you have had few role models of a win-win relationship; the kind of true love that makes you healthier, happier, and wealthier. It may be hard to envision this kind of relationship for yourself and challenging to learn the skills that happy couples routinely use. Until now!
In this post, we look at one of eight key habits that researchers discovered about healthy couples: they practice gratitude and appreciation.
He who is in love is wise and becoming wiser, sees every time he looks at the object beloved, drawing from it with his eyes and his mind those virtues which it possesses. —Ralph Waldo Emerson
Because they know that loss can occur, loving and happy couples appreciate and are grateful for each other. Each partner appreciates who the Beloved is, who he or she can be, and what is received from the Beloved. Both live in a state of gratitude. This habit leads to great personal and shared happiness in the couple.
In happy couples, the partners tend to see each other’s positive qualities rather than their negative ones. Everyone has flaws; there is no perfect person. In the practice of this habit of loving, the partner’s flaws are not the focus. Instead of grimacing about her husband’s flabby paunch and being grumpy about his snoring, a happy wife sees a sandy-haired hunk getting into her bed. Instead of zoning in on his wife’s cellulite and complaining about her failed MLM business, a happy husband sees a warm, funny vixen who lights up his life.
Happy couples focus on the blessings in their lives and regularly express gratitude. Research shows that appreciation and gratitude lead to happiness. Daily counting of one’s blessings leads to less depression and a more elevated mood. For example, a “gratitude visit” is where you write a letter of thanks to a person who has helped you and then go to them and read it. Members of a healthy couple are continuously making gratitude mini-visits to each other in verbal or written form. They express thanks, give each other appreciative, gratitude-based gifts, and exchange loving e-mails, notes, and cards.
Positive Paranoia and Gratitude
Healthy, happy couples live much of the time in a state of Positive Paranoia. What is Positive Paranoia? It involves giving your partner the benefit of the doubt when they do something that is disappointing or hurtful. Happy partners often see good or simply uninformed intentions behind what their partners do or say instead of mean-spirited criticism, rejection, or attack.
By contrast, in unhappy couples, the partners can never win. Even when one spouse tries to be nice, he or she is greeted with negative paranoia; the other spouse is suspicious about underlying intentions and thinks that the loving act is simply a setup to be disappointed and hurt once again. This makes it hard and, at the very end, almost impossible to simply take in a loving gesture. There are few such barriers for happy couples.
What Do Healthy Couples Look Like? They Show Appreciation
Showing appreciation is critically important to the lives of happy couples. When you are in a state of appreciation and therefore happier in general, it is a lot easier to make your partner happy. Conversely, when you are depressed, worried, or busy counting your misfortunes, it is next to impossible to create happiness and serenity in your relationship.
This Living Love Habit also lays the foundation for having fun together, another important characteristic of healthy relationships.
In the everyday practice of appreciation in a happy couple, the partners do not focus on flaws but instead highly value each other's strengths.
In unhappy couples, the partners can never win. Even when one spouse tries to be nice, the other spouse may be suspicious about underlying intentions. For example, they think that the loving act is simply a setup. There's mistrust. They believe that disappointment and hurt will inevitably follow once again. This suspicion makes it hard and, in the end, almost impossible to simply take in a gesture of love. There are few such barriers for healthy and happy couples.
What Do Healthy Couples Look Like? How They Handle Not Being Appreciated
I know, I know, you need appreciation. Your partner might act clueless, mean, distant. You may feel resentful, rejected, lonely, disappointed, abandoned, or empty. You are totally right in feeling upset. I have definitely been there many times myself. So when you go in to find something to appreciate about your partner it may be very difficult to see anything that is positive right now.
For your own sake I want you to set it aside for just a few minutes each day for this week. Let your resentment go for a moment. Do this as a gift to yourself.
Being self-righteous and angry is like pouring poison into your brain. You are the one who suffers. So take a break from “being right” so that you can be happy. Just a few times a day, say to yourself, "Honey, I so appreciate you." Create moments of appreciation where you list some of your most wonderful characteristics. Start living in appreciation of who you are and the rest will follow.
What Do Healthy Relationships Look Like? Practice These Skills
• Make it a point to notice and appreciate all the wonderful qualities, large and small, that your partner has. Practice telling them about it. Notice how they respond.
• Be truly appreciative of your partner. Be sure to thank them for outings, gifts, or helpfulness.
• Polish up your Positive Paranoia skills. When your partner ignores you, think thoughts like, "I bet my partner is proud of my music gig even though she hasn’t called," or "My partner wants to help me succeed, even though he’s critical." See how that changes your relationship with these more difficult people. You can reap more positives from them by changing the focus of your own outlook.
¹ Bianca P. Acevedo, Arthur Aron, Helen E. Fisher, and Lucy L. Brown. Neural correlates of long-term intense romantic love. SCAN (2012) 7, 145-159.