Healthy and Unhealthy Relationships

At their core, healthy relationships are ones in which you feel happy to be involved and an equal partner. They enrich you or your life, and neither or both individuals involved feel like the relationship is a burden. Whether romantic, friendly, or familial, healthy relationships are mutually supportive and beneficial to the individuals that are a part of them. If you are worried whether your relationship is healthy or not, schedule an appointment to talk to a CARE advocate. No one deserves to be abused or in an unhealthy relationship; read about your Relationship Rights here.

Relationships as a Spectrum

Relationships are made up of behaviors, and all behaviors can be characterized as healthy, unhealthy, or abusive. However, the behaviors may look different for different people, and what is unhealthy for one person may be abusive or healthy for another. Relationships may be a mix of these behaviors, but should be mostly healthy. Examining relationships as a spectrum of behaviors allows us to examine both our own and our partners’ actions more objectively, and gives the opportunity to fix problems rather than ignore them. For example, sometimes an unhealthy attempt at gaining power may be in response to a perceived loss of control. While this doesn’t justify the action, if we recognize that unhealthy reactions can exist along with healthy ones, we may be more willing to fix them instead of fighting to prove we’re not the “bad guy.”

Healthy behaviors promote equity for both/all partners; unhealthy behaviors may subtly or explicitly attempt to exert power and control over another partner; and abusive behaviors exert that power and control over someone else.

Some core healthy behaviors and signs of a healthy relationship include:

  • Mutual respect
  • Open and direct communication, without fear of manipulation or reprisal
  • Emotional intimacy
  • Feeling supported and supporting of the other
  • Feelings of security and comfort
  • Equal power
  • Being able to have your own life apart from each other
  • Conflict is resolved respectfully
  • Many basic values are shared
  • A significant degree of trust and honesty
  • Commitment to a healthy relationship

Healthy relationships are not perfect, but strengths, weaknesses, and problems can all be safely addressed, and lead to productive change.

Power and control is not always obvious, but is at the core of unhealthy and abusive behaviors. For example, when one partner makes the other feel bad about themselves, it may seem like an isolated instance of acting like a jerk. However, it may reinforce for that partner that they are not good enough alone, and to accept the power and control of someone better than them. This can be explained by the power and control wheel, in which different behaviors contribute to power and control in an unhealthy or abusive relationship.

It is important to note that in combination with a pattern unhealthy behaviors can become abusive or things can change and escalate. The pattern may be a one-time event, but is often an ongoing pattern of abuse. One way to think about how these behaviors may escalate is through the cycle of abuse. This cycle describes how things may get intense and lead to some form of abuse, followed by a period of reconciliation and convincing that abuse will not occur again, followed by tension building once again.

If a relationship is less than healthy, steps can be taken to improve it or end it. Friends, family, and counselors can play a useful and supportive role when identifying an unhealthy relationship.

What Should I Look for in a Partner?

With any new partner or simply any new person, it’s not possible to know exactly who could be abusive or unhealthy for you, and even if we had a sure list and a new partner exhibited every sign, there would still be no justification for their abuse later on. You are not to blame for staying or not recognizing the abuse soon enough. Past abuse, threats, breaking objects, and use of force are listed as most common signs that someone could become abusive, but it’s more important to establish positive qualities you want from your relationship than to be on the defensive and seeking out warning signs. Visit the Love is Respect page on “What Should I Look for in a Partner?” to read about attributes that support healthy relationships, and to inspire you to think about qualities that are important to you.

What should I do if I...?

...May be in an unhealthy relationship?

  • If your relationship is affecting your emotional health, consider individual counseling provided on campus with CAPS.
  • If you feel safe doing so, consider what breaking up or taking a break might mean to you or the relationship. Unhealthy relationships can heal, but they require work that partners should be prepared to do.
  • Connect with friends and loved ones, and remember the support you have from relationships that build you up.
  • If you want to stay in the relationship and try to make it work, communicate your concerns to your partner(s) and think of the steps you can take to improve the relationship. For some tips on maintaining relationships, visit the Love Is Respects webpage on healthy relationships.

...Think my friend may be in an unhealthy relationship and want to help?

  • Talk to your friend about their relationship and your concerns without judgment. Explain aspects you think may be unhealthy but without labeling the experience for them.
  • Do not speak over your friend; allow them to share their experience and respect their feelings toward their relationship even if they’re different from yours. Healthy relationships look different for different people.
  • Do not demonize their partner. They may still want to be with them and insulting their partner may just make your friend more defensive and less likely to talk in the future.
  • Tell your friend they have your support no matter their decision to leave or stay. Tell them they can talk to you if they ever have new concerns about the relationship and need help.
  • Be patient; it may take them several attempts to leave if they choose to. Remember that a significant warning sign of an unhealthy relationship is isolation, so stick around.
  • If you’re worried about your friend and not sure if you have all the right things to say, suggest they consider talking to confidential counselors at CARE or CAPS.
  • If you believe your friend is in an abusive relationship, review guidelines for supporting a friend experiencing dating violence in the Get Help section.

...Want to know more about healthy relationships?

  • CARE offers presentations on healthy relationships and other pertinent topics. Request a program through the CARE website.
  • Interactive workshops and firesides are provided on request by CARE staff, SHAPE, and the Women’s Center.

...Am being abusive to my partner?

If you’re concerned with your behavior towards your partner, The Center for Contextual Change is a community resource that works with perpetrators of violence, providing counseling and programs.