The highs, lows and experiences of close relationships are what give meaning to life. But good relationships don’t just happen. Relationships require people to make a conscious decision to listen, compromise and support each other. This isn’t always easy. The good news is that there are simple things we can all do to build and maintain a healthy relationship.
Tips for building a healthy relationship
- Spend quality time together. Set aside time each week to do something enjoyable with your partner. Schedule this in your calendar and make a commitment to not talk about life stressors or issues in the relationship during this time.
- Be thankful. Make an effort to practice gratitude and show appreciation for your partner. What’s one thing about him or her that you appreciate every day? Let them know!
- Build your emotional bank account with your partner. This could be doing things as small as noticing a new haircut or listening to them talk about their day. Letting your partner know you value them puts money into the ‘relationship bank’, building a buffer for stressful or difficult times.
- Spend some time apart doing the things you enjoy. A little bit of distance in a long-term relationship can help to build desire. When you spend time apart you have space to appreciate and value things about your partner that might be lost in the everyday routine of housework and kids.
- Support each other’s goals. No matter whether it’s something small like exercising weekly, or a significant goal like quitting smoking, ask your partner, “what do you need from me?” to support their success. When your partner reaches their goal, celebrate together.
- Treat each other with respect. Healthy relationships happen when both partners are equal, can talk through decisions together and are prepared to compromise.
- Ask for what you need from your partner. Don’t wait for them to guess what is happening. You can skip a lot of pain and misunderstanding if you tell your partner a bit about what you are going through.
- You are responsible for your actions and feelings. No matter how much your partner presses your buttons, you are ultimately responsible for how you respond. A relationship is a series of seemingly small decisions about how to behave that either strengthens or damages how you feel about each other.
If you are in a close relationship with someone, you are not going to always agree on everything. There are countless things you might disagree on and it’s different for each couple. Conflict can help to clarify things, settle issues or provide momentum for action. It’s not about whether you argue, but how you argue and resolve your disagreements.
These are some ideas about how to keep conflict productive and fair:
- Stay calm. Conflict is emotionally demanding. If you need to take a break, take one. Just let your partner know when you will come back so they don’t think you are avoiding the issue.
- Try to use ‘I’ statements,“I feel…” rather than “you make me feel …”. Owning your feelings is likely to lead to a more open and calm discussion.
- Deal with one issue at a time. ‘Stockpiling’ issues often results in the other person feeling overwhelmed and under attack. Trying to resolve something you’ve been hanging on to for five years is not only difficult, but also unhealthy.
- No hitting below the belt. If you find yourself calling your partner names or being disrespectful through body language like eye rolling, you are no longer being calm and rational. Take a break.
- Try not to generalise. When you start saying words like ‘always’ and ‘never’ there’s a good chance that your partner will become defensive. Give a specific example and focus on it.
- Avoid ‘make believe’ and hypotheticals. Talk about real observable behaviours, not what you suspect or imagine might be happening.
- Be mindful of where and when you have an argument. It’s alright to have a calm, rational discussion in front of your children and can even be an opportunity to model respectful conflict resolution (depending on the age of the child and the topic of the discussion). Family barbecues, social events or times when you’ve been drinking alchohol are not good times to discuss issues.
When you’re arguing, ask yourself what you could say or do right now to be constructive. Don’t lose sight of the fact that your partner is a person you care about. Try to put yourself in his or her shoes.
If you are trying to control, belittle, humiliate, win the fight, retaliate or punish you partner, then you need to check yourself. This behaviour is never acceptable. It’s your responsibility to maintain respect and compassion for your partner and yourself, even in the heat of the moment.
These are difficult skills for all of us to learn. Everyone can benefit from an outside perspective at times. Relationship counselling can be a great way to learn strategies to build a stronger relationship.
Ending a relationship
When a relationship ends you can experience many different thoughts and feelings. If you are the person ending the relationship, you may have had time to think about what you need, and prepare yourself for moving forward.
If you have not made the decision to leave, you are starting from a different point of understanding and acceptance. Either way, you may feel sadness, anger, uncertainty, relief, shock or hope. It’s normal to experience all these emotions and more.
Following a breakup, you may experience lots of short-term changes, including:
- under-eating or over-eating
- difficulty sleeping, changes in your sleep routine, vivid dreams and nightmares
- dramatic swings from feeling ok to feeling awful
- feeling preoccupied with the breakup, idealising the relationship or focusing on all of the negative things
- drinking more alcohol than usual
- feeling unable to accept what’s happening
These things show decrease over time as you grieve and heal. But it’s important to seek professional help if your mood remains low, or if you are thinking about hurting yourself or other people.
Tips for Self-care
- accept that your usual sleep and eating routine might be disrupted for a while and try to keep things as close to your normal routine as possible.
- if you’ve lost your appetite, you could eat smaller meals or snacks in place of large meals.
- talk to the people close to you. If you don’t feel comfortable doing this, make contact with a mental health professional, so there is someone you can talk to.
- express what you’re thinking and feeling in a healthy way. Sometimes you might need to cry, lift some weights, punch a punching bag, or write your thoughts down. Allow yourself to feel emotions in a way that doesn’t hurt yourself or others.
- avoid using alcohol or drugs as a way to cope. These substances will prolong the painful feelings.
- try not to follow your partner on social media, as this may feed unhelpful emotions and thoughts about the relationship and prevent you from moving forward.
- do the things that give you pleasure or make you feel strong. This might be walking the dog, playing golf, going to the movies, or whatever brightens your day. Try to do at least one of these activities daily.
- if you find yourself preoccupied with thoughts of your ex-partner, redirect your attention back to taking care of yourself.
Tips for interacting with your partner
When a relationship ends it’s easy for emotions to take over. People can end up saying and doing things they might not usually do, especially if the breakup is unexpected or unwanted. Reflect on what your values are and what kind of person you want to be as you navigate your way through the breakup.
Some other tips for coping with relationship loss:
- give yourself some time to adjust to the change in your relationship, and give your partner space to do the same. Don’t jump straight into problem solving if you’re both feeling highly reactive. Let things settle a little bit before you make any really important decisions.
- listen to each other. There may be questions about the relationship that need to be answered before you can both move forward. Stay respectful and try not to blame or attack.
- relationship counselling can help people come to terms with why the breakup has happened.
Things you might need to discuss together
There may be a number of considerations to talk through, including:
- how you’ll coordinate care of children, including how to talk to children about the separation
- how to divide assets
- financial responsibilities
- who will care for pets
- setting up separate places to live
- how much contact you’ll want with each other. Will you aim to stay friends, work together for the care of the children or try to cut contact as much as possible?
Relationships Australia provides support and information on services available to assist in separation, including custody arrangements, dispute resolution options and links to legal advice.
Your reactions to the situation are your own responsibility. Verbal or physical abuse towards your partner is never ok and can be a criminal offence. There is no excuse for domestic violence. See tips on fighting fair for ways to manage conflict in your relationship.
If you are experiencing domestic violence, you can call The Domestic Violence Resource Centre.