The Key Ingredients for a Healthy Relationship? Talk a lot and Have Sex (Mostly)
Many of us know what it feels like to be in the throes of love in those early weeks and months when you’ve got your rose-colored glasses on and it feels like the sun shines out of your beloved’s backside. It may look a lot like the picture above. Sure, there might be a smidge of drama, a touch of noticing a thing or two that sets off an alarm, but for the most part, all your happy hormones are doing their thing, and life is but a dream. But what then? Why is it, (aside from our attachment styles, which we discussed a couple of weeks ago here, or perhaps in relation to them), that somewhere around 4-6 months in, and increasingly after that, trouble starts to peek in? Well, the reasons for that are many, and we’re not going to break those all down today. Instead, we’re going to focus on what the key ingredients are in a healthy relationship.
Experts have approached these ingredients in different ways, emphasizing some over others, and sometimes even disagreeing. We’re going to go with what feels most consistent and helpful. What we know is that falling in love is the easy part. But what is it that makes a relationship sustainable, satisfying, and growth rather than stagnation-oriented? Essentially, what is it that keeps a relationship ALIVE?
1. Let’s Start with the Simple Stuff: Love…
At least it seems like it should be simple, right? Maybe not so much though…Love might be something you feel for someone, but in terms of sustaining a healthy relationship, it needs to be understood as a verb. It’s an ACTION word. We need to understand loving someone as a choice we make every day made up of a series of behaviours. Choosing to love someone is a commitment to treat them well in your words, actions, and thoughts. It is about showing them respect, compassion, and understanding. It’s about acting kindly, and not taking each other for granted.
And when it comes to what kind of actions make you and your partner each, as individuals, feel especially loved? Well, it’s important not to assume the actions they want, and you want, are the same. This bring us to a recently released blog about understanding your love language. You can check it out right here. Understanding your love language and the love language of your significant other will make sure you can communicate how to get each of your needs met in healthy and reciprocal ways.
In fact, everything that follows this No.1 ingredient is a type of action you take to love the other person well! Let’s dive right in.
2. Get Intimate, Really Intimate
What keeps passion (in all its changing forms and variations), alive in a long-term relationship? Maintaining intimacy. But what does that mean, exactly? The first thing that probably popped into your head is sex right? I mean, us bashful ones tend to use ‘intimacy’ as a synonym for getting down under the sheets. And sex is definitely a high contender when we talk about intimacy, but we’ll get to that in a minute. First, let’s talk about the basics.
- That respect, compassion, understanding and kindness we mentioned in ingredient No.1? Those things emerge from intimacy, but they also foster intimacy. They make us feel safe, open, and seen. They make us feel understood, valued, and like we aren’t being judged. All those elements enable one other thing that deepens intimacy even further (and grows out of intimacy too…you’re probably noticing a circular pattern here): vulnerability. When you feel safe and supported, you can be vulnerable with one another. When you are vulnerable, you share your feelings, your secrets, your dreams, your goals, your fears. You can discover what you have in common, and what is different between you; you can support rather than fear those differences. Healthy couples talk openly about things. Vulnerability deepens intimacy. And deepened intimacy leads to hot steamy sex. Yup, I said it. So, let’s talk about that.
- Over time, sex can fall to the wayside. You know it; you don’t have the same fire burning for each other, things can get busy, you get comfortable and in routines. You might love each other just as much, but the chemicals in your brain aren’t hijacking all your attention. Life takes over. And that’s natural. It’s okay for the frequency of sex to decrease a bit over time, and within particular contexts- but you’ve still got to keep doing it! Because, the less you do, the less you’ll want to. Fact. And when physical intimacy declines, another cyclical effect happens: we start feeling less emotionally intimate and connected too. And on we go. You stop giving time and attention to each other in ways that make you feel safe, and open. Sex is important in every healthy relationship- in the quantity that feels comfortable for you both. Sex connects the other person in your mind (and body) with pleasure, gratification, safety, playfulness, excitement, and more. It reinforces something called the ‘oxytocin bond’, making us feel more connected to the other. Now, both partners don’t always have the same sex drive. You have to find a happy medium. What that means is usually a result of compromise, and of the unique constellation that is the two of you.
- Another happy medium is balancing in some romance. What do I mean by that? I’m not sure! Whatever that looks like to you. Let’s call it a date: an intentional period of time carved out once a week, or bi-weekly, or once a month, to do something special together. To focus your attention on one another completely, to explore new things together. In the NY Times article by Tara Parker Pope, ‘How to Have a Better Relationship’, she writes:
“Do something new and different — and make sure you do it together. New experiences activate the brain’s reward system, flooding it with dopamine and norepinephrine. These are the same brain circuits that are ignited in early romantic love. Whether you take a pottery class or go on a white-water rafting trip, activating your dopamine systems while you are together can help bring back the excitement you felt on your first date. In studies of couples, Dr. Aron has found that partners who regularly share new experiences report greater boosts in marital happiness than those who simply share pleasant but familiar experiences.”
And you know what these new shared pleasant experiences do? Create more intimacy. So how do you know if you’re finding the right balance: if your partner is feeling emotional and physical intimacy with you? That will take us to our next point.
3. The Old Favorite: Communicate, with your Words
Which clearly doesn’t mean trying to get your point across with passive aggressive actions intending to create guilt or designed with the hope that the other person will read your mind. Everything we’ve already mentioned: using love as a verb; exhibiting respect, compassion, understanding, acceptance, kindness. Discovering each others’ love languages. Supporting one another. Fostering intimacy and vulnerability both emotionally and sexually. Finding the balance of the quantity (and type) of sex and romance that works for both of you. Let’s also add: showing each other respect, building trust, maintaining honesty. What do all of these things require? Stringing words together. Communicating.
This creates the core foundation of any good relationship. And honestly, most of us are not great at it. One of the best ways to learn this from the ground up? Don’t think about how you’ve communicated in relationships before (or, think about the kind of communication that didn’t work, and strike that off your list). Think about the kind of communication that would allow you to feel safe, to be honest, to trust the other person with your innermost feelings and thoughts. The kind of communication that you’d want to receive, in an ideal world? Strive for that, together.
Does this mean you won’t argue? Of course not! Conflict is healthy (because you are not one amorphous blob with your partner, you are different living breathing beings. More on that later too). When there is no conflict at all, alarm bells should go off. It means you are not comfortable sharing what you think and feel- that you’re avoiding things because you’re afraid the relationship will fall apart if you confront things. You don’t have enough trust. In which case: Communication is necessary to build it. With communication, you discover the best ways you can problem- solve together.
Healthy conflict does not mean name calling, yelling, and emotionally abusive behaviour. It means being able to communicate about disagreements and working together to find a solution. A destructive conflict occurs when there is a desire from one side to win. Instead, it’s important to be able to sit, to listen, and to understand what is at the heart of what is being communicated to us. And vice versa. It is the ability for each to speak authentically and respectfully. When you listen, the other person feels heard. When the other person listens, you feel heard. Even if you don’t agree, there is a sense of perspective, of being able to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. With that comes compassion, empathy, understanding. You discover things about one another. You learn that their feelings and thoughts and behaviours were shaped by a lifetime of experience that came before you, and that was different than yours. With that also comes patience!
When communication is compassionate rather than reactive, compromise becomes possible.
But before conflict, before you are even negotiating intimacy, before you even know if ‘love’ is the word you want to use to describe what you have with someone, and what you want to build with them, communication is still key. Communication is how you discover the foundations that make the relationship a viable, compatible possibility in the first place. Let’s talk about that.
4. Knowing Your Compatibility Markers
What makes two people compatible? So many of the elements are beyond words. They are embedded in your complementary relationship dynamics, in how your entire histories come together, in your chemical connectivity. But some compatibility markers are more concrete. However, as we go through them, keep this in mind: You don’t have to be compatible on all fronts- sometimes people of vastly different ages, cultures, or religions can make incredible matches. It’s all about communication, understanding, and respect, and uniqueness of each and every relationship. And yet, there are some things that make compatibility more likely.
- Common Interests and Values: Having goals and beliefs and values about the world that are shared creates a strong foundation. It’s not about being mirrors of each other, but about having enough core fundamental things that can keep things strong, and that prevent repeated unhealthy conflicts about the basic navigation of the life you share together. You need to be able to share some passions, or discover passions and hobbies that you enjoy creating together. I mean, on some level this is obvious, because you’ll want to be spending a lot of time together, and enjoying that time! The things that you feel very strongly about? That act as your moral compass in the world? They shouldn’t be direct opposites of one another, usually. If they are, it will be hard to value each others company.
- Intellectual equal-mindedness: Again, this is not about being intellectual mirrors. You don’t need to be ‘smart in the same way’, or have minds that work similarly. But you should be able to keep up with each other- to talk, and laugh, and debate. Mind-gasms are fun too.
- Similar Expectations for the relationship: This involves being able to check-in that you are on the same page at how fast the relationship develops, and eventually, where it is going. It also involves understanding exactly what commitment (or lack thereof) means to each of you.
- Boundaries: Part of expectations is knowing what each of you find to be appropriate boundaries- sometimes, this will be a little different, but can be compromised or negotiated. If compromise or negotiation is not comfortable, compatibility will be hard, and resentment will build. When boundaries are established, honored, and respected, it actually creates an amazing sense of safety and connection too! So, you end up with more intimacy again.
Talking about boundaries and expectations brings us to another key ingredient.
5. Valuing Yourself as a Separate Person, and Your Partner as One Too
PRIVACY. SPACE. ALONE TIME. The existence of YOU. Your whole, complete, entire person. All on your lonesome. This means a variety of things. One of them, which we discussed, is having healthy, mutually understood boundaries. The others?
No matter how much you love someone, you need alone time and so do they. Or you’ll resent them. You’ll lose patience. You’ll get frustrated. You’ll lose contact with yourself. There is nothing wrong with needing ‘space’. Obviously, this is not an encouragement to be distant. Again, that attachment blog we mentioned? Check it out. Giving yourself time for yourself is self-care. It allows you to unwind, relax, check in with your feelings, and do things that you enjoy and your partner doesn’t. This lets you respect each others’ individual needs and likes without having to participate in all of them. You-time doesn’t always need to be ‘alone’ either. It can involve seeing your friends and family without your partner and doing something fun with them. These things allow you to reset. And even to gain some perspective on your relationship!
Honoring you and your partner as individuals also includes allowing a degree of privacy. This means you don’t have to share everything, and this includes your passwords. Why? Because, you can’t control each other, you don’t own each other, and you can’t pressure someone to share something they don’t want to. Not wanting to share something doesn’t mean a lack of trust or intimacy either.
What does all of this mean in a nutshell? Make sure you aren’t trying to be each other’s everything. Because that’s toxic, and bound to fail. And if this feels challenging to you, you might have created a pattern of self-abandonment and codependency. This makes a healthy relationship hard, and you just might need to do a little work on yourself. Part of that is discovering why you have those patterns in the first place, and also discovering what you need to create a fulfilling life for yourself. A life that feels whole when you are with your partner, and apart from them. Having a ‘me’ outside ‘we’ makes the relationship stronger!
6. Knowing When to Let Go
Sometimes, things are not working no matter how much we love each other. The ingredients just aren’t there. Love means wanting the other to be happy, even if it means the relationship ending. It also means knowing when the relationship is not just wrong, but abusive or toxic. These kinds of relationships don’t have the ingredients we discussed. They are largely about power and control. You can recognize this kind of relationship not only by what’s missing, but by what’s happening. According to the Hall Health Centre of the University of Washington, some of the markers of an unhealthy relationship include:
- Putting one person before the other by neglecting yourself or your partner
- Feeling pressure to change who you are for the other person
- Feeling worried when you disagree with the other person
- Feeling pressure to quit activities you usually/used to enjoy
- Pressuring the other person into agreeing with you or changing to suit you better
- Noticing one of you has to justify your actions (e.g., where you go, who you see)
- Noticing one partner feels obligated to have sex or has been forced
- Having a lack of privacy, and may be forced to share everything with the other person
- You or your partner refusing to use safer sex methods
- Noticing arguments are not settled fairly
- Experiencing yelling or physical violence during an argument
- Attempting to control or manipulate each other
- Noticing your partner attempts to control how you dress and criticizes your behaviors
- Having no common friends, or have a lack of respect for each others’ friends and family
- Noticing an unequal control of resources (e.g., food, money, home, car, etc.)
- Experiencing a lack of fairness and equality
It is important to note that if some of these aspects seem familiar to you in terms of your relationship, it doesn’t necessarily mean it is doomed. If you both realize how these characteristics impact you, you can work to change them. But change can only happen if it is a mutual and equal effort. You can understand and support your partner, but it is not your job to fix them. And that being said, if there is emotional or physical abuse that is putting you in danger, please find resources and support systems to help you leave. If you are in Lebanon, you can contact the domestic abuse hotline at 1745.
Additionally, if you don’t really have much of the unhealthy ingredients, but not too many of the healthy ones either, don’t despair. You can start doing the work, alone, and together. Entering into self-reflective practices like journaling, meditation, and narrative-writing can help so you can consider how to change your patterns. Entering into open dialogue and communication with your partner will be essential too. Simply start practicing the essential ingredients daily! But if you find yourselves unable to get ‘unstuck’, therapy can always give you the leg up you need to create new dynamics in your life.
The takeaway is this: You deserve to feel safe and loved in your relationship. Hope this has helped just a little for you to do exactly that! And that’s all, folks. As always, we love hearing from you, so let us know your thoughts in the comments.