Think about the many kinds of relationships you have in your life — not just any romantic ones, but also the friendships and the relationships you may have with your parents, children, coworkers, and boss.
You can probably count many. Humans have a natural desire to be close to other people, according to Northwestern Medicine.
Relationships fill your time, and they fill your cup. Plus, they serve you: Healthy relationships can make your life not only happier, but healthier.
But what exactly makes a relationship healthy? And how can you tell the difference between a healthy one and an unhealthy one? Here, learn more about the ins and outs of healthy relationships and how you can nurture the ones you have in your life.
Common Questions & Answers
What Is a Healthy Relationship?
A healthy relationship is a partnership between two people that is based on respect and trust, according to the University of Alabama. Both partners in the relationship should feel safe and be willing to work on any imbalances if and when those issues show up.
Of course, some relationships won’t be perfectly balanced (in terms of power), such as professional ones and those between a parent and child, says Cassandra Aasmundsen-Fry, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist and founder of MindWell, who is based in Kuala Lumpur. “This does not make the relationship unhealthy, unless there is an abuse of that power or neglect of responsibility,” she says. (One of Dr. Aasmundsen-Fry’s specialties is with couples and relationships.)
Some experts say the most important aspect of a healthy relationship is good communication. But there’s more to it than that.
Here are some signs of a healthy relationship, according to Northwestern Medicine:
- Listening and communicating without judgment
- Trusting and respecting one another
- Making time for each other
- Remembering details about one’s life
- Participating in healthy activities together
- Working as a team
- Feeling whole as individuals, rather than leaning on the partner for healing
- Focusing on how the relationship can be mutually beneficial
Kelli Harding, MD, MPH, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University Irving Medical Center in New York City, says teamwork is at the heart of positive relationships. “What’s key to healthy relationships is a sense of teamwork and facing challenges together,” says Dr. Harding, whose work involves speaking with schools, community groups, and organizations to foster cultures of kindness and positive social connection. “Healthy relationships are not perfect; they’re meaningful and help you grow as a person by making mistakes and learning to overcome them.”
Types of Healthy Relationships
All the different types of relationships in your life serve a purpose and can help you in distinct ways. Consider the following relationships:
- Romantic Romantic partnerships come with their own set of signs of healthfulness, including a need to communicate about intimacy to ensure both partners are satisfied, according to Northwestern Medicine. “In a romantic relationship, two or more individuals are intimately connected and share trust, respect, fondness, and a mutual desire to support and grow together and as individuals,” Aasmundsen-Fry says. These intimate relationships are important because they enhance emotional bonding and contribute to the development of a positive self-concept and greater social integration, according to a systematic review published in July 2019 in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.
- Parent-Child A healthy parent-child relationship can set the child up to have positive relationships in the future, regulate their emotions appropriately, develop confidence, and develop appropriately, according to Parenting NI, a parenting resource in Northern Ireland. A healthy parent-child relationship is marked by loving interactions, set boundaries, and a willingness to problem solve.
- Sibling Healthy sibling relationships promote empathy, social behavior, and academic achievement, according to the University of New Mexico. “The relationship may not feel equal at all times and may have more conflict than that in other relationships, but a willingness to communicate and work through issues should be present,” Aasmundsen-Fry says. “A close, healthy sibling relationship would involve confiding, spending time together, and involving each other in their lives and important events.”
- Friendship Having close friends benefits you in many ways; they help prevent loneliness, increase your sense of belonging, boost your happiness and self-worth, and help you cope with hardships, according to Mayo Clinic. Like other relationships, healthy friendships are built on trust and respect and make you feel good. (So, yes, it is worthwhile to reconnect with friends you’ve grown apart from.)
- Mentor-Mentee These relationships are built on trust, respect, open communication, perseverance to overcome obstacle, and an understanding of the other’s perspective, according to Yale University. However, there’s a definite power imbalance here, which makes it different from other relationships, Aasmundsen-Fry says. Still, the relationship should be rewarding for both parties. “The mentee benefits the most by receiving the guidance, advice, and training while growing professionally in a way that education alone cannot provide,” Aasmundsen-Fry says. “Mentors gain meaning and satisfaction out of the supervision and guidance of a mentee as well, especially when free choice is involved.”
- Parasocial Relationships These are one-sided relationships where one party invests time, energy, and interest toward the other party, and the other party is not aware they exist, according to the National Register of Health Service Psychologists. “These relationships tend to be long-lasting and involve the individual investing significant time and energy into the ‘relationship,’ while the public figure is not aware of their existence,” says Jessica Leader, a licensed marriage and family therapist with Root to Rise Therapy in Los Angeles. These relationships can skew unhealthy if they morph into stalking, but for the most part these relationships are healthy and harmless. These relationships can help people build confidence in social interactions and may also foster identity development, according to a study published February 2017 in Frontiers in Psychology.
How Your Relationships Affect Your Health
Relationships can affect our emotional, mental, and physical health in profound ways. ”Our social world is a critical and overlooked part of health,” Dr. Harding says. “From the moment we’re born, healthy relationships help us survive and thrive.”
Research has shown positive relationships can have the following benefits:
- Reduce Stress A study published May 2018 in Genus noted social relationships can act as a buffer to lessen the effects of stressful life events.
- Keep You Healthy A study published May 2016 in the Association for Psychological Science found increased sociability decreased the likelihood of developing a cold.
- Help You Live Longer Previous research found stronger social relationships reduced risk of earlier death by 50 percent.
- Improve Well-Being Previous research found friendships can help people learn, grow, explore, achieve goals, cultivate new talents, and find purpose and meaning in life.
The flip side — not having relationships — can also negatively impact your health. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), loneliness can lead to depression, poor health, and an increased risk of early death.
But you probably don’t need studies to tell you about the benefits of healthy relationships — you likely know this from experience. “Just think about how good it feels to have a friend’s supportive hand on your shoulder, a hug from a loved one, or a good laugh with a friend over a lousy situation,” Harding says.
When Relationships Are Not Good for Your Health
Not all relationships are healthy.
What Is a Toxic Relationship?
Some are toxic, which describes a relationship with an unhealthy cycle of communication that’s not always deliberate, Leader says.
According to DomesticShelters.org, a site from the nonprofit Theresa’s Fund that spreads awareness on domestic violence, a toxic relationship is one that leans unhealthy for some reason, such as if boundaries aren’t being respected or there’s a lack of respect in general. It doesn’t mean that abuse is present, but it can escalate into an abusive relationship.
Sometimes people exhibit toxic behaviors when they’re going through a tough time, Aasmundsen-Fry says. They can also be more common among those who had unhealthy relationships in early life, according to the NIH.
In toxic relationships, one might start lying or picking fights with their partner even though they do not intend to have power or control over them, Aasmundsen-Fry says.
What Is an Abusive Relationship?
Abusive relationships, on the other hand, do involve one person trying to remain in control and with power in the relationship, according to Planned Parenthood. These relationships feature abuse in some capacity: physical, sexual, verbal, or emotional. When a romantic partner is involved, the abuse is called domestic or intimate partner violence, which involves a partner exhibiting behaviors where they try to control or have power over the other person.
Typically, the person being abused will be forced by the abuser to withdraw from friends and family.“This is usually done to keep the abused person isolated and easier to manipulate,” Aasmundsen-Fry says.
Other Ways a Relationship Can Be Unhealthy
Maybe you’re in a relationship that’s not necessarily toxic or abusive, but you’re not benefiting from it. “I would consider these relationships as one-directional or uneven,” Aasmundsen-Fry says, adding that’s more of a way of characterizing the relationship than a clinical term. “Often these occur when both people have misaligned goals or one person is more committed to the relationship or emotionally available. It usually leaves one or both people feeling disappointed as their needs are not met.”
Wondering if you’re in an unhealthy relationship? Foundry BC, an organization from the British Columbia government focused on wellness, suggests asking yourself these questions to determine if it’s healthy or not. These questions were written to assess a romantic relationship, but many apply to other relationships as well:
- Do I feel safe with my partner?
- Can I be myself around this person?
- Can I tell them how I really feel?
- Do we listen to one another’s concerns?
- Do I trust them?
- Is the power balance equal?
- Does my partner support me?
- Do they try things I like?
- Do I feel good about myself when I’m with them?
- Am I happy in the relationship?
4 Tips for Fostering Healthier Relationships
To build and grow healthier relationships, consider the following tips:
- Be present. “Your attention — especially in the small moments of everyday life — is the greatest gift you can give another human being,” Harding says. “When you are in person, please put away your phone, make eye contact, and just be present.”
- Be clear about what you need. “Don’t make your partner or peer guess — it sets you both up to fail,” Aasmundsen-Fry says.
- Offer gratitude. “A thoughtful thank you note, text, small gift, or action can delight and surprise others,” Harding says. “Even a text message saying, ‘I’m thinking of you and am so glad you are a part of my life,’ can make a difference.”
- Consider therapy. “If you have had a difficult history of relationships, take some time in therapy to understand your attachment struggles and how to operate in a healthier manner in relationships,” Aasmundsen-Fry says. “It is very helpful to understand the ways you unconsciously act or are triggered in relationships and to be empowered to choose differently.”
Planned Parenthood also suggests it’s important to love yourself, support one another, give each other some space when needed, and forgive and ask for forgiveness when needed.
Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking
- 5 Benefits of Healthy Relationships. Northwestern Medicine. September 2021.
- Healthy vs. Unhealthy Relationships. The University of Alabama.
- Mercedes Gómez-López M, Viejo C, Ortega-Ruiz R. Well-Being and Romantic Relationships: A Systematic Review in Adolescence and Emerging Adulthood. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. July 2019.
- Parent-Child Relationship — Why It’s Important. ParentingIN.
- Sidhu S. The Importance of Siblings. The University of New Mexico Health Sciences. January 7, 2019.
- Friendships: Enrich Your Life and Improve Your Health. Mayo Clinic. January 12, 2022.
- Step 3: What Makes a Mentoring Relationship Successful? Yale University.
- Parasocial Relationships: The Nature of Celebrity Fascinations. National Register of Health Service Psychologists.
- Building Social Bonds. National Institutes of Health. April 2018.
- What Makes a Relationship Unhealthy? Planned Parenthood.
- 10 Questions to Ask Yourself to Make Sure You’re in a Healthy Relationship. FoundryBC.
- Healthy Relationships. Planned Parenthood.
- Holt-Lunstad J, Smith TB, Layton JB. Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A Meta-Analytic Review. PLoS Medicine. July 27, 2010.
- Cohen S, Doyle WJ, Skoner DP, et al. Sociability and Susceptibility to the Common Cold. Association for Psychological Science. May 6, 2016.
- Amati V, Meggiolaro S, Rivellini G, et al. Social Relations and Life Satisfaction: The Role of Friends. Genus. May 4, 2018.
- Feeney BC, Collins NL. A New Look at Social Support: A Theoretical Perspective on Thriving Through Relationships. Society for Personality and Social Psychology. August 14, 2014.
- Gleason TR, Theran SA, Newberg EM. Adolescence. Frontiers in Psychology. February 2017.
- Kippert A. Signs of a Toxic Relationship. DomesticShelters.org. December 27, 2021.