I don’t usually talk a lot about romantic relationships on here because every person and every couple is different, and a lot of advice isn’t one-size-fits-all. But as my fiancé and I are planning our wedding, and as a lot of friends and acquaintances are in relationships, engaged, or married, it seemed time to talk about the topic a bit more.
Let’s start with the most important thing: You are under absolutely no obligation to be in a relationship at all, or to remain in an unhealthy one. Your personal health and well-being are way more important than societal pressures. No matter what anyone tells you, if you don’t want to be in a romantic relationship you don’t have to be. Period. If you’re in a relationship and it isn’t healthy, get out.* Period.
But healthy romantic relationships are a common thing to want, and something a lot of us spend most of our lives working toward. Oh look, there’s the first piece of advice! It’s a process, and not something that will ever be fully accomplished. It doesn’t happen overnight.
Before you get into a relationship
- Ask yourself why you want to be in one. Do you want it because everyone else is in a relationship, because you think it would be good for you, or because you really care about and have feelings for each other? (Hint: Only the last one is a thumbs up.)
- Ask if this is healthy/logical for the stage you’re at in life. If you’re traveling for months at a time for work or often away from modern methods of communication, it just might not be the right time. If you know you don’t have the time and energy to invest in building a strong relationship, it might be better to save yourself and the other person the hurt.
- Ask yourself if there’s anything holding you back. Are you still dealing with stuff in other parts of your personal life? Is there a circumstance that’s affecting things? Are you just nervous? Depending on what’s holding you back, determine whether it’s something to push through or to pause for.
- Make sure you’re friends with the person. Attraction is cool, but it will not sustain a relationship. This is someone you’re looking at spending a lot of time with, and should want to get to know even better. (Side note that if you don’t know this person at all maybe take things slow and just be friends for a bit first.)
Before committing to a long-term relationship
- Ask if you make each other better people. It doesn’t have to be in every single aspect (when my fiancé and I were in college, our long conversations wrecked my sleep schedule and it never fully recovered). But it does have to be in the areas that matter. Do you help each other be more patient, kind, understanding, thoughtful, forthright, compassionate, persevering?
- Give it time. This is so important. Ultimately, you gotta do what’s right for both of you and your relationship. But if you haven’t known the person and/or been in the relationship very long, I’d usually advise against making any sort of long-term or lifelong commitments. (The younger you are, the longer it’s usually better to wait.)
- Go through changes. This is the biggest reason giving it time is important. You’re both going to change over time because human beings aren’t static, nor are our circumstances. See how you both (and your relationship) respond to change, and whether the relationship has strengthened or you’ve grown apart. Life is only going to bring more changes, and it’s so, so important to make sure you’re ready to face them together.
- Take a trip together. Especially if you’re someone who wants to travel, I can’t understate the importance of this. Take a road trip, a flight, whatever. But see how you both handle stress, small spaces, and being around each other almost constantly for at least a few days.
- See how you handle being apart. I’m not suggesting everyone do long-distance (because honestly it sucks), but you should make sure that you can both handle being apart/talking less for several days or even a couple weeks, because co-dependency often carries a plethora of issues.
- Find out what things they do that bother you, and how you react, and vice versa. Everybody has little habits that aren’t your preference, from the way they load the dishwasher to dog-earing book pages instead of using a bookmark. If they’re minor, they’re likely things to figure out how to accommodate. If they really bother you (or your significant other), then have a conversation and see if you can come up with a solution you’re both happy with. If they’re big things, ask yourself whether they affect your commitment to the relationship and handle accordingly. But if you or your significant other jumps to overreacting or lashing out over small things, it’s time to at least reassess that reaction in light of everyone’s well-being, and possibly reassess the relationship.
- Love languages. It’s not a complete measure of a person, nor a full understanding of personality. But knowing how each of you gives and receives love best can minimize misunderstandings and make it easier to meet your significant other where they’re at in a way that’s meaningful to them.
- Make sure you’re best friends with the person. I don’t believe that your significant other should be your only best friend; that seems unhealthy more often than not. But before you commit to spending your life with them, make sure they’re someone you really love hanging out with.
- The work’s never done. Healthy relationships can be amazing. I am grateful beyond words for my fiancé, but that doesn’t mean we don’t encounter challenges. A healthy relationship shouldn’t feel like constant work, but it will require effort. And as you each change and grow (and your relationship does), adjusting to those changes will require efforts to shift as well.
- Outside help is always okay. Reading a book or seeing a counselor to improve your relationship is absolutely never anything to be embarrassed about — but it should be something you’re on the same page about trying before you sign up.
- That being said, don’t air all the dirty laundry. You don’t need to share every single detail of your relationship with friends or family. It’s still your guys’ business, and there are other aspects of your life you can talk about with loved ones.
- Give yourselves time alone. Not all of my plans or interests involve my significant other. Nor should they. He is absolutely my favorite person to spend time with, but we’re very intentional to set aside time that isn’t with the other person, whether we’re with other friends or alone.
- Communicate. I was an Interpersonal Communication major in college, and even with everything I learned, this is an area that constantly requires attention. Talk about how you talk to each other, through what methods, and how often. Talk about your days and your dreams for the future. Talk about silly things and important things. Talk about nothing. Get comfortable with silence. Talk in a way that gives each other space and respects their personhood. Talk about what’s bothering you, and what could be done better next time. Talk about your feelings. Talk about all of it.
*Some unhealthy relationships may feel too dangerous or risky to get out of. Please, please don’t let yourself remain stuck. Reach out to resources like The National Domestic Violence Hotline (phone number is 1-800-799-7233) or Womenshealth.gov.