Healthy Relationships

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Relationships come in many forms. Intimate partners, friendships, family relationships, roommate relationships, and relationships with coworkers or professors are all important relationships that impact students each day. Although each relationship has very different dynamics and boundaries, it is important to know that the practices of healthy relationships can be similar across each group.

Strengthening Relationships

Each relationship is unique, and each person has different expectations in their relationships. The following list of rights are central to establishing mutually respectful and trusting relationships with stable boundaries.

Healthy Communication is one’s ability to have open and honest communication within their relationships. Healthy communication can sometimes be difficult, especially when setting boundaries. Healthy communication does not include blaming, name calling or ultimatums. Rather, it focuses on a continuous open conversation about ways to improve the relationship and build a strong foundation for the future. Having open communication can assist in balancing the needs and expectations of those who are in a relationship.

Mutual trust and respect is built over time and can be developed in many ways. Mutual trust can be developed when members of the relationship are consistent and supportive. Establishing respect within your relationship comes with the establishment of trust. Listening to each individual’s needs and being aware of and understanding boundaries are some of the ways to establish mutual respect. 

Consent is the act of providing permission or agreement. Specifically, in relationships, consent can refer to a variety of different needs or acts. Consent between individuals should be:

  • Mutual—each person must agree.
  • Explicit—consent should be clearly stated. The absence of a “no” does not equate to a “yes.”
  • Sober—consent cannot be provided while under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
  • Continuous—consent must be given freely and throughout the course of a relationships. In regard to sexual acts, consent cannot be provided if a person is asleep, incapacitated, or underage.

Boundaries include our own personal limitations within a relationship. Setting boundaries in relationships allows for relationships to thrive. Boundaries can include:

  • The amount of time spent together.
  • Individual needs in a relationship.
  • Comfort with physical contact.
  • Comfort with revealing information about your personal life.
  • Access to one another’s phones or social media accounts.
  • Maintaining one’s own self-care strategies and schedule.

Providing and receiving support to and from the individuals you are in a relationship with is important. Everyone goes through times in their life when they may need extra help or support. It can also be important to ask for help from others when you need support. Providing and receiving support can make you feel closer to others and establish safety in the environment.

Online Dating and Relationships

Online dating is a common and convenient way to meet people. Having successful relationships with people you’ve met online involves many of the principles already discussed, but there are a few other things to consider.

  • Communicating through text or direct messages can make it hard to interpret the emotion and inflection behind the words. Open communication is very important to ensure better understanding of the person you are communicating with.
  • Boundary setting in new relationships with people you meet online is very important for both safety and comfort. Setting up initial meetings can also be intimidating. Meeting in a public place and letting others know where you are can increase safety and allow you to feel comfortable on a first meeting.
  • Consent is also an essential component of online dating.
  • Be confident in who you are. Sometimes in online dating, people may feel inclined to exaggerate their experiences or attributes. Being honest about who you are will promote honesty and healthy communication throughout your relationship.

Maintaining Independence in a Relationship

No matter where a relationship starts, it’s important to maintain the self both in and out of the relationship. We often view ourselves in reference to our relationships. When relationships feel difficult or there’s an argument, it’s common to feel a lot of stress in other areas of life. Establishing interests outside of your relationship can foster a healthy connection within the relationship, increase feelings of relatedness, and promote relationship growth. Remember that no one relationship can fulfill all of the needs you have. No individual is perfect; therefore, no relationship is perfect. Gathering supportive relationships of all kinds can help you grow in your interests and find multiple people who can be supportive of you. 

When Relationships Are Not Healthy

The following information is developed from John Gottman’s research on marriage and is often framed within the context of intimate relationships and partners, but much of this information can relate to a variety of relationships. The following include a few behaviors that are typically not characteristic of healthy relationships.

Criticism. While feedback can be constructive, criticism is unhelpful in a relationship when it attacks someone’s personal qualities (personality, character, belief) rather than addressing concerns related to a specific behavior. Often, this behavior is blaming or shaming of the other person. This differs from a general complaint as well. For example:

Complaint: “We don’t spend as much time together as I’d like.”
Criticism: “You never spend time with me.”

Contempt is insulting, manipulative, and psychologically abusive behavior towards another person or partner. Examples include:

  • All or nothing statements (“you always…” or “you never…”)
  • Name calling (pejorative names, cursing, etc.)
  • Hostile humor or mockery (sarcasm, using humor to mask insult)
  • Body language (sneering, rolling eyes, distracted listening)

Defensiveness is often a natural reaction when feeling criticized or insulted by a partner or other person. However, defensiveness can escalate into reactions against neutral or constructive feedback. Examples include:

  • Denying responsibility when you’re at fault.
  • Making excuses using external circumstances (e.g. traffic).
  • Assuming ill-intent or motives with no evidence.
  • Avoiding responsibility by blaming your partner or another person.

Stonewalling involves repeatedly withdrawing from disagreements and confrontations with a partner or another person. This is sometimes viewed as “rock bottom” in relationship deterioration, but is not irreparable. Building new communication patterns is necessary to move past stonewalling. Examples include:

  • Ignoring your partner when they try to talk to you.
  • Frequently walking away from conversations.
  • Starting tasks to avoid conversations and confrontation.

When to Seek Help

Individuals who experience relationships that have unhealthy or negative characteristics can feel empowered by making their own decisions about next steps for themselves and their relationships. If you feel you could use additional support, consider seeking formal help from a counselor or therapist. Other ways to seek help are as follows.

  • Engage in online research.
  • Reach out to friends/loved ones who are supportive and trustworthy.
  • Engage in self-care strategies that empower you in and/or out of your relationship.
  • Reach out to your local domestic/interpersonal violence shelter.

Want to Know More?

Gottman Institute,

Love Is Respect,

Psychology Today,

National Domestic Violence Hotline, National hotline: 1-800-799-7233)

Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network Assault Line, (National hotline: 1-800-656-HOPE)