Mental Health Experts Share Their Top Relationship Advice

Being in a healthy relationship has significant mental health benefits; learn if your relationship is good for you—and what to do if it isn’t

October 11, 2021

The most important part of our lives are often the people in it. Relationships between family members, friends, and loved ones can be incredibly meaningful. Romantic partnerships, in particular, have a profound impact on our emotional well-being.

Keep Reading To Learn

  • What a healthy relationship consists of
  • How to maintain realistic expectations of your relationship—and your partner
  • Ways to recognize relationship “red flags”

The Pillars of a Healthy Relationship

A healthy relationship should consist of alone time, open communication, and safety.

This can include a few key concepts.

Boundaries

Even though a healthy relationship is marked by love, boundaries still exist. Each partner should have access to their own personal space and feel okay retreating into it if they need time alone.

Communication

Communication is one of the most important parts of a healthy relationship. Partners must talk with one another in a civil way, even if there’s a disagreement.

Trust

Trusting another person can take time. We often fear being vulnerable, afraid of how we will be seen, or if we will be judged for our characteristics, opinions, or actions. It’s important to let each other know you can rely on one another. Having a sense of safety is crucial to the long-term success of your relationship.

Consent

No one should ever be forced to do something they don’t want to do. A person should be free to agree or disagree with anything their partner proposes and should also be able to share this without fear of repercussions.

How Healthy Relationships Improve Mental Health

People in healthy relationships experience significant mental health perks.

  • People in healthy relationships feel like their lives have purpose. Someone in a romantic relationship may feel that they’re not only living for themselves, but also for their partner.
  • Relationships are a source of physical affection, which research has shown reduces anxiety and depression, and increases immune system function.
  • In a healthy relationship, people have an empathetic listener in their life. Partners can discuss problems that may arise during the day and receive a trusted second opinion. Having consistent support relieves stress and provides safety.
  • Partners can encourage each other to improve their well-being. This may include urging each other to follow a healthy diet or pursue work-life balance. Couples may—and should—engage in healthy activities together, supporting one another’s interests and finding mutual interests over which to bond.
  • Partners in a healthy relationship root for and support each other. If someone takes on a new project or wants to overcome a challenge, having the involvement, encouragement, or emotional support of a partner can be incredibly helpful.

Staying Realistic About Relationships

While companionship can have its benefits, it’s also important to maintain realistic outlooks and expectations for any relationship you’re in.

According to relationship experts Jacqueline Olds, MD, and Richard S. Schwartz, MD, people who do not grow up with role models for healthy relationships often look to popular culture for stories about how romantic relationships should work.

This has led many people to have an idealized view of relationships. Many couples believe they should be able to spend all their time together and never argue.

Olds and Schwartz, who are married to each other and who are consultants for the MGH/McLean Adult Psychiatry Residency Training Program, have researched the ebb and flow of lasting relationships. They believe that some degree of distance and disagreements within a relationship are normal.

“You can wreck a relationship by being too focused away from it,” Schwartz explained. “You can also wreck a relationship by staring deeply into each other’s eyes and having nothing else in your life.”

No rule exists for how long these periods of closeness and separateness should last, according to Olds and Schwartz. They are unique to every relationship. It’s important for partners to remain aware of how they feel and readjust.

Olds said she observed couples spending too much time together during the COVID-19 pandemic. “A sense of privacy is important for people within a relationship,” she said. “COVID took away some of that privacy to couples’ detriment because they spent many months so close to each other.”

Do You Need To Recalibrate Your Connection?

Maybe you don’t feel like you and your partner are currently in a happy medium. Perhaps you’ve noticed you and your partner have been spending too much time together. You may feel suffocated and irritable.

If this is the case, make an effort to branch out on your own or connect with others. You can pursue sports or hobbies your partner doesn’t participate in, join volunteer groups, or support causes you care about.

Two men hanging out on a porch

On the other hand, you may find you are starting to live a life too separate from your partner. For example, on some nights of the week, you may only see each other at the end of the day. You may even find yourself distracted by romantic feelings for someone else.

If this is the case, make a conscious effort to reconnect.

There are some simple ways to reconnect—it doesn’t have to be a grand romantic gesture straight out of a movie. Schedule time with your partner. Plan a dinner out once a week. Take a trip together. Be aware that you have drifted too much apart, but know that you can do something about it.

Remember, Disagreements Are Completely Normal

According to Olds and Schwartz, couples can acknowledge relationship imperfections without assuming these are predictors of the relationship’s end. Some conflicts are necessary—and can even be healthy.

“We worry if a couple never seems to fight because there are always points of friction in a relationship,” Olds said. “Couples need to know how to greet those conflicts, resolve them, and make up afterwards. Having a fight is an essential part of matching your life to somebody else’s.”

Olds and Schwartz explained that some head-butting could—and should—happen in relationships. Just because there are skirmishes doesn’t mean you and your partner are incompatible.

“Couples in healthy relationships have some way of being able to have a fight, increasing the distance between them, and recover from it and turn back to each other,” Schwartz said. “There are all sorts of ways of doing it, but every relationship that lasts happily has some way.”

Yes, You Can Maintain and Deepen Your Relationship

Partners can take steps to maintain and strengthen their relationship. Though different relationships have different needs, there are actions we can all take to strengthen our personal connections.

1. Acknowledge and Validate Each Other’s Feelings

If one person feels tired or overwhelmed, it’s important for them to speak up. It’s also critical for their partner to express that such feelings are normal and okay.

When these feelings rise to the surface, partners need to figure out how to help each other cope. In some cases, people simply need some time to themselves to reflect. In other cases, they may need significant emotional support from their partner. Start by taking a few deep breaths. Then, take the time to communicate.

2. Don’t Keep Secrets!

In a relationship, some privacy is healthy. It’s important for a partner to maintain their sense of self in a relationship. It isn’t necessary to share every thought and feeling with your partner.

It is unhealthy, though, to withhold information that could affect your relationship. “If you know that something would upset your partner, that’s probably a sign you should share it,” Schwartz said.

3. Pay Attention to Your Partner’s Needs

The longer we are in a relationship, the more we may become accustomed to them “just being there.” Remain aware of signs of distress or sadness. This includes learning to read their body language.

When you observe your partner, do you see signs of anxiety? What is their posture like? Do their muscles appear to be tense? Remain attentive and remember to ask how they’re feeling on a regular basis.

4. Schedule Check-Ins

Sometimes issues can exist beneath the surface of our relationships. We become busy in our lives. It can seem inconvenient to address difficulties and much easier to avoid them.

Because of this, it can make sense for couples to schedule regular relationship check-ins.

More formal than date nights, such meetings can take place monthly or even weekly. Couples should be able to express their concerns and wishes without judgment.

5. Don’t Make Assumptions

Even if we’ve known someone for a long time, we can never assume what they are thinking or how they will react to a situation. We also can’t assume our partner can read our minds. Clear communication—often involving clarification—is key to a healthy relationship.

6. Cultivate an Extended Network of Friends

A network of friends can enhance a couple’s experience. Friends can take the pressure off of a relationship by providing companionship and a healthy distraction. They can support couples and offer feedback during challenging periods.

“Friends can even help us see our partner through different eyes in a way that renews our sense of curiosity,” Olds said. “This helps keep our relationship interesting.”

Love and Isolation in the Time of COVID

Couple hug on couch

Drs. Jacqueline Olds and Richard Schwartz help us understand how the COVID-19 pandemic is causing an increase in feelings of loneliness, while simultaneously creating difficulties in couples’ relationships from too much closeness.

Couple hug on couch

Recognizing Red Flags in a Relationship

Relationships have a profound effect on our well-being. When relationships are healthy, they can foster our sense of security and safety in the world.

When relationships are no longer feeling healthy or positive, they have the opposite effect on our well-being. According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, all relationships exist on a spectrum from healthy to unhealthy to abusive.

While a healthy partnership can relieve a person’s feelings of isolation, someone can feel especially lonely or fearful in an out-of-sync relationship.

People in a relationship need to respect their partners’ independence and ability to make their own decisions. They should retain their sense of self and autonomy without fearing a partner’s retribution.

Relationship researcher John Gottman, PhD, who co-founded The Gottman Institute with his wife Julie Schwartz Gottman, PhD, identified the major relationship red flags: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling, as the “Four Horseman of the Apocalypse.”

Gottman maintained that the key to resolving such issues is to learn how to recognize them. From there, we can find more effective ways of thinking about them and getting our needs met.

For example, we can offer feedback on a partner’s behavior instead of attacking our partner’s character. We can accept our responsibility and see our partner’s point of view.

Unhealthy relationships are defined by an imbalance of power. Signs of an unhealthy relationship include, but aren’t limited to, disrespect, pressuring a partner into activities, and insisting you only spend time together.

Signs of abuse include being threatened, mistreated, and being isolated from others.

If you believe your relationship is abusive or that you are in danger, it’s important to seek help. You can reach out to a licensed health care professional or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800.799.7233.

How Can We Face Our Relationship Issues?

It can be hard to see our relationship objectively. It can be helpful to take time for ourselves in reflective activities such as meditation or exercise to know what we’re feeling.

If you feel like something is “off” in your relationship, it’s important to ask yourself what may be bothering you and explore your feelings. If you have someone that you can confide in, it may be helpful to talk out your thoughts and feelings with an unbiased person.

It’s equally important for us to be able to talk to our partner honestly about our concerns. We may avoid sharing our feelings because such disclosure feels vulnerable. However, vulnerability is the cornerstone of trust, which is essential to a healthy relationship.

It’s also important to lean on trusted friends and family members for support and feedback so we’re not alone in relationship difficulties. Many couples have found counseling to be incredibly helpful. If your partner is unwilling to go to counseling, consider therapy on your own to help look at your situation objectively and consider ways to improve your situation.