Healthy relationships lead to a healthy life, but they take work.
Relationships are a lot healthier if you do more than just “show up.”
Many centuries ago, Aristotle described three key features of humans—we are driven to make meaning in our lives; we are able to self-reflect and self-evaluate our progress in life; and we are highly social creatures who seek relationships with others, whether platonic, erotic, or familial. Most of us are not content to go it alone for too long. Another insight that Aristotle emphasized was that to be truly happy in life, we must have healthy intimate relationships; we are only able to flourish if there are others in our lives for whom we care. It is not enough simply to know the faces or the names of your neighbors, baristas, or colleagues. We must endeavor to connect and bond with others. Intimate relationships are the glue that often keeps us – or our worlds – from falling apart.
Suzanne Degges-White, PhD, LPC, LMHC, NCC, is professor and chair of the Counseling, Adult and Higher Education department at Northern Illinois University. She is a licensed counselor whose focus includes working with individuals and families facing transitions. Her academic research explores development over the lifespan with a strong focus on women’s relationships and women’s developmental transitions. She is currently president of the Association for Adult Development and Aging, a division of the American Counseling Association.
Editor: Nadeem Noor
Most of us must believe that we must matter to others in order to truly matter to ourselves. Active engagement – not passive observation – produces joy.
Eudaimonia is the term used to describe what results when you create a state of healthy happiness and fulfillment in your life. Whereas we might describe more general life satisfaction as a state of being, Aristotle suggested that eudaimonia – and healthy relationships – are a product of doing, not just being.
We must engage actively in the world around us to enjoy all of the fruits it has to offer. Sure, there may be some “freebies” along the way, but to reap the sweetest rewards, we must invest some hard work. Moreover, relationships – even good ones – require a fair amount of that work.
What work does a relationship require to guarantee its stability and ensure that it flourishes? Fowers et al. (2016) pulled together a list of six attributes that a healthy relationship must possess:
1. Meaning must be derived from the romantic relationship. While there may be fans of “catch and release” hook-up relationships, if a relationship is going to grow, it must provide a deeper sense of meaning, not just be a means to temporarily gratify your sensual desires.
2. Personal growth is actively engages partners in mutually rewarding relationships. Not only do you grow as a couple, you also will grow as a person in a healthy relationship.
3. Goal sharing will arise naturally when a relationship grows into a deeper union of two independent individuals. There’s a huge difference between dependency and interdependence, however; without interdependence and shared goals, the couple won’t be able to generate that important couple identity through which the best of both individuals can be developed.
4. Relational giving requires that partners give back and willingly accept from one another. If only one member of a relationship is willing to yield over time, the potential for long-term commitment withers.
5. Expression of our true natures is also vital. If we are unable to be authentic and honest with our partners, our relationships will never deepen into intimate, substantial connections. Intimacy allows partners the safety of risking naked honesty.
6. Deep engagement in life and the world around you are refreshing rewards to be found in meaningful, intimate relationships. Most everyone can relate to that sense of wonder and awe that new love can offer: Every experience with your new partner can seem like the first time that any couple has experienced what you two do. Food tastes better, the sky is bluer, the grass is greener (or the snow is fluffier) – whatever the season, it’s the best you’ve ever enjoyed.
Does your relationship pass the 6-trait test?
So, how do you know if this relationship is going to take you higher or leave you mourning the time invested? Ask yourself the following questions, and if you answer No more often than Yes, you need to decide if you should be giving more to the relationship or simply "taking off":
1. Does this relationship encourage me to think beyond the immediate?
2. Am I better person than I was before the relationship began?
3. Do I recognize the “us” when I think of my partner, or do I focus on what “I” want or “she” wants?
4. Am I willing to give what I want to get from this relationship?
5. Do I feel safe letting myself be vulnerable with this person?
6. Do I feel more alive when I am with this person?