The 411 on Relationship Health, from a Certified Marriage Counselor

We all know the signs of poor physical health — we’re tired and sluggish, we can’t sleep or we sleep too much, we have headaches or stomach problems. Similarly, doctors, researchers, and experts are quick to tell us how to identify less-than-great emotional and mental health: we can’t concentrate, we’ve withdrawn from friends and family, our anxiety prevents us from doing things that used to bring us joy. But what are the actual symptoms of relationship health problems?

Without attention to the details surrounding relationship health, we’re quick to blame other factors that could be influencing our relationships, but don’t explain the things at the root of our relationship issues. Say your anxiety keeps you from accomplishing your day-to-day work. Addressing this issue will help you get your emotional health back on track (which will, in turn, help your work) but what if your anxiety actually stems from unhealthy patterns within your relationship? Keeping an eye on each part of your health — physical, emotional/mental, and relationship — ensures that you’re not missing something that’s impacting you in ways you may not even realize.

So what should you look out for as you start out on the road to relationship health? I spoke with Emi Couple’s resident marriage counselor, Dr. Dominique Samuels, PsyD, for advice.

Q: Things like a particular weight and blood pressure are indicators of good physical health — what are equivalents for a healthy relationship?

A: A good relationship needs disagreement. It should feel safe to have different opinions, to have different desires. Compromising, and sometimes compromising loudly, is normal. Name calling, threatening, etc. is not healthy. As for intimacy, there isn’t any number of times one should connect, but rather an open dialogue about satisfaction. In general, the best litmus test for a healthy relationship is feeling like you can talk about hard things and be vulnerable, sharing not just what you feel about the outside world but also about the inner workings of your relationship.

Q: What’s the first thing a couple should do when they realize their relationship is not healthy?

A: If you feel like your relationship is not healthy, get help. There are many books and podcasts that can help walk you through it. But for most people, getting an outside person, like a therapist, to help is necessary. It helps reduce the tension of getting things “wrong” and mediate the emotion in the room.

Q: What if a couple that’s been together for a long time realizes their relationship has roots in unhealthy behaviors? How can a couple start to break those habits?

A: Breaking unhealthy habits starts with knowing what the habits are. Once you have worked that out, you need to figure out what triggers them — the topics, the emotions, the statements, the behaviors. It is usually easiest to start with seeing the other person’s perspective because we tend to prefer to blame. So be careful with that! We ultimately must intellectually understand and empathetically feel what the negative cycle looks like for each member of the relationship.

Q: Do you have any suggestions about how to integrate relationship health into people’s mindfulness about individual physical, emotional, and career health?

A: In order to best integrate relationship health into your life, you need to remember it needs energy just like any other area. You wouldn’t expect to be able to run a marathon without training, even if you ran one two years ago. Same with a relationship — you need to keep up with it. I like to say that we, as humans, all have a finite amount of energy to give each day. That energy can change in quantity depending on outside things, such as low sleep or high stress. But in general, that energy needs to fill all our energy-sucking buckets each day. Whatever you put into work will show up in output. That is the same with physical health. Again, this is the same with relationship health. Just like you wouldn’t be surprised to get a poor review after slacking off for a month at work, your partner will give you a poor review for not putting energy into the relationship.