9 signs of a healthy relationship

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By Gregory Bottaro


One of the most common questions I am asked as a Catholic psychologist relates to whether or not someone is in a healthy relationship. Often a young woman will give me a certain scenario and ask me to comment on whether it is a “make it or break it” characteristic. Other times a man will want to talk about his relationship with a girl he is dating because he wants to propose but there are issues that need to be cleared up first. 

 

Then there are the married couples seeking help; after years of struggling through certain issues, they eventually call me for counseling or just a trustworthy Catholic perspective on healthy marriage. I’ve outlined here nine general characteristics that can be looked at by discerning and married couples alike to help give some direction if you or someone you know is asking this question.  

 

1. You put God first and trust him to direct your steps. 

The most important mark of a healthy relationship is that it coincides with God’s will for your life. It is all too easy to confuse God’s will for our fleeting desires, since God’s will ultimately resides in the depths of our own heart and is discerned by exploring what our deepest desires are. Without straying too far from our topic and getting into a dissertation on the discernment of God’s will, there is a common quality that might indicate things are going the wrong way. There should be a naturalness to the timing as a relationship progresses. This timing will be different for every couple, but there shouldn’t be a “rushed” sense or a “stuck” sense for either of the people involved. 

 

There is no way to set an objective limit on how long a couple should date or be engaged, but it shouldn’t feel rushed. It is possible for a couple to meet and start dating right away and be engaged in six months. I know — because that’s exactly what happened between my wife and me. This occurred after I was 30, had spent three years as a Franciscan friar discerning my vocation, and had a lot of dating experience. I knew myself well enough to know what I wanted and didn’t want, what worked for me and what didn’t. This timeline didn’t feel rushed for me or my wife because we both knew it was right. The more you know yourself, the easier it will be to determine if a relationship is healthy. 

 

On the other hand, it might also be possible to wait too long for certain milestones. There might be a fear of commitment in one person based on past wounds or other issues that need to be examined. There needs to be some discernment about timing here, and the real possibility of not being right for each other, either at that time or possibly ever. A proper flow of timing and development marks a healthy relationship. 

 

2. You become the best version of you.

The single greatest misconception about relationships and ultimately marriage is that the other person is supposed to make you happy. This is never true, and it has never been the purpose of marriage. God made Eve as a “helpmate” for Adam. This idea of helper from the Old Testament comes with the sense of helping Adam as God helped Israel: He saves her, and she saves him. Eve was given to Adam not to fulfill some superficial sense of happiness but to actually complete what was lacking in his existence. Eve’s complementarity completed Adam in allowing him to have a companion to whom he could make a gift of himself. Adam became more himself as he loved (made of himself a gift to) Eve. Adam became less of the man he was created to be when he failed to love her. 

 

In a healthy relationship you become a better version of yourself. 


Naturally, you will be happier as you become a better version of yourself. This is not the happiness that comes from someone calling you beautiful or giving you the right gifts, though. The happiness you experience is the peace and joy of knowing that you are becoming more yourself. 


It is easy to feel satisfied when another person is speaking your love language. Even the wrong partner can speak your language for a time and make you feel good. However, feeling good is not the goal of a healthy relationship, and so these times won’t tell you if you are in a healthy relationship or not. Don’t get me wrong, good feelings are very necessary. God gives consolation just as he allows for desolation, and as Christ modeled for us in his perfect humanity, we all need consolation sometimes. 

 

This need, though, is very different from the purpose of a relationship. To know if a relationship is healthy, we have to observe how we act when we don’t have the consolation of gifts or words of praise or love and affection. 

 

There are lots of factors that go into how you might deal with the absence of love from a partner, such as past experiences or wounds, your expectations, or your capacity for vulnerability. It also might be affected by what you actually see in the other person. You might be hanging on for the consolation, but when it comes down to it, you don’t actually want the other person, and so your lack of peace or ability to grow during times of desolation indicates how you really feel about the relationship. No matter what the reason, though, how you manage to get through difficult times with your significant other will tell you how healthy your relationship is. 

 

3. Mutual dignity is respected. 

A healthy relationship can only be formed by two people who respect each other’s dignity. A healthy respect for the dignity of another person means that you see the other person as the type of being that exists for her or his own good, not simply to serve your desires or to be used like an object. In a healthy relationship, you see the other person as a being created for his or her own good, with a history and a story totally unique and important simply for being his or hers. If you are still dating, you understand that this story may or may not include you in the long term. If you are married, you realize that your vows are the path to the perfection of your humanity as well as your spouse’s. 

 

It can be very easy to develop a utilitarian mentality toward another person in a relationship. I don’t mean that you actively think about using the person, but your behaviors, thoughts, and feelings might start to imply an inner disposition that the other person exists in this relationship for your benefit or good. This disposition will quickly erode a relationship. At best it will be an agreement for mutual use with set parameters for a time before it totally dissolves into something untenable. 

 

When you respect the dignity of the other person, you ask yourself: “What is actually good for him or her?” You also know that he or she is asking that about you. You can even expect the other to ask that about you — not because you want the good for yourself — but you know that when he or she asks that question about you, it is the way of becoming the best self possible.

 

4. You seek friendship first.

In my opinion one of the most telling signs of a healthy relationship is to have a solid friendship in the midst of the romance. Friendship marks that type of relationship that can weather any storm, as well as the passing seasons of all relationships. Physical attraction, personality matches, and value consistency are all important aspects of a relationship, but friendship alone will carry a relationship through the years. A simple way to think about friendship is to consider taking a cross-country road trip with the person in question. 

 

A healthy relationship is one where two people can enjoy the trip together, despite all the colorful and sometimes difficult experiences that might come with it. Marriage is for a long time, and most secondary qualities will either pass away or change, but friendship will carry a couple through to the end. 

 

5. There is interdependence — not independence or dependence. 

A lot of psycho-talk these days is about boundaries and maintaining your independence. This is a key component to emotional and spiritual maturity, but it is only a part of the picture. At the same time, we are made for community (ultimately to be part of the communion of the saints), and so we start now in the way we connect with others. 

 

There are appropriate amounts of connection that go along with each type of relationship, but ultimately marriage is the one that includes a full gift of self to the other. This reality includes the mystery of maintaining your unique identity and at the same time forming a new type of identity as a married couple. There is a sense of connection that is appropriate beyond independence; we call this interdependence. A healthy relationship is one in which there is a balance between peoples’ individual identities and deep intimacy and connection with each other. 

 

6. The relationship is built on trust. 

If the relationship is built on a friendship as mentioned above, trust is naturally included. This means you can share your secrets with your partner; you know he or she will give reverence to your vulnerability, and you give the same. There is no question of lying, cheating, or in any way consciously hurting the other person. You feel free to talk about anything: your hurts, your fears, your needs or desires. You are free to be yourself.

 

7. You have realistic expectations. 

When I was in Catholic circles in high school and college, I used to hear all the time, “I’m looking for my St. Joseph” or “I want to find a girl that will inspire me with the virtue of Mary.” This is a dangerous mentality for Catholics discerning marriage. 

 

The fact of the matter is that we are perfected in and through our vocations, not before we enter into them. The vow of marriage is meant to turn us into saints, so how can we expect to meet one before we are married? Most likely you know that you don’t have the virtue of St. Joseph or the Blessed Mother, so it doesn’t make much sense to expect that from your significant other. 

 

Mistakes will be made, and feelings will be hurt. The Church knows this, and that is why there are significant marital graces that flow through the sacrament of Matrimony to aid couples in their journey to holiness. In the meantime, it is healthy to have realistic expectations and not hold onto those wounds from the past. Be merciful as your Father in heaven is merciful (see Luke 6:36), and learn how to forgive. While it is healthy to want the best for your partner regarding virtue and goodness, it is just as important to forgive when he or she misses the mark. 

 

8. You listen to your family.

In his Letter to Families, St. John Paul II called on couples to be actively involved in the marriage discernment of their children. While not every family lives up to this ideal, parents often know you better than you know yourself. 

 

Parents have also been married for a while and know a thing or two about what works and what doesn’t. Even divorced parents, if they are able to resolve or separate their own wounded feelings regarding love, can offer personally tailored and critical insights regarding your relationship. At the end of the day you are responsible for discerning God’s will in the depths of your own heart, and sometimes this means making choices that your extended family doesn’t support. As God created the family to exist, however, parents should have an active role in the process. In most cases, a healthy relationship is one that a family supports.

 

For married couples, parents or in-laws can sometimes be a surprising source of wisdom and support. While normal day-to-day interactions might include all the normal tensions of intersecting family dynamics, I have had more than a few couples tell me stories of being pleasantly surprised when sharing deeper struggles with parents or in-laws. 

 

9. You are able to support each other during tough times, but you also know when you need outside help. 

These points might reveal flaws in your relationship. An unhealthy relationship doesn’t necessarily mean it should end. When there is a vow made, it certainly can’t end. We will be working through our weaknesses for the rest of our lives, so there are sure to be times that we are unhealthy toward our partner and times when he or she is unhealthy toward us. It is good to know that at times it is OK to ask for help. 

 

You can go to your family, trusted friends, a spiritual director, or even a therapist to get through tougher issues. Sometimes when dating there is the unfortunate realization that a relationship just isn’t going to work between two people. Sometimes in marriage there is the realization that marriage counseling is necessary to grow. Underlying all of these points of a healthy relationship is a humility that allows a couple to know when to support each other internally and when to step outside the relationship for help.   

 

Gregory Bottaro

Gregory Bottaro, Psy.D., is the founder and director of the CatholicPsych Institute, which exists to integrate the faith with psychological principles and treatment. You can find the institute online at CatholicPsych.com.