We have healthy, unhealthy, and abusive relationships.
Healthy relationships involve honesty, trust, respect and open communication between partners and they take effort and compromise from both people. There is no imbalance of power. Partners respect each other’s independence, can make their own decisions without fear of retribution or retaliation, and share decisions.
No relationship is 100% healthy 100% of the time. A relationship is always a work in progress, and that’s where a lot of the beauty lies. But there’s a big difference between connections that are imperfect, which is normal, and ones that are potentially abusive and could negatively affect your life.
To identify the differences, it can be helpful to think of other people’s behavior in relationships in terms of green, red, and yellow flags. These follow the National Domestic Violence Hotline’s definition of healthy, unhealthy, and abusive relationships:
Green flags: These are healthy behaviors that convey respect and trust. People with lots of green flags should make you feel supported and taken care of. These include open communication, emotional safety, and mutual respect.
Red flags: Red flags are warning signs that suggest someone might be manipulative or abusive, such as cruel or threatening communication, aggressive behavior, and attempts to control you. If these behaviors start showing up, consider leaving the relationship or seeking professional help to address it.
Yellow flags: These aren’t necessarily toxic behavior patterns, but they’re potentially unhealthy ones you should keep a close eye on. Yellow flags include failing to communicate and imbalanced contributions to the relationship.
If the person doesn’t consciously work on their yellow flags, they could devolve into red ones, which is why it’s important to identify and communicate about them early on.
Pay attention to the relationships in your life. How many green flags can you see? What about red? If you find that the negative aspects are starting to tip the scale, take a second look at the situation. Talk to a good friend and assess whether the person impacts your life positively or is holding you back.
Characteristics of healthy relationships
You don’t act the same in all of your relationships – your parents and best friends receive different types of attention from you. But healthy relationships do have a fairly consistent set of underlying principles, whether that’s with your child or with a close colleague.
Here’s what to look for:
Earned trust: In a healthy relationship, you should trust each other. You know you can depend on the other person’s support and honesty. But no healthy relationship begins with complete trust – you have to prove and earn it.
Building mutual trust is a long-term project that requires dedication and consistency.
Mutual support: You and your significant other should support each other through hardships, celebrate triumphs, and encourage the other to grow. You can put your own needs aside when they’re going through a hard time, and vice versa. This is also about communicating what support looks like to you.
Mature, healthy communication: Poor communication can do serious damage to relationships. One study found that married couples reporting higher levels of negative communication were more likely to divorce within the first five years. A diverse set of communication skills should come into play in healthy relationships, including expressing gratitude, managing conflict, and listening.
Respect: In a relationship, respect means taking the time to learn about the other person’s boundaries and acknowledge their strengths and contributions.
The opposite of respect is contempt: a belief that the other person is less valuable, important, or intelligent than you are. And according to relationship expert John Gottman, contempt is the single most destructive behavior in a relationship.
Balance: In a balanced relationship, both people put in the effort, and this looks different by context. In a romantic relationship, balance usually means basic equality in terms of how much time and emotional labor each partner invests.
And in a hierarchical workplace relationship, there might not be equality, but there is reciprocity and acknowledgment.
Honesty and authenticity: Honesty means expressing emotions in a clear, compassionate way without spinning or breaking the truth. And similarly, authenticity is being honest about who you are. In a strong relationship, both people have the autonomy to express their authentic selves.
Affection and positive emotions: Being around another person should uplift you and make you feel good, and affection shows them you feel that way. And that communication doesn’t have to be physical. In a work relationship, it could mean a warm email greeting or a smile.
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