Here’s the difference between healthy and unhealthy couples: Healthy couples are made up of emotionally healthy people.
Emotionally healthy people take responsibility for their own emotional health. They are crystal clear on their real needs (without obscuring or abstracting them into other things), and they acknowledge and take primary responsibility for getting them met.
And in a healthy relationship, both people do this. And this translates into their relationship accordingly.
(a.) Because each person is calm and clear on what they need and does the majority of the emotional work upfront, they are fair in what they ask of their partner and straightforward in how they do so. They don’t ask unreasonable things, they don’t obscure their need by asking for something else.
(They don’t push for “date night” when what they really want is “attention.” They don’t push for “labels” when what they really need is “certainty.”) And most importantly: they don’t ask for things they haven’t already done for themselves.
(b.) They invest in their partners’ values — the ones they themselves cite, not what we would like them to. They care just as much about their partner’s needs as they do their own, and they honor them when there’s a need for compromise.
Healthy people also don’t look to their partners to make them feel happy. Or beautiful. Or secure. Or confident. These emotions are first ours to manage.
Healthy people also never feel like they “can’t make their partner happy.” This may confuse some — “didn’t you say we should care about each other’s needs?” And yes, healthy partners do. But there’s a huge difference between caring about your partner’s needs and basing your own self-worth or value in the relationship on “making them happy.” That’s no good.
Healthy relationships can’t happen if both or either person is a codependent who always needs more.
Healthy couples discern between what matters — and what doesn’t.
It was Adlai Stevenson who said:
“You can tell the size of a man by the size of the things that bother him.”
It’s true. Only emotionally unhealthy, “small” people trip themselves up in small matters — and pack their own emotions and insecurities (i.e., their identity) into the trivial.
And if that’s true, then:
“You can tell the size of a couple by the size of the things they fight about.”
Healthy couples don’t nitpick over small things.
Because the problem, of course, is that small people don’t see this. They’ve convinced themselves that these matters are big. Hence the importance of section 1 — emotional health. And healthy self-worth.
Note: just because “everyone” fights about something doesn’t mean it’s actually important. A lot of us distract ourselves with things that don’t actually matter — in life, and in relationships — and then get tangled up in a positive-feedback loop by pointing to “everyone else” who’s doing the same thing.
Even if something bothers “everyone else” (and your mom and best friend totally agree you were in the right), that doesn’t mean you should tie your insecurities up in it and make it into an ongoing thing.
Here’s a bunch of stuff that’s too small to squabble over:
1. How they dress or what they eat.
Emotionally secure people don’t feel compelled to play “parent” to their partner. If you’re concerned about their health or hygiene, that’s one thing, but we shouldn’t be nitpicking our partners on their choice of clothing or food. Healthy couples love and respect each other as individual people.
2. How much time you spend together.
Or how often they text and whether it’s every day. Healthy couples absolutely spend time together and communicate, but healthy couples are also able to strike a reasonable compromise that works for both people.
3. What the two of you do or where you eat.
I mean, obviously, compromise here — nobody should be getting their way all the time, or feeling as though they never get to pick. But damn, that’s pretty much settled if you go in having section 1 in order.
4. Most anything around the house.
I’m going to be honest, fam — ain’t nobody should be fighting about a toilet seat. If you’ve made the toilet into that big of a deal, and actually have this many emotions around it, there’s some serious reassessment in order (see section 2.)
The same goes for chores. Guys, chores are one of those things that just sort of have to happen in life. They are the background to domestic life — not the end-all, be-all of anything. And they definitely should not occupy any serious headspace.
And if you are honestly still fighting about the toothpaste, here’s a pro tip: buy two! This is what The Boy and I did because I’m the asshole who leaves the tip toothpaste-y and only loosely capped. So we each have our own tube, and it’s pure non-marital bliss.
This shit ain’t hard.
Look, here’s something we all just need to accept: two people will pretty much never have exactly the same standards of cleanliness. So to one person, the other will always be a slob. To the slob, the other will be a control freak. I have literally been both, depending on the relationship.
We all need to get over the fact that our partner isn’t going to mirror our exact viewpoint, both compromise and meet halfway, and move on.
Good relationships are not built on being wined and dined, fam. The minute we make it about “date nights” and “feeling special” and “dressing up,” especially if we start going head to head with our partner on it, is the minute we need to ask ourselves: why is this so important? What need are we bundling into this? Have we done our own work to get it met? Can we ask in other ways, or get it met doing other things?
7. Porn and strip clubs.
Neither of these needs to make us feel insecure. If you truly feel that you are competing with a flat fantasy, then I would like to extend a virtual hug and reassure you: you are so much more. You are not in competition with porn or strip clubs — ever. If you feel otherwise, you have some emotional work to do (see section 1.)
There is, of course, an inverse here: good partners won’t turn to porn and strip clubs to get their needs met, either. An evening for his best friend’s bachelor party is one thing — routine nights are another entirely. And if your concern with porn or strip clubs is framed as a societal issue with male oppression, it would likely work better to find a partner who agrees.
8. Your partner eating the last donut.
Or those leftovers you were totally saving. Or stealing a fry from your plate.
I’ve heard people consider these deal-breakers, and to be honest, I am truly astounded they’d break up over bagels or bánh mì. Like, ain’t no food worth more than a partner. (The hell is the matter with you people?)
Even the “big” things aren’t the important things.
Who pays for what, where money is going, etc.
Some people will read this and immediately bristle and go on the defensive — “money does matter!” “it’s the most common fight!” If you did that, I suggest re-reading the first two sections again. And understand what you’ve done here with “money.”
Money is, it’s true, a foundation of our lives — at the very least, we need it for procuring food and shelter, and it can certainly afford us many other comforts and be leveraged in countless ways. So yes, it matters when it comes to life and existing in society. It’s a constant in our daily lives. And, as such, it is a constant in our relationships.
The problem is when we then load it up with our insecurities. Mostly feeling as though we don’t have enough, and/or want more.
It’s understandable that people would do this. But that doesn’t mean it’s healthy or “right.” And when you add your partner into the mix, it can be hard to separate anxiety over money from anxiety about your partner.
Money isn’t going anywhere — and we all have to figure out a healthy relationship with it. Good partners, wealthy or not, figure this out together as well.
Again, like cleanliness, it is very rare that two people have the exact same libido and want sex at (only) the exact same time. We all have to compromise here — the person with higher libido (or a bigger appetite for trying new things) will have to soften; the other person can make headway by embracing and seeing sex not as “sex,” but a gesture and connection of love.
Nobody is suggesting you have sex when you don’t want to. Rather, the suggestion is to want to have sex as human intimacy, which is a real need.
Then what IS important?
“If the ‘big shit’ isn’t money, time spent together, the division of domestic labor, sex (quality and frequency), and other kinds of domestic negotiations, what is actually left to focus on — whether the earthquake survival kit is stocked?”
Honey, the “bigger sh*t” — what’s “actually left to focus on” — is life, man. It’s life.
It’s life, and it’s love. It’s growing as individuals — investing in our own development and supporting each other. It’s choosing vocations that excite u and throwing ourselves at it. It’s building something, both separately and together. It’s learning, reading, challenging ourselves and each other. It’s being present — in our own lives and, to the extent that it works, in theirs too. It’s living.
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“What’s left” is: everything that actually matters: “Healthy debate, independent interests, self-examination… risk.”
…growth, adventure, critical thought, discussion, ideas, support, etc. Anything you want, really, based on good, healthy values — which are always more than texts and toilet seats.
Healthy couples don’t fight — they DISCUSS.
For the most part.
Of course, there’s still going to be an occasional spark reaction of emotion, but this shouldn’t be their default way of communicating.
It should be accidental and, ideally, it should be tempered (and “backburnered”) until both parties are ready to talk calmly. No healthy relationship is built on communication through emotional vomit and brute force.
Healthy couples have reasonable, composed conversations. They don’t “fight” — they discuss.
When both people are emotionally healthy, truly care about their partner, and understand what matters, they don’t have to come into conversations on the defense, guns a-blazin’, fired up and hellbent on “getting their point across” or “getting heard.”
Because (a) they feel confident that their partner will hear and care about them, without having to yell, and (b) they care equally much about hearing their partner’s side.
If either of you thinks in terms of “winner” and “loser”… you’re both losing.
Healthy couples love — they love themselves, first and foremost, and they love each other — as people.
They understand their own needs and do the majority of the work in getting them met, which means they approach their partners warmly and openly, with space to understand and honor their needs as well. In healthy relationships, both people do this.
So when disagreements do come up, they both have a solid emotional foundation to work through it in a healthy way.
Kris Gage is a motorcyclist, software manager, and writer. Find out more on her website.
This article was originally published at Fit Yourself Club. Reprinted with permission from the author.