It’s hard to define what a healthy relationship looks like because we all navigate relationships differently.
Relationships are generally seen through the lenses of our gender as well as our sexuality, but there are many other aspects of our identity that are going to inform what we see as good or bad, desirable or detestable, healthy or unhealthy.
Because of that complexity, it might be easy to throw in the towel and say “there’s no such thing as a universally healthy relationship.” I won’t disagree with that (we’ll discuss it later), but I will suggest that there are four elements that are required for a healthy relationship. That is, they’re not sufficient (these things alone won’t do it), but they are necessary. What’s more, I would argue that these same four things can lead to a relationship that is fundamentally unhealthy, as much as they can build up a healthy one.
When building relationships, the materials we use are important, and the ways we use those materials are just as important. Without further ado, here are four things that are needed for a healthy relationship: respect, equality, safety, and trust. Each of these components can manifest in healthy ways or in unhealthy ways in any relationship, and are built with actions as much as words. Following is the explanation behind a healthy relationship model that I co-created with Karen Rayne of Unhushed.
Let’s Start with the Components: R.E.S.T.
Here, we’re talking about the definition of respect being similar to “a feeling or understanding that someone or something is important, serious, etc., and should be treated in an appropriate way.”
Respect is about appreciating your partner(s) viewpoints, opinions, beliefs, and decisions – both in general, and regarding your relationship. It’s about setting and observing boundaries, hearing your partner when they say “Yes,” “No,” or “Maybe,” and making sure you ask for their input to begin with.
And respect is about recognizing the importance of the relationship you’re in. Following the guidelines you’ve set up for each other, treating the relationship with care, or at least the amount and type of care that you know is expected by your partner(s).
Here, we’re talking about the definition of equality of “being equal, especially in status, rights, and opportunities.” Take special note here that I’m using the word equality (instead of my generally-preferred-in-social-justice-context “equity”) intentionally. We aren’t looking for fair amounts of access, but a truly balanced amount of power amongst the people in the relationship.
Equality is about making decisions together, or at least creating agreements for how decisions will be made. It’s about your partner(s) having the same amount of voice and power, and knowing that the partners in a relationship have an open seat at the decision-making table (even if they don’t choose to sit in it).
This can be tough, because everyone is navigating the very unequal world-at-large with different amounts of power (some of us granted more, others less, because of our social identities), so it’s easy for us to slip into either recreating those dynamics in our relationships, or inverting them to a different harmful outcome.
Here, we’re talking about the definition of safety of “the condition of being protected from or unlikely to cause danger, risk, or injury” with one big caveat: at the cause or negligence of your partner(s). That is, a healthy relationship doesn’t require safety from the elements, a crashing economy, or an errant banana peel. It’s safety with and from each other in the relationship.
Safety is about knowing that your partner(s) won’t intentionally hurt you – physically, emotionally, psychologically, or otherwise. It’s knowing that they are looking out for you, for your interests, and for your general well-being.