Too often, relationship success is defined solely by longevity. It’s easy to think that couples who have stayed together are happier and healthier than the ones that break apart. We accept their social media version of their relationship — seen through the filter of loving selfies, vacation photos, and anniversary posts — and think we know the whole story. We never really do.
I am not a relationship expert, but I am a former therapist and have had enough unhealthy relationships to have learned a thing or two about what doesn’t work. I don’t recommend this particular learning strategy, but it has helped me identify the hat trick of healthy relationships. Each of the factors I’ll share are found in healthy relationships — and are noticeably absent in unhealthy ones.
On their own, each of these will enhance a partnership. Yet, none of them can singlehandedly make a relationship thrive. For optimal relationship health, we need all three factors to be present.
Effort isn’t the new sexy; it’s always been hot. It’s also absolutely essential to the health of a relationship. That may seem obvious, but too many relationships begin with low effort at the outset — a guaranteed red flag of trouble to come. If someone isn’t making an effort at the start, they’re unlikely to increase their effort as time goes on.
Effort needs to be equal for it to be healthy. Both partners need to invest their time and energy into the relationship. This creates the best possible scenario for the relationship to flourish as each person gets to know the other and genuinely stays present and engaged in their interactions.
A word of warning here: too much effort at the start could be a sign of love bombing. This manipulative behavior happens when someone goes all out to secure our affections only to withdraw, withhold, or leave once they’ve obtained them. This can appear in narcissistic relationships, but it also happens when a codependent partner goes overboard to gain assurance of the relationship, only to drop the effort later. Effort should be consistent to be healthy, and someone who abruptly stops making an effort could have been engaged in love bombing.
Effort is also evidence of our own individual health in relationships. Tolerating low effort can be a sign of low self-worth. Refusing to put effort into a relationship can be evidence of emotional unavailability. Equal effort in a relationship isn’t too much to ask. In fact, it should be the bare minimum.
Healthy relationships naturally have reciprocity. Respect, admiration, affection, love, attraction — they all go both ways. They are simultaneously given and received. Unhealthy relationships, on the other hand, may have some shared feelings but lack respect, affection, or even love.
This also seems laughably simple. Like effort, reciprocity takes two. It allows us to share our feelings and know that they are returned. Without these feelings being returned, we are unlikely to find our relationships satisfying, healthy, or nurturing. Instead, we can feel excruciatingly lonely even though we aren’t alone.
Reciprocity shows up in how we communicate about one another and to one another, how we handle conflict, and the way we express affection. If mutual respect isn’t a given in each of these interactions, it’s likely that there will be a multitude of problems that could result in an end to the relationship. Relationships without reciprocity can never be healthy.
Real, deep, and connected relationships require vulnerability. They require us to be able to show up as our truest selves — and know that we’re safe enough within the relationship to do it. Healthy relationships need vulnerability to survive the ups and downs of life and sharing that life with another person.
Vulnerability takes enormous courage. It’s incredibly difficult to open up about who we are and how we feel to other people. It’s even more challenging when we have to deal with conflict within a relationship and need to share how someone else’s actions impacted us. Owning up to our triggers, apologizing for our missteps, and taking responsibility for our actions all demand a certain level of vulnerability.
Relationships with effort, reciprocity, and vulnerability are often strong and healthy. This doesn’t mean they’ll last a lifetime. Sometimes, our feelings or needs change. Effort can be present without reciprocity, and no amount of effort from one person can save a relationship. Each of these qualities can make a relationship stronger and more connected, but without all three of them, it’s doubtful that the relationship will be healthy — even if it survives, collecting anniversaries along the way.
I’ve spent too much time in unhealthy relationships where these factors were missing. Before I did the hard work of processing past trauma in therapy, I accepted low effort. It was unsatisfying and painful, but I didn’t realize yet that I deserved better. It wasn’t until I dealt with my own pain that I started demanding effort as a bare minimum in relationships.
I’ve also had too many relationships that lacked reciprocity. In some instances, respect was missing. One former partner had no respect for my work and was condescending about my opinions and interests. Another had full respect for who I am as a person but didn’t return my love or affection. Reciprocity isn’t an optional part of relationships; it’s entirely necessary.
Vulnerability has been the biggest challenge for me personally. I’ve rarely felt safe enough to be completely vulnerable with partners. I always kept myself just a little protected. Even when I was finally able to open up completely, I felt seen, but I didn’t necessarily feel safe when the same person began cataloguing my flaws rather than accepting them. I knew I was being judged, and it made me just a little more self-protective than I would have been otherwise.
I’ll have to continue working on vulnerability, but I’ll be looking for it in romantic relationships, too. I’ve dated the emotionally unavailable partner. I’m not interested in putting myself through that again. My life has enough challenges without having to constantly scale the walls a partner has built to achieve any level of connection and intimacy. It’s exhausting, and they may not ever fully open up. We deserve a love that accepts our vulnerability and offers their own.
Relationships aren’t easy. There will always be differences we have to manage and conflict we need to resolve. Sharing our lives with another human being with their own background, challenges, and interests will always take communication, compromise, and commitment. Adding these base level requirements may seem like it would make dating harder, but the reality is that it just makes it healthier.
In truth, it may take longer to find a partner. We won’t be interested in the low effort or emotionally unavailable partners we used to attract and entertain. When we choose to partner someone and share our lives, we’ll know it’s because we’ve found the right connection, not just a convenient one.
Crystal Jackson is a former therapist turned author. Her work has been featured on Medium, Elephant Journal, Elite Daily, and The Good Men Project. She’s also the author of Left on Main, the first book in the Heart of Madison series. When she’s not writing for Medium and working on her next book, you can find Crystal traveling, paddle boarding, running, throwing axes badly but with terrifying enthusiasm, hiking, doing yoga, or curled up with her nose in a book in Madison, Georgia, where she lives with her two wild and wonderful children.
Image courtesy of Mikhail Nilov.