Here are the essentials for a relationship that’ll last.
Hollywood, via our beloved rom-coms and sitcoms, may have us thinking that we know what love is. But in reality, determining what constitutes a healthy relationship can be much more nuanced and difficult than it may look in movies and TV.
“We know how to fall in love, but we don’t really know what it takes to be in loving relationships,” says licensed clinical psychologist Elizabeth Peyton, Ph.D. “People just kind of assume that those relationships go along on their own, whereas they actually take a lot of work.”
So what does it take to make sure you and your partner can stick together for the long haul? Here, Peyton and fellow licensed clinical psychologist Justin Hopkins, Psy.D. break down the five most important aspects of a solid relationship:
1. You both have a growth mindset
Peyton says couples who see relationships as an opportunity to grow are more likely to be successful. “You need to have a growth mindset in order for a relationship to not only survive, but to flourish,” she tells us.
Part of that growth also includes actively choosing to evolve and accept your partner throughout different life stages and transitions, such as parenthood or retirement. “Love is a choice,” says Hopkins. “We choose to love people, and successful couples choose to love their partner, even when their partner changes.”
2. You trust each other
Both experts agree that trust is essential for intimacy, and couples need to be able to assume good intent with each other on issues ranging from money to faithfulness to parenting styles. If you trust your partner, you’re also more likely to be forgiving of their shortcomings, and overcome some of the daily irritants — like that ever-growing stack of dirty dishes in the sink — which are inevitable to some degree.
Peyton points out that someone’s ability to trust may have something to do with their attachment style. These styles can be broken down into three main categories: secure, anxious, and avoidant. While securely attached people tend to have a more healthy upbringing and are better at approaching intimate relationships, anxious and avoidant people find intimacy more of a struggle.
But no matter your attachment style, Hopkins warns that once that trust is lost, it’s extremely difficult to rebuild. “It takes a lot of time and consistency and reliability to build up trust, and that sense that you can rely on someone and believe what they’re saying,” he points out. “And it just takes a brief moment for it to be broken.”
3. You can be your honest and true self
The early phase of a relationship is often called “the honeymoon phase,” and for good reason: It’s often filled with excitement, love, passion, and anticipation. (Just like a whirlwind trip to Aruba.) During this period, Hopkins says it’s common for us to be the best versions of ourselves during this period and not show who we truly are, whether that be due to fears over not being accepted or a lack of confidence.
But Hopkins says it’s important to remember that eventually — and naturally — this phase fades with time. At some point, people should feel free to be their real and authentic selves. “We have to get past that honeymoon phase in order to be honest about who we are, the things that we struggle with, the fears, and the vulnerabilities that we have,” he tells us. “And be able to not only accept that about ourselves, but also accept that about the other person.”
4. You maintain a sense of independence
It’s crucial for both partners to have their own identity and to do things separately, but that may be easier said than done. After all, many couples are quarantining, and spending more time together than ever before. Some research even shows that quarantining alongside someone means spending the equivalent of four extra years in the relationship.
But both experts believe it’s unrealistic (and unfair) to expect your partner to fulfill every emotional want. Peyton says alone time can actually help to keep a relationship fresh. “One of the things that burdens modern-day relationships is the idea that they’re supposed to satisfy so many different kinds of needs,” Peyton says. “Your partner is supposed to be your lover, your best friend, and your confidant — and when you add in the mundane elements of day-to-day living, they can sap some of the erotic energy.”
5. You’re able to take accountability and communicate
Overall, mental health experts agree that conflict is a part of solid relationships, but healthy conflict is achieved via acknowledging your imperfections and being able to apologize.
“Accountability and apologies are essential for a couple to work out,” says Hopkins. “We have to be able to know that we are not perfect, so we can acknowledge that we’re doing something that’s having a particular impact on our partner, despite our best intentions.”
Peyton adds that this is also why communication is so crucial: Solid couples are able to “articulate their needs, rather than highlight the other person’s deficits.” Though it’s easy (and even valid) to be critical of your partner when they’re not meeting your needs, if you’re not sharing those issues in the right way, it can put that person on the defensive.
“Intimacy evokes a lot of raw emotions for people,” says Hopkins. “We need to have a good foundation for how to communicate those things, and how to be honest with ourselves.”