If, as Tolstoy says, all happy families are alike, then why is it so challenging to identify what it is—psychologically and sociologically—that makes them so happy? We can easily identify the markers of unhealthy relationships; for example, domestic violence—commonly known as intimate partner violence in an academic setting—is controlling behavior rooted in the power and control by one person over another that is manifested through physical, verbal, psychological, isolationist, and sexual violence. I’ve spent twenty years working to empower women experiencing intimate partner violence, and so, to celebrate Valentine’s Day this year, I want to focus on the positive characteristics experienced in intimate romantic relationships. Nothing says romance like individual empowerment and the cultivation of healthy, supportive, and interpersonal practices.
Characteristics of healthy relationships might be experienced differently across groups of women and might look different throughout cultures around the world. What we do know about the characteristics of healthy relationships is that interactions and exchanges that occur between two people are rooted in three universal principles: respect, effective communication, and awareness of self and identity. When individuals—particularly women—learn to identify and pursue these relational markers, not only do their relationships improve, but they also benefit from widely felt improvements in the rest of their lives.
First, persons in intimate relationships want to respect their partner and feel that they are respected in return. This involves understanding your own values and beliefs, standing up for the things you believe in, and the ability to express those ideals to another person. Respect means the other person understands your values and beliefs and, tries to fully examine why those values and beliefs are important to you. Over the years as a clinical social worker and educator, I’ve listened to women from different cultures explore their own value systems and discover how sharing these values with their partners and letting that shape the relationship has improved their happiness. All stories led me to believe that respecting your partner and respecting yourself can lead to a more fulfilling relationship.
The characteristics of healthy relationships is that interactions and exchanges that occur between two people are rooted in three universal principles: respect, effective communication, and awareness of self and identity.
Second, relationships thrive when both individuals practice effective communication. It is important for women to express their thoughts, feelings, and wishes throughout intimate relationships. Both persons in the relationship need to express what they want, what they need, their interests, passions, and desires. Using I statements is key and using what I call “wise mind” is imperative. Wise mind—a concept that is used in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy—is simply the ability to be aware of one’s emotions and thoughts and keep both in balance as you communicate with your partner. As either obvious or counter-intuitive as it may seem, without attentive listening there is no communication. We all want to be heard. I remember participating in a workshop several years ago in which the presenter described how we should listen: “Listen with your heart; listen with your ears; listen with your mind; and listen with your body.” It’s necessary to be present and attentive when your partner speaks to you and when you are trying to convey a wish or desire to your partner.
Finally, persons in intimate relationships need to foster their own self awareness and identity. The old saying is true: “We are products of our past.” Upbringing, successful attachment and bonding with our parents or other caregivers, and the positive development of self-esteem impact us as adults. Many women who experienced adversity during childhood and/or adolescence develop an empathic stance. Working through those adverse experiences will impact how we feel about ourselves and improve self-esteem. The more we understand how we feel about ourselves (i.e., self-esteem assessment), the easier it will be for persons in intimate romantic relationships to express what they want, their personal and professional wishes in life, and to expect respect.
As women experience these characteristics in intimate romantic relationships, they become more aware of their talents and gifts, and they are empowered to pursue dreams and goals personally and professionally. The process of experiencing empowerment becomes real because women are respected, heard, supported, and encouraged by their partners in their intimate relationships. And, as women assess their self-esteem and identify what they want in life—whether it is pursuing educational opportunities, job promotions, starting a family, or chasing a dream—women become more confident, take more risks, and find new adventures in life. Women essentially become empowered to make choices, to create change, and are more confident because they are experiencing positive healthy characteristics in intimate romantic relationships.
Featured image credit: Take this flower by Evan Kirby. Public domain via Unsplash.