3 Core Components of a Healthy Relationship

Having healthy relationships comes easy to some people. For the rest of us, they’re about as easy a drooling third-grader trying to pass an astrophysics exam. Not only have we set ourselves up to fail, we lack the perspective to even know where to begin in creating healthy, loving relationships in our lives.

So, through a lot of trial and error on my end (and I mean, a lot), I’ve put together an entirely-too-nerdy-but-still-pretty-eye-opening guide to developing healthy relationships.

Let’s dive right in.

3 Core Components to a Healthy Relationship

All healthy relationships share the following three core components:

  1. Mutual respect
  2. Mutual trust
  3. Mutual affection

We’ll cover each component in more detail throughout this article, but briefly, here’s what they look like in a healthy relationship:

Respect in the relationship means that you both hold each other in high regard. When you respect someone, you admire them for certain qualities they possess and/or the character they embody.

Trust in each other means you take each other at your word. If one person says they’re going to do something, the other person assumes they’ll do as they say. If someone makes a mistake, the other person expects them to be honest and tell them. In fact, trust really just comes down to each person being completely honest with the other, even when it’s uncomfortable.

Affection in healthy relationships is freely given and received. Healthy couples don’t need to remind themselves to show their partner that they love and appreciate them. They just do. And the recipient receives affection with affection rather than turning it away or taking it for granted. If physical contact and sex are important for the relationship, each person engages enthusiastically (of course, no one will always be “in the mood,” but for the most part, this should hold true).

Problems in any or all of these areas could mean that one or both partners have an insecure attachment style or it could mean that the relationship is flawed in some other fundamental way.

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    Love Is a Product of a Healthy Relationship, Not the Foundation for It

    Notice that love is not a core component of a healthy relationship. This comes as shock to a lot of people when they hear me say it. How could this even be possible?

    Well, first consider the fact that you can love someone who is absolutely terrible for you. People stay in horrible, toxic, even abusive relationships because they love each other.

    And it’s not that they’ve simply convinced themselves that they love the other person, they actually do love them. You can love a friend or relative who’s addicted to drugs or alcohol, even when they’re hurting you and everyone else around them. Children can love their neglectful and even abusive parents. So in much the same way, we can love a partner who’s terrible for us.

    By itself, love is not enough to sustain a relationship. Love is not the reason two people should stay in a relationship. Instead, true, unconditional love is the wonderful product of two people creating a healthy bond with each other.

    Losing One Core Component Erodes the Others

    So with that caveat—that love isn’t enough to sustain a relationship—let’s turn to how a healthy relationship can begin to break down. Then, we’ll look at how broken relationships can possibly be fixed.

    I call these three qualities of a relationship “core” components because they make up the real foundation of the relationship. And just like a foundation of a building, if one component falters, the others soon follow.

    For example, if your partner begins to withhold affection in your relationship, it will likely lead to an erosion of trust. You might wonder why the sudden change? Are they eyeing or even seeing someone else? Are they really more interested in the mailman than they say they are? Is something wrong with me?

    This can eventually cause one or both of you to lose respect for one another: your partner becomes uncomfortable with all the second-guessing and starts to doubt your “stability” as a partner (whether that’s an accurate assessment or not). And now, after all your second-guessing, you’re triple-guessing whether you chose a good partner—you’ve lost respect for one another.

    Another example: say your partner joins what, to you, is clearly a get-rich-quick pyramid scheme. Up to this point, you’ve respected their intelligence and level-headedness. That respect has now taken a blow as you question your own judgment of them.

    This causes you to lack trust in them with financial decisions (and maybe other decisions as well). Their long-term prospects as a partner are called into question: Will they make stupid financial decisions down the road? Will I get caught up in those bad decisions? What if we get married and have kids—can they make good decisions for our family?

    As you can see, when you lose one of the core components of a healthy relationship, a downward spiral ensues.

    The good news is that the spiral can work in the other direction as well.

    How to Regain the Components of a Healthy Relationship

    Every relationship, at some point, is bound to run into problems with one or more of these core components. Two different types of things tend to happen when there is a breakdown: either a) one or both people change or b) mistakes are made.

    If One or Both People Change…

    And I don’t mean they change their hairstyle or what they eat for breakfast. I mean real-deal, identity-level changes.

    Maybe your partner finds religion and decides to devote a lot of their time to the church/temple/mosque. If you’re not religious, this will certainly create tension in the relationship.

    Maybe you decide that the world is going to hell and you’re going to devote all of your time to preparing for doomsday by building a bunker in the backyard and stockpiling guns and food. If your partner isn’t prone to this lifestyle, they’ll understandably start to question being with you.

    Identity-level changes like these tend to make people lose respect for the other person. Something you admired about them is either gone, not very important to them anymore, or replaced with something you don’t respect as much as they do. This creates a vacuum of respect in the relationship.

    I’ll be blunt: it’s very hard to overcome these sorts of issues in the relationship. But if you’re willing to work with them and their new identity, you’re going to have to find new sources of respect in the relationship.

    If they’ve turned religious and you used to admire their secular, humanistic worldview, you might find a way to still respect their compassion for others.

    If they decided to go full-blown, hippie-dippie, tree-hugging vegan and you just love to eat meat and drive a gas-guzzling monster truck to get groceries, well—I don’t know what the fuck you two are doing together, but maybe you can respect their recycling habit?

    The point is that any respect that was lost in the transformation of one person must be made up in some way or another.

    If Someone Made a Mistake…

    No one is perfect. I know that’s obvious, but it bears repeating because sometimes our standards for others are just not reasonable.

    At any rate, when legitimate mistakes are made, trust in the relationship is violated.

    Whatever mistake was made, a few things need to happen for the relationship to be fully restored:

    1. Give it some time. The sting of the mistake just naturally wears off with time. If you fucked up, give the other person some space to process the situation. If they fucked up, tell them you need a little time to think it over.
    2. Make sure it’s a one-time mistake. Acknowledging your mistake is one thing, but being responsible and accountable for it by committing to not doing it again shows the other person you’re serious about the relationship. Repeat offenders—when it’s something that truly threatens the relationship—should be avoided at all costs.
    3. The other person must be open to forgiveness (eventually). Even if some time has passed and the person who made the mistake has given an honest, true effort to never do it again, it doesn’t mean that the “victim” must be willing to forgive them.

    Now, mistakes vary in degree and severity and, therefore, vary in how easily they’re overcome.

    Minor mistakes—like snide comments made at the wrong time or forgetting to run an errand for the other person—usually take very little time to get over, they’re easily avoided in the future, and easily forgiven by the other person.

    Bigger mistakes will take a lot more work on both ends of the relationship. You’ll have to ask yourself if it’s truly worth it (and be brutally honest in your answer).

    Can a Toxic Relationship Be Saved?

    One of the most common types of questions I get is about relationships. They always have a backstory to tell, a moment when they realized things weren’t going all that smoothly, a specific incident they think illustrates their problem just right.

    But really, they’re all asking the same question. Namely, how can you turn a toxic relationship into a healthy one?

    If this is you, or if you’re not sure if your relationship is toxic or not, check out my articles on toxic relationships and how to fix them:

    Books on Relationships

    If you’re finding the same issues popping up over and over in your relationships, I encourage you to check out the following books: