Research-Backed Advice

6 Tips for a Healthy Relationship: Manage Conflict and More

Highlights

  • Healthy romantic relationships are never perfect. Conflicts are normal.
  • To handle conflict, you must understand your own triggers and know how to calm down, then find the root of the issue.
  • Set boundaries with others, but also with yourself.
  • Don’t compare your relationship to what you see on social media.
  • Acknowledge the positives by looking for green flags.

If you’re in a romantic relationship, chances are you’ve wondered whether your relationship is actually healthy. Is it OK to fight or argue? What if you’re unhappy sometimes? Is that necessarily bad?

No relationship is perfect, and many people have conflict regularly in their romantic relationship.

One study that followed nearly 1,000 couples for 20 years found that 16% said they had little conflict, 60% had moderate levels, and 22% reported high levels and said they fought frequently.

If you’re arguing about the same topics ad nauseum, you’re not alone. Sixty nine percent of relationship conflict is about issues that come up over and over again, according to relationship expert John Gottman in his book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.

Everyone’s situation is different, so there’s no one trick you can use to instantly create a happy relationship. However, a few techniques may help.

Here are six tips from experts to help you maintain a healthy romantic relationship, backed by relationship experts and peer-reviewed research.

What is a healthy relationship?

Emotional care and safety, and a habit of having deep conversations are important for a healthy relationship, according to experts. Being able to set boundaries and manage your own feelings and reactions in a conflict are other essential elements.

Healthy relationships should be a place of comfort, care, growth and safety, according to Tania Bakas, a trauma-informed associate counselor based in Vancouver, Canada.

“Those things may exist in other relationships, like friendships, but there’s that extra closeness that happens in an intimate relationship, and it’s such an opportunity for people to actually find themselves, to be seen, to be heard,” she says.

“I always see it as a place of growth — a dynamic thing that changes over time as it ebbs and flows,” she adds.

Consistent communication is also key to a healthy relationship.

“Healthy couples make time to check in with one another on a regular basis. It’s important to talk about more than just parenting and maintaining the household,” according to the American Psychological Association.

Couples who want to stay connected to their partner should consider spending at least a few minutes every day discussing deep and personal topics, the article suggests.

Setting clear boundaries with others and maintaining them is another essential part of a healthy relationship. We’ll talk more about that below.

How do people handle conflict in a healthy relationship?

The key is to learn to calm down and communicate clearly with each other to address problems with compassion.

“When people fall in love, they find each other fascinating and there’s this great depth of communication where they talk about everything,” says Doug Elliott, a registered clinical counselor in Vancouver, Canada who specializes in conflict resolution, addiction, and human sexuality.

Over time, the depth of human connection you had at the beginning can fade when things like work, kids, finances, and other everyday stresses get in the way, he explains.

When the part of your brain called the low brain is calling the shots, you’ll start acting on instinct without communicating about the problem. You’ll simply enter reactive mode, Elliott says. That’s when conflicts can start to get hurtful.

You have to know your signals

Doug Elliott, registered clinical counselor

“People think that humans are so smart, but a lot of what’s running the show is the low brain, and this thing will throw us into fight or flight at the drop of a hat — viewing emotional upsets like a grizzly bear charging at it,” says Elliott.

Ironically, when fighting gets nasty — like when partners start using hurtful language — the conversation can get further away from addressing the root cause.

“People … start fighting, but they’re not really thinking about the actual problem — why am I upset with my partner?,” he says, noting that a healthy relationship requires people to learn strategies to resolve their issues.

“Oftentimes, our parents were lousy at this … not teaching us how to slow the process down or how to resolve things without becoming emotionally distraught,” Elliott says.

“We then start reading our partner or the relationship as the problem, when it’s really about our inability to communicate or calm the nervous system and figure out how to move forward and what to talk about.”

People in healthy relationships know how to calm themselves down during conflicts so they can talk about the real problem and find solutions together — without lashing out and hurting each other.

6 healthy relationship tips for couples

Here are 6 tips that can help you maintain a healthy relationship with your partner.

1. Learn how to handle conflict

The first step in resolving relationship conflicts is to recognize when your fight or flight response is activated.

Symptoms your body is in fight or flight mode may include:

  • Your heart beats faster and harder
  • Quick breathing and shortness of breath
  • Tense muscles or a feeling of “freezing”
  • Digestive symptoms, like an upset stomach
  • Headache or dizziness

“When the body says there’s a problem, it starts dropping adrenaline into the bloodstream and breathing becomes shallow,” explains Elliott. “People get flushed and all these animalistic, aggressive things start happening — you have to know your signals.”

Once you realize this is happening, take time apart from your partner to cool down. Elliott also advises not to rehearse the argument or “practice” the fight while you’re taking the time to calm down. “Just breathe, sit on a park bench, pet the dog — whatever you need to do.”

Once you’ve both calmed down, you can work together to start to identify the root of the problem and the underlying emotions. This can look like, “I want to talk to you about how I felt disrespected” or, “That made me feel ashamed because when I was a kid I was bullied.”

When couples repress issues and avoid discussing them, the topic goes into what Elliott calls the “resentment bank account.” But that can backfire because resentment tends to build up and the whole account eventually explodes.

By dealing with problems together, as they come up, you can help keep the resentment bank account balance low.

If you or your partner tends to avoid conflict, it can be difficult to begin talking about what’s really bothering you. People who avoid conflict often do so because they’re afraid of upsetting other people or causing a fight.

Instead, try reframing the conflict. Thinking about it as a problem you can work together to solve, rather than a fight to avoid, can help you ease into the discussion.

2. Create space for open communication about emotions

Emotional communication is the meaning and connection that flows between partners, usually through everyday interactions, one academic article explains.

The article defines positive emotional connection as “having a partner who really talks to you, is a good listener, is a good friend, likes and appreciates you as a person, and does his or her share to make the relationship work.”

What does positive emotional communication really look like at the most basic level in a relationship?

Learn to hear your partner’s bids and respond to them

“Intimacy begins when a partner shares or communicates something personal and important to them and the other partner responds in an encouraging way,” the article explains.

When it comes to connecting with your partner emotionally, listening for emotional bids from your partner and responding with empathy is key. Bids are when one partner shares information, seeks support or conveys emotion to the other — verbally or nonverbally (such as with facial expressions).

If one partner shares that they had a bad day, the other partner will have much more success if they recognize that bid for emotional connection and respond to it. Paying attention and responding with empathy will have a drastically different result than answering with, “Oh, okay,” for example.

Schedule regular check-ins

Establishing regular check-ins with your romantic partner can also create a low-pressure space to ask yourselves how you’re doing — today, this week, and in general.

Setting a regular time to talk with your partner can help diffuse some of the tension if you’re experiencing conflict.

“You might have a beef you’re holding onto, but you can hold onto it until Friday and bring it up at a time when there’s no [fight or flight] activation, at a time where you’ve agreed that it’s okay to bring up issues in a safe and calm environment,” says Elliott. “Neither one of you is angry, you’re just talking.”

Giving yourself the time to calm down before your check-in with your partner may also help you be more emotionally generous — responding to your partner’s bids for emotional connection with empathy.

3. Identify your attachment style and emotional triggers

What you learned about relationships as an infant and child has a strong effect on how you interact with romantic partners. It might explain common misunderstandings you have and conflict cycles you may get into.

Attachment style is an important set of learned behaviors that affect what you do when you experience conflict or distress. We won’t go into detail about attachment styles in this article, but here are the four main ones:

Your attachment style develops during babyhood as a result of the way your caregivers responded to your needs, and it can affect the ways you interact with other people throughout your life.

Children learn to expect all relationships to be like their attachment relationships and act accordingly, says the Canadian Psychological Association. A person whose caregivers yelled at them when they expressed distress might learn to hide their feelings, while a person whose caregivers reacted warmly to comfort them might tend to open up and trust other people.

When you’re in a conflict with your partner, it can be tempting to act on instinct and lash out or withdraw. Instead, take a step back and recognize that the conflict with your partner may have triggered an old, learned reaction in you. And that reaction may not be appropriate for the present situation.

Likewise, understand that your partner may be going through the same thing. If they react in a way that seems unreasonable, think about whether the situation might have triggered a reaction in them that they learned long ago. Be compassionate about the strong feelings that brought up for them.

“Maybe [the conflict situation is] a familiar story based in my childhood,” explains counselor Richard Tatomir, MA, a certified counselor based in Vancouver, Canada. “So I have strong feelings that might look to the partner as illogical, but when we look at the logic of trauma and attachment, it makes a lot of sense.”

The good news is, even if someone grows up accustomed to an insecure attachment, it is possible for them to develop an earned secure attachment and, as parents, develop secure attachments with their children, according to research.

4. Set boundaries with everyone, including yourself

Boundaries are part of a healthy relationship. They can be emotional, physical, digital, material, spiritual, or time-based.

“The ways that we communicate our boundaries, understand what our limits are and what other people’s limits are — these are things we’ve learned over time,” says Bakas, who coaches clients to set their own healthy boundaries. “They’re adaptations to our environment and the people that have been around us as we were growing up.”

Boundary issues can happen if you set limits but then allow other people to cross them. This can happen if you’re in an enmeshed relationship — where you and your partner feel responsible for each other’s feelings.

On the other hand, you might have rigid boundaries, where you shut others out and don’t communicate what your needs are. Luckily, it’s possible to learn to set better boundaries over time.

You can work on your boundary setting through a combination of psychoeducation, worksheets, exercises, and practice.

“You can start having healthier boundaries that align with your values,” says Bakas. 

She also points out that this is not just in romantic relationships but also with work colleagues, friends, and even with yourself.

Set boundaries with yourself

“Often we forget that boundaries with ourselves are also just as important,” Bakas says. Setting healthy boundaries with yourself means making rules that are good for you and following them even if you don’t feel like it in the moment.

Setting boundaries with yourself includes things like sticking to your exercise routine, eating healthy like you told yourself you would, and keeping similar promises you’ve made to yourself.

5. Learn to manage expectations

No relationship is perfect. It’s OK (and perfectly normal) to have conflicts with your partner from time to time.

Just because you had a bad argument doesn’t necessarily mean you’re not “right” for each other.

However, this can be really hard to remember when you’re bombarded with the idea of the perfect couple on TV and social media.

Don’t compare your relationship with what you see on social media

It’s important to understand that the romantic relationships you see depicted on social media don’t represent reality. It’s not fair to expect your everyday life to be like someone else’s carefully curated fantasy.

“I feel like expectations were always a thing, even before the internet, but now all of this stuff has just compounded it,” said Elliott, pointing to social media and the resulting FOMO that comes from comparing yourself to others.

He advises people to instead focus on their own relationships. There are decisions you can make to move your relationship in the direction you want.

“You want to have a happy, perfect relationship. But what are you going to do today that’s going to move you in that direction — what are your choices?” Elliott says.

If those seemingly perfect relationships that you see on social media stress you out, you’re not alone. Scrolling on social media may provide temporary anxiety relief but can become a type of addiction, says Bakas. 

“Sometimes you have to take a little break and realize that what you see online is just an image. It’s a show,” she says. “Have boundaries with [yourself], and listen to your gut that what you see online isn’t always the truth. It’s in some ways entertainment.”

Tatomir agrees that social media is designed to be addictive. He says it’s important to do social media detoxes as necessary, and be careful about whom you follow, choosing close friends over influencers.

“If you are following influencers, be very careful,” he adds. “My wife and I have had lots of these experiences where we’ve had to do these detoxes.”

Accept that your partner isn’t perfect

Your partner, like you, is a complex human who changes over time. So if they’re distant and withdrawn one day, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve lost interest in you, for example. It could just mean that it was a difficult day at work.

Research has found that couples who viewed their marriages in a positive light while acknowledging their partner’s faults were more likely to be satisfied with their relationship and stay together over time.

To practice this perspective yourself, whenever you have an issue with your partner, consciously try to pinpoint its specific, external or passing causes. Try to avoid generalizing about the quality of your relationship overall or blaming your partner for the way they are and will always be.

6. Look for green flags

“Look for the green flags,” says Bakas. In other words, appreciate and search for the positive and the growth in your relationship instead of focusing solely on the negative.

“How can two people — or more if it’s a non-monogamous relationship — bring something to the table that is meaningful?” she says. “Look for something that you seek in a partner, that you would like to have in a relationship.”

Express your gratitude

Did you notice a green flag or did your partner do something you appreciated? Consider telling them so. One study found that when members of couples expressed gratitude toward each other, both the giver and receiver of the gratitude felt more relationship connection and satisfaction the next day.

The final word 

If you’re wondering whether your relationship is healthy, remember, no relationship is perfect. It’s always a work in progress.

Relationship issues are normal and many can be resolved. You can use the tips above to grow together as a couple and work toward more open communication or healthier boundaries.

If you’re having difficulty or experiencing frequent conflicts, consider seeking external help from a psychologist or a couples therapist.

If you’re experiencing abuse or are in danger from an intimate partner, please call the 24/7 National Domestic Violence Hotline for free, confidential assistance in the United States. Call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or text “START” to 88788.

Bridget Stringer-Holden
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Bridget Stringer-Holden is a journalist in Vancouver, British Columbia. She's currently pursuing her Master of Journalism at the University of British Columbia as a recipient of the Vancouver Sun David Bains Scholarship, and she has bylines in Vancouver Magazine, Western Living, BC Business, Radio-Canada, Healthline, and the Capilano Courier. Bridget finds meaning in uplifting the voices of others.

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