It's tough to know your relationships are healthy these days, isn't it?
Is this irreconcilable differences or can we work it out?
Am I triggered or is this actually a problem?
Is this bad for my mental health or is it an opportunity for growth?
Is this gaslighting or is it a disagreement?
Is it them, or is it me?
It’s tough to know. And I’m not only talking about romantic relationships either. Friendships, work connections, and family relationships are all affected by pop psychology.
We want to use it for good. We want to heal and be healthier in our relationships with one another.
But how do we do that? And how do we know we’re doing it right?
Sure, they might be the asshole. Still, our outer world is usually a reflection of our inner world in one way or another. So if you want to find the truth, it starts within.
This can be annoying but it also shows us where our own power is. After all, this is your life we’re talking about. If you're an adult, you likely pick the people you're around. Even if you don't always get that choice, you do get to decide how you act in those relationships.
This is powerful stuff. The power of choice.
So using what we’ve got, here are the steps to filling your life with healthy relationships.
What Is a Healthy Relationship?
One reason it's hard to define "healthy" in relationships is because we all experience them differently. My top relational needs aren’t the same as yours, and so on.
To me it seems simple.
When the relationship meets each person's emotional, physical, and material needs, we know it's a healthy one.
Keep in mind that needs & wants are two different things, but there are some universal human needs.
One need I’d think is pretty universal is that of safety. For me this creates a basic standard. I need to feel emotionally, physically, and materially safe in any relationship I’m involved in. I want the people I'm ini relationship with to feel the same. If either of us don't, we have a problem.
Needs beyond safety depend on the specific relationship.
For instance, do I need to feel emotionally held by family and coworkers? "Need" is a big word. It means I "need" it in order for this relationship to exist.
So my answer is no, not usually. It's ideal to feel emotionally held. But the truth is, I can keep family ties without feeling emotionally "held", as long as I can still feel emotionally safe around them in general. And there is a difference between the two. Knowing who to call for what is an important part of cultivating a healthy community.
Feeling emotionally held is something I’d personally expect more from a therapist, partner, and close friends.
The same may not be true for you and that’s okay. This is just giving us an example of distribution of expectations and how they can differ.
Something else that’s critical for defining relationships is how we feel.
The Shortcut: "How Do I Feel Around Them (And Why)?"
How can I know if this relationship is healthy for me if I don’t know how I feel within it?
And I don't mean "I feel like you're hiding something" know how you feel.
I mean being able to:
- Name your emotions
- Separate them from the story
- Have the emotional literacy to understand what those feelings are really telling you and what you need to do about them
Emotions are your internal navigators and alarm systems. That's it. They say "danger here!" "Stop that" "We love this!".
But they're not so great at telling us why.
When we look more closely at them we sometimes discover a wound that needs healed, and other times they're legit just telling us how to navigate a current-day situation. Oftentimes times a little of both.
Either way, it helps to get cozy with them. Otherwise you're going to be ruled by other peoples' internal guidance systems instead of your own. But their guidance systems weren't made for you, love.
When we know how we feel in this way we stop needing to find our answers in the research. No shade to the research. It’s a great resource to get us started. But the point of it is to empower you to do this for yourself.
And the answer to what's is healthy for you is riddled throughout your body. Just like with physical health.
There are general guidelines and patterns, sure, but the real difference is in the nuances of your situation and how it impacts you. That's the part where your own judgment comes in. No one can be a stand-in for your own truth.
It takes work to get clear on this, but the great news is:
Knowing and, better yet, trusting how we feel and why gives us a lot of shortcuts.
We get faster at understanding who’s a good fit for us or not. It also gives us a lot of clarity on where to set boundaries, and who’s safe to be more vulnerable and open with.
Relationship becomes a lot more intuitive and a lot less fear-and-rule-based when we become aware of our own internal guiding system.
This, among other things, is why it’s so important to know your feelings.
Signs of Healthy Friendships & Relationships
Nothing in life is black and white. Chances are, most of your relationships are healthy in certain ways and not so healthy in other ways. Seldom will you find an extreme categorized squarely in the “toxic” or “ultra healthy” box.
Still, it helps to get a feel for where your relationships are at. Here’s a little checklist.
Sticking with the “how you feel” scenario, here are some of the biggest signs your relationships are healthy:
- A felt sense of mutual respect and regard for basic dignity.
- A felt sense of mutual support at reasonable levels.
- Meaning: don’t expect your coworkers you’ve never hung out with outside of work to help you move. Don’t expect your bar friends to care too much about your life goals and aspirations. It happens, but don’t expect it to until they prove you can.
- A sense of autonomy means no one is pushing your boundaries. You don't feel pressured into doing things you don't want to or don't feel safe doing.
- This obviously gets tricky with work relationships but to be clear, there are companies out there that get good reviews from their staff. Make like Gen Z and find them. Tell the rest to fuck off. They have the resources to get it together.
- If you can’t find them it might be time to build up your side hustle into a full time thing. The gig and creator economies are both booming. Get your slice.
- Accountability is present. You feel challenged but you feel loved when being challenged.
- A basic sense of emotional, physical, and material safety.
For closer relationships the stakes are higher, so you add the following:
- A felt sense of enjoyment and genuine interests in one another.
- A felt sense of open communication.
- You both feel reasonably safe in more vulnerable conflict with one another. No one tries to hurt, manipulate, or “one up” the other person.
- Collaboration is prioritized over compromise at nearly all times.
- Vulnerability is met with tenderness more often than not.
- You can tell them how you feel about how they treated you and expect them to want to hear you out and understand at minimum.
- They rarely require the benefit of the doubt or for you to rationalize their behavior to make sense of it
- You’re able to mutually empathize with one another, and strive to even when it’s difficult to do so.
- Emotional consent is huge and highly respected.
- You both feel seen, heard, understood, supported and embraced for who you are.
- This one’s going to zing for some of you, but you’re not committed to each other. You’re committed to the health of the relationship as a whole.
There are a million lists of characteristics of healthy relationships all over the web, but this is one full of points I don’t often see floating around.
Write it down. Think about the relationships that matter to you currently. Identify which ones make you feel good and which ones need some improvement.
The major sign of an unhealthy relationship? I don't feel safe, secure, supported, seen, held, heard, and embraced at a reasonable level.
This, to me, indicates that one of two things is not right. Either:
- My expectations are off
- I’m triggered.
Notice how both of these are “me” problems.
My expectations being off could mean I shouldn’t expect this person to meet my standards because they clearly can’t do so.
It could also mean I'm setting unreasonable expectations for them. Not too be confused with "unfair". We tend to set fair expectations. They just aren't realistic.
If I'm triggered, that means this person might be meeting my standards better than I realize. I can't know, though, because my own triggers are clouding my view. Their behavior, or something about the situation, is likely hitting some wounds.
Either way I take ownership to keep my power in how I experience my relationships. You understand?
Alright. Now that we’ve got the gist of what it means for a relationship to be healthy, let’s get into what you really came for.
Healthy Relationships: A Personal Practice
The rest of this article is a path to cultivating healthy and meaningful relationships in your life.
Remember to take what works, and leave the rest for those who can use it.
Everything won’t be for you, or won’t be for you right now. And that’s okay. Find your gems, boo.
Step 1. Take Ownership of Your Experience
Remember how I said relational health starts within?
I’ll put it like this...
The level of health you experience in your relationships directly correlates with your personal capacity for relational health.
Meaning: if I'm operating at a 5 out of 10 in my own relational practices, I cannot reasonably expect my relationships to exceed that level as a whole.
I can't expect someone else to make my relationships operate at a 6, 7 or 10 without me rising to that level.
I have to show up at the level I want to see.
This is where a lot of people make the first mistake. We get distracted from our own mission, autonomy, choices. We get knocked out of ownership and lose our power. We fall back into old patterns because "so & so" doesn't meet us when we try to do the healthy thing.
And? Let so & so choose to spend their life at a 5 if they want to.
If you want to upgrade to 8, you must personally commit to your level. Treat that level 8 like it belongs to you. The rest will work itself out. Sometimes that means the 5's have to go.
I can damn near promise you, as painful as it will be in the short term, you won't regret it when you're surrounded by other people committed to operating at a level 8 with you. Commit to the relational health you want to see, and stop letting other people negotiate you down a peg.
Making a commitment to your standards means that whoever you end up with will be someone who matches the level you set for yourself.
No, everyone won't make it. But the right people will.
Step 2. Be Aware of Your Attachment Wounds
I want to be clear: we all have areas we struggle to show up in the "healthiest" way. Nobody operates at a 10, 100% of the time. And everyone has a trait or two that's toxic to somebody. These traits don't make us bad people, but they can mean we have some attachment wounds lingering under the surface.
Most of us do.
Even relationally secure people have a scar or two. This is life.
These wounds show up in the wildest, most ironic ways. And it's critical to be aware of your own, and how they're affecting your path right now.
Here's a personal example:
At one point, I didn’t have the capacity to experience emotional intimacy.
I had vulnerability issues. I always expected to get rejected or betrayed on the backend. So I shied away from vulnerability like, a lot a lot.
Ironically, this meant I also shut down other peoples’ reaches for intimacy with me. Even without realizing it.
If my vulnerability wasn't appropriate or safe, it wasn't fair that anyone else should think theirs is appropriate or safe. Get that soft shit away from me. (We call this a dismissive avoidant attachment style, to be clear).
Point being that in protecting myself from rejection & betrayal, I actually rejected & betrayed the trust of the people closest to me when they got vulnerable. Even if it wasn't on purpose, I let some people I care about very much down.
I let myself down, too. Because - here's the icing on the cake - I’d proceed to run around acting surprised that I couldn't feel connected with anyone. Completely unaware of the role I played in my own shit.
It's funny how abandonment wounds show up, huh?
This is just one example, but there are a bunch. We all have one and believe it or not, this is natural and normal.
Our nervous systems are designed to keep us alive, plain and simple.
One of the strategies it uses to do this is to place us in the familiar patterns that we know how to survive. My nervous system knows it can survive avoiding vulnerability and intimacy. It can survive rejecting other people and avoiding getting rejected & betrayed. I can focus on work and keep my relationships surface all day.
Feeling abandoned, rejected and betrayed when I'm in a vulnerable space? No dice. My body apparently believed this is certain death (even though I'm an adult now. It's not true). And, because these patterns are really fucking hard to see up close, I was none-the-wiser. At least, not until I got some support.
To stop the patterns we have to become aware of them, manage the triggers, and heal the wounds they came from.
We must get new, healthier tools and resources for a new kind of relationship. A relationship that operates closer to a level 10, not a 5.
We must prepare to face the unknown of what it means to be healthy, and what healthy relationships look like. Even if part of that work is to accept the reality that sometimes, we get rejected. We get betrayed. Sometimes, we get our shit wrecked.
But the security we find in that? It's simple. I know I can make wise decisions more often than not. I know I won't put myself through more than I can bear. I know I can pick myself up when something knocks me down. It's not certain death anymore. So I don't need to spiral out of control. I can just be in the moment. I can show up. I can be aware of my capacity and, when I want to, I can learn to expand that capacity.
The tools to heal are out there. I just have to find them and use them.
See, so much of it is about our own perception before anything else. Our life can’t move in a different direction before our minds do.
So, be aware of your attachment style, the wounds it comes with, and the triggers you walk with so you can manage and heal them in your relationships with other people.
Step 3. Start the Path to Relational Healing
Relational healing happens in relationships, but your role in it is about your own decisions. Committing to relational healing means focusing on your own patterns and your own wounds
This is not to be confused with trying to control everyone else into healing their patterns & wounds like you. Setting the example normally gets others on board more effectively anyway.
Piggybacking off the vulnerability example above:
I had to first notice that the relationship I struggled with wasn't the one with other people. It was my relationship with vulnerability itself that was biting me in the ass. I had to learn to value vulnerability as a path to connectedness. I had to learn to face it.
Then I had to actually start practicing vulnerability intentionally.
Not only that, but I had to learn to be receptive to the vulnerability of the people around me.
This is an ongoing practice. It involved me learning a lot about:
- What emotional intimacy means
- How to practice it safely
- How to hold space for myself and others
- And how to set boundaries with myself for who I practice it with.
This journey has had hiccups. I had to learn who was safe to practice with through some experiences of learning the hard way who was unsafe. I had to learn the ways I myself was unsafe. And I had to continue to develop safer practices to hold space for the people close to me.
This is all in addition to healing the core wound, which for me involved going to EMDR therapy and learning about Somatic healing.
It’s a lot of work. But through all of that it’s safe to say I not only get to feel much more emotionally connected in my relationships, but I also now know it’s possible for me to be safe and vulnerable at the same time.
For me, this was huge.
The assumption that the other shoe will drop continues to wane as time goes on. As my practice deepens, my story changes.
Your story can change too. But it takes a lot of awareness, work and, frankly, a lot of support. I’m a big believer that we don’t heal alone, we heal in relationship with others. This includes therapists and coaches, but also our more personal relationships with the people around us.
Related on Healing:
Step 4. Develop a Boundaries Practice
Those relational wounds I keep talking about? Yeah, they tend to form codependency or, its twin, hyper independence. Both of these have strong patterns of boundary issues.
Codependency can show up as a lot of enmeshment, and total a lack of boundaries. With hyper independence, we usually see people erecting barriers in place of boundaries. Of course there’s plenty of overlap, and that’s for a reason, too.
When I realized that hyper independence is simply a response to codependency, and that codependency and hyper independence are two sides of the same coin, it all became easier to understand.
Since Codependency has no formal definition or diagnosis, I want to state that this is something I like to define as “the inability to tolerate the discomfort of others”.
I appreciate this definition because it shows the common thread between the “clingy” and the “avoidant” types, which is that neither one can handle emotional and relational discomfort very well. That’s the core common issue. They just have different strategies for defending against the discomfort.
The solution for both of these is to develop a secure attachment within themselves.
It’s this secure attachment to self that helps us handle relational discomfort and open the window to secure attachment with others. The more capacity you have for relational discomfort to not wreck your nervous system, the more interdependent you become in practice.
Interdependence is what happens when we’re able to be two individuals who rely on one another at reasonable levels.
We impact one another’s experiences without becoming each other's whole experiences.
We’re two individuals experiencing life side by side. And we're experiencing life, and our relationship, in very different ways.
Our differing experiences, feelings, thoughts, opinions, needs, and boundaries are all respected in the container of our relationship together.
Understanding our roles and the impact we make on one another, we give it the best we’ve got while co regulating through the discomfort along the way.
Basically, we co-create a relationship that’s big enough to hold space for both of our whole selves, instead of having to shrink and bend into a smaller relational container that’s painfully restrictive for us.
Naturally this balance of two individuals depending on one another without losing themselves happens through a practice of healthy boundaries.
Contrary to popular belief boundaries aren’t just protective of the individual. Boundaries are a tool, and we can use them to be expansive and protect the relationship as a whole.
I have to know where I end and you begin, and vice versa, for us to function as our own humans. We have to be able to see the boundary lines and honor them.
Step 5. Learn the Art of Trust
Many of us were taught to have a very black and white definition of trust. It's not working for most people and it has devastating consequences.
The cool thing is that we can heal our relationship with trust by trusting ourselves.
Let me explain:
We're surrounded by people who are different from us in a lot of ways. We'll have different strengths and weaknesses in how we show up in a relationship. This means I can't rely on you the same way you can rely on me. This is true by default.
The issue with how we’re taught to trust is that we expect other peoples’ behavior to bend to greet our standards. When the truth is that trusting people to be who they are is more accurate and effective.
A well rounded definition and practice of trust accounts for the human element. Trust is about a felt sense of safety, and that comes from expectations. We control our expectations. Not other people. We decide for ourselves what we can reasonably expect from someone else.
Learning the art of trust is one of the best things I ever did for my own mental health and the health of my relationships.
I learned to have accurate expectations of people and how they show up. I also learned to represent the truth of who I am instead of who I hoped to be to please others.
This was liberating for all involved.
Step 6: Practice Safe Anger & Compassionate Accountability
The world is a volatile place right now. I have a lot to say about why, but for the sake of saving time I'll skip to the solution here:
Our anger needs to be safer, and our practice of holding people accountable needs to be more compassionate.
If you make an innocent mistake you would want this kind of grace. You would want understanding from the people close to you while you reflect on your actions.
You would want space to learn.
People wouldn't need to beat you up about it, and it probably wouldn't help. If they did, you'd feel your character being called into question. Without all the context for why you did what you did, and where your head was at when you did it, this would feel unfair. In most cases, you'd feel misunderstood.
You wouldn't learn anything. You'd just feel turned on for something you didn't mean to do.
You aren’t the only person on the planet this is true for. This is true for most people.
So we need to stop attacking people for getting stuff wrong. For stepping on some toes. For doing what they thought was right when it turned out to be harmful.
This doesn’t mean we let each other off the hook. If someone hurts us we're within our rights to speak on it. If they piss us off they piss us off. Anger is a beautiful emotion and deserves to be expressed, heard, and acknowledged. And relationships definitely need accountability if we want them to be safe and healthy.
The trick is understanding that someone else's sense of accountability isn't ours to dictate or force.
Meaning: the people around me aren't accountable to me. They're accountable to themselves and their own values. I'm accountable to myself. If you have a high value of empathy in relationships, you'll care if you hurt me. If I have a high value of surrounding myself with people who share that value, I won’t have a problem just expressing how I feel and expecting them to hear me out.
I don't need to force it, punish you, or rub it in.
We overcomplicate this and weaponize accountability along the way. Hurting others and ourselves.
Of course it takes learning different skills to get out of this.
It mainly involves practicing three things:
- A safe expression of someone’s impact on us
- Compassionate accountability & motivation
- Trust in ourselves that we’ve surrounded ourselves with people who don’t want to hurt us, and who will want to amend it if they can.
This won’t always be easy, but it will be worth it. It's said that the strength of relationships aren't actually measured by the good times. We measure the strength of our relationships by how skillfully we can participate in repair.
If we’re beating each other up and playing the blame game we aren’t repairing anything. We’re seeking catharsis. We’re feeding our personal ego, not the heart of the relationship itself.
If we learn to practice compassionate accountability and safe expressions of anger we get to feel heard far more often. And relationships get to heal.
These are the keys.
Before we focus on being more compassionate with others, it helps to start with our own inner critic. Read this:
Step 6: Understand Emotional Consent
We talk about consent over the physical body but we're just now starting to explore the emotional body and what consent means there.
We're discovering that our attachment wounds are just as painful and just as sensitive to our nervous system as physical wounds.
What this means is we need to learn a great deal about emotional consent. What we're entitled to and not entitled to from other people in terms of emotional commitment, intimacy, and sharing.
The simple truth is that we're not entitled to anyone's emotional body.
The same rules apply that would apply to physical consent. I’m allowed to say no. I’m allowed to say yes and change my mind in 5 minutes.
So are you.
We're not entitled to anyone else’s emotional support. We're not entitled to the emotional labor of their grace & forgiveness. Nor of their participation, their presence, their transparency. Nothing.
No matter how much we've given someone else, that doesn't mean they have an expanded capacity for us in return. Nor does it entitle us to it if they do.
Furthermore, if you’re under the impression that giving the whole of yourself to someone means they owe you that in return, it's important to know that transactional relationships are inherently coercive. Which is a form of manipulation. Even if unintentionally so (I've been there. Many of us have).
This is a hard pill to swallow, but it's a healing one. It’s liberating for everyone involved because it means no one is entitled to your emotional body either.
By freeing ourselves of this expectation of owing parts of ourselves to others that we don’t actually want to give, we free everyone around us in kind.
But Wait! Won't That Mean...
The only thing it'll mean is that when people are showing up, it's because they want to. And they'll be showing up for you. Not the benefits you bring "to the table".
Listen, we all want to share ourselves. We want space held for us and we want to hold space for others. The reason this fails is because we don’t feel safe to do so.
Being accountable to the rules of consent helps us prioritize the emotional safety of the relationship. Emotionally safe relationships don't require coercion or a score to keep. They feel like home. We return willingly and open right up because emotionally safe people are rare to each of us.
Understanding that we're not entitled to the emotional presence or vulnerability of the people around us means we don't pressure, coerce, or force their hand. They get to feel safe. We are the most open with the people we feel the most safe with. We do not feel safe with people who undermine our autonomy & override our boundaries.
But when we do feel safe we can participate from a wholehearted space because we want to. Not because someone somewhere told us we’re "supposed" to.
Remember, It's All A Practice
I know this is a lot and honestly it’s just the start, but keep in mind that our role is to simply develop an understanding and practice of these things.
As humans, we're constantly growing and evolving. As are our relationships, platonic and otherwise.
If these relationships have trust, good boundaries, safe conflict resolution, and healthy emotional intimacy, they can endure as we all change and develop. That is the key.