By Lindsay Gerber, PsyD
Relationships are all around us! Connecting with others is a large part of what makes us human. That being said, relationships can be hard. Sometimes we find ourselves in unhealthy situations—1 in 3 teens has experienced some form of dating violence, such as emotional abuse. It takes effort to create relationships that leave us feeling happy AND healthy.
So how do we know if we’re doing it right? What if we don’t know what a healthy relationship looks like? There is no “right” or “wrong” when it comes to relationships. Healthy relationships are all about defining what works for you and your partner while making sure you both feel physically and emotionally safe.
In honor of Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month, I’m highlighting four key parts of a successful relationship: relationship goals, respect, trust, & communication.
P.S: Although I talk about romantic relationships, these tips also work for relationships with friends, siblings, your parents or caregivers, and more!
1. Set goals for your relationship
Think about what you want out of your relationships. Set specific and realistic goals. What do you have to do to make these goals a reality? For example, if your goal is to feel cared for, think about what “feeling cared for” looks like for you, and talk about it with your partner. You may feel cared for when your partner compliments you, spends quality time with you, gives you a hug, or tells you they love you. An example of a specific goal is: I want to talk to my partner on the phone each morning for 5-10 minutes. Communicate your goals to your partner. Be open to negotiation. Be willing to give to get!
2. Maintain respect
Respect is an important part of any healthy relationship. Respect includes creating your own boundaries and accepting your partner’s boundaries. Relationships shouldn’t be all-consuming—it’s healthy for you both to have a life outside of your relationship. This means having your own friends, time for your own interests and hobbies, and alone time.
Validation is another way to show respect. You can validate yourself by nonjudgmentally recognizing your own emotions. If you’re feeling sad, don’t dismiss the feeling or think, “I shouldn’t be feeling this way.” Instead, label the emotion, think about where it’s coming from, and remember your own self-worth. You can validate your partner by reflecting what they’re feeling back to them during tough conversations. Remember, validation is not the same as agreement. Validation means acknowledging and reflecting the thoughts, feelings, and perspectives of someone else.
3. Build trust
We all want to be able to trust the person we’re with. Trust can be hard for many people for different reasons. Maybe your trust has been betrayed before, or important people in your life have been unreliable. In healthy relationships, trust means feeling safe and comfortable with you partner and having someone you can rely on (and vice versa!). It means not logging into each other’s social media accounts without permission—or insisting on sharing passwords. Building trust isn’t an overnight process, so don’t feel like you have to rush it. Be open with your partner about how you’re feeling and discuss what each of you can do to build trust in the relationship.
4. Communicate effectively
Communicating with others isn’t always easy, but it definitely pays off in the long run! As a Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) therapist, I help young people learn skills to become the best, and healthiest, versions of themselves. One DBT skill, the GIVE skill, teaches young people how to communicate effectively. Keeping these four simple things in mind when you’re having a hard conversation:
(be) Gentle: Be kind and courteous instead of combative and accusatory. Don’t call your partner names, accuse them, or use judgmental language.
(act) Interested: Pay attention to what the other person is saying. Try to stay in the moment instead of planning what you’re going to say next. Avoid interrupting and maintain good eye contact.
Validate: Be nonjudgmental and reflect what your partner is telling you (e.g. “I can tell this is hard for you” or “I see this is something you’ve thought a lot about”). This affirms your partner and confirms that you understand them!
Easy manner: Leave your attitude at the door! Avoid demands and threatening body language. Keep your body language open and your tone of voice light.
Effective communication is helpful during arguments AND when things are going well. In relationships, it is important to actively and verbally support one another.
Putting it all together
Successful relationships are hard work! Maintaining your own happiness and the happiness of the relationship can feel tricky and take time. However, using these tools can help you build happy AND healthy relationships.
Remember that you can only change your own behavior, not your partner’s. Relationships are a two-way street. You can’t single handedly make your relationship healthy. Always remember that you deserve respect, kindness and above all SAFETY. If your partner ignores your boundaries, puts you down, or makes you feel unsafe, you may be in an unhealthy or abusive relationship.
If you’re concerned that your relationship is unhealthy, or have experienced dating violence of any kind (remember: abuse doesn’t always include physical violence), you can call the Love is Respect hotline at 1-866-331-8453 or text “loveis” to 22522 to talk about what you’re going through. You can also take Love is Respect’s Healthy Relationship Quiz to get a better understanding of your relationship. If you live in NYC and are 10-22 years old, you can also make a free appointment at the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center to talk to a therapist or adolescent medicine specialist.
Dr. Lindsay Gerber is an Assistant Professor and Licensed Psychologist in the departments of pediatrics and psychiatry at the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center. She earned her doctorate in Clinical and School Psychology from the Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology in New York and completed post-doctoral training at Mount Sinai St. Luke’s Hospital Center, with a focus on high risk adolescents and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). Dr. Gerber’s areas of interest include severe psychopathology in adolescents and young adults, co-occurring disorders (mental health and chemical dependency), trauma, and diversity issues.
The Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center is located in New York City. It provides comprehensive, confidential, judgment free health care at no charge to over 10,000 young people every year. This column is not intended to provide medical advice, professional diagnosis, opinion, treatment or services to you or to any other individual, only general information for education purposes only.