In a world where we have become available 24/7, maintaining healthy relationships and a strong social support network can be more challenging than it seems.
With social media, it’s a common mistake to think that we have plenty of friends. Only to find out there are very few people we can rely on in times of crisis. That’s ok, we don’t need 500 friends, we just need 5 really good people that will be there for us through thick and thin.
Moreover, having that support network is crucial for our mental health. Knowing that we have people in our corner enables us to feel more confident about life. It is even linked to lower rates of anxiety and depression and increased longevity.
If you’re unsure whether a relationship is healthy or toxic, my first advice is to follow your gut advice. Still, if you need to gain some perspective, see below for the six characteristics of healthy relationships.
Why are healthy relationships important?
There’s plenty of evidence linking relationships to mental and physical health. When we have healthy relationships our general health is higher, we tend to have healthier habits and have a decreased mortality risk.
That is why taking the time to evaluate our relationships, whether with friends or family, is important. Just because we have been hanging out with someone since high school doesn’t mean it’s a positive relationship.
We are allowed to prioritize the people that are good for us and set boundaries or even end friendships (gasp!) with the negative elements in our life.
And remember, we don’t choose our family but we can choose to set limits. No law says we must bear toxic parents or nagging relatives. We are adults, we can say “no.”
5 benefits of healthy relationships
It’s no coincidence that having healthy relationships is crucial for our health. Social well-being is one of the five dimensions of holistic health. When our relationships aren’t nourishing us, or our social interactions are taxing, our emotional well-being is affected and in turn our physical health.
In addition to being important for our social wellness, healthy relationships have tremendous benefits:
1. Healthy relationships are good for our personal growth
Knowing we have someone that believes in us and cheers us on is incredibly impactful. Having someone that supports us during life’s ups and downs is a source of comfort and strength.
It enables us to feel more self-assured, try new experiences and step out of our comfort zone.
It’s especially evident when we observe kids. When parents are supportive and encouraging, kids are more daring, willing to try more things, and more self-confident. It works the same with grown-ups.
2. We get a sense of purpose and meaning
Feeling that we are needed, and useful and that we have a positive impact on the world is important for our sense of purpose. We are part of something greater than ourselves when we give freely and ask for nothing in return.
Healthy relationships are a two-way street. For them to work, we must give as freely as we receive, or support and cheer as much as the other person needs it. In turn, that contentment of being there for others will feed our sense of purpose and meaning.
What’s more, providing social support may be more beneficial than receiving it. A 2003 study showed that being there for others has a positive impact on our health and life expectancy.
Related: 4 ways to find your sense of purpose
3. Healthy relationships help us cope with stress
Talking with a friend or sharing a laugh are just some of the many ways healthy relationships can help us manage our stress.
Since stress is an important factor in both physical and mental health – from a lowered immune system to increased heart disease risk – it makes friendships all the more valuable.
Having positive relationships is such a strong factor in mental well-being that it can even reduce depression, and increase longevity. Following the same train of thought, a 2016 study showed that healthy social support can help deal with PTSD and substance abuse.
4. Our social support network grows naturally
When we surround ourselves with people we trust and can count on, we build our support system. We all need to know that there are people who will be there for us in times of crisis and whom we can depend on.
Whether we are trying to achieve our goals or are going through a crisis, with a support network we feel stronger, because we know we aren’t alone. This enables us to have more self-confidence and to be more courageous and daring.
When we have loved ones in our corner we don’t fear failure as much, because we feel appreciated for our qualities and we believe in ourselves more. It’s almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because others are confident in our abilities, then we become an even better version of ourselves.
5. We become more resilient
Stress and anxiety can’t always be avoided. These negative emotions are a part of life and in a way a necessary evil. However, how we cope with stress and show resilience to it can have a tremendous effect on our mental and physical well-being.
Resilience is like a muscle. We can train our ability to deal with anxiety and crises better. In turn, we become stronger in a psychological sense.
Having a support network is one of the factors that can help us become more resilient. That’s why nourishing our friendships and giving them the attention they deserve is important. With solid friendships, we have a stronger social support network.
Related: 7 ways to build your resilience
6 characteristics of healthy relationships
There’s no strict definition of what constitutes a healthy relationship because we all have different needs and expectations from our social connections.
Nonetheless, here are six characteristics of a healthy relationship in contrast to a toxic one. If you are questioning if your relationships are positive and nourishing, then analyzing them through the lens of these six traits can help you gain perspective.
Whether it’s romantic or platonic, trust is one of the foundations of a healthy relationship. Trust is something that needs to be gained for many of us. If we have been misled in the past, it can be harder to trust. Yet we also need to give some benefit of the doubt to new relationships or we won’t be able to let others close to us.
Building trust is both emotional and practical. It gets tested and grows over time, but isn’t necessarily linear.
When we trust someone we can be our true selves with them, which is essential for the other five characteristics of healthy relationships as well.
Our friends and family don’t need to know everything about us. Nonetheless, whatever we choose to share, it’s imperative that we feel safe and comfortable doing so. If we can’t be our true selves with the people closest to us, then we can’t be honest with them.
This is what honesty is about. It’s not having to pretend to be someone else.
Reversely, when we aren’t being true and put on an act, it can come across as fake and disingenuous. Making people feel like we lack honesty and therefore not trusting us.
Following honesty very closely, respect is about allowing that space for the people around us to have their differences of opinions and personal choices without feeling judged.
Typically, we become friends with people who share similar traits or values, but what about family members or people we care about deeply but have fundamentally different views? We don’t usually learn to make space for disparaging opinions. Nevertheless, respect is something we need to share for a healthy relationship.
We can disagree, and explain our views, but at the end of the day, if we value the other person, we must respect their perspective as well.
We can’t be friends with someone we don’t like. Even if it’s a relative, there needs to be that little grain of love for us to nourish a healthy relationship where each person feels support and respect.
This isn’t about love with a capital L. Rather it’s about appreciation and gratitude. Accepting others for who they are and appreciating their qualities.
When we’ve known someone for a long time, even the happiest of relationships will have their share of conflict and arguments. That’s alright.
In the last few years, differences of opinion have sometimes created rifts between friends and relatives. Worse, mainstream media has sometimes tried to deepen the divide with articles like “How to encourage skeptical family members to get the COVID vaccine, according to a brain science expert” (Business Insider). Effectively, branding those with a different opinion as bad.
Nonetheless, if there’s mutual trust and respect, then we can honestly communicate differences of opinion without trying to convince the other.
Resolving conflict with clear and open communication can strengthen our bond in a healthy relationship.
Healthy relationships typically result in social support networks that are made solid because they go both ways.
When we are part of a support network, there are no keeping scores. We don’t count what we give and we know that it won’t always be equal, but that over time it will balance out.
We expect others to be there for us and likewise, we will be there to help, listen and support them when they need us.
- We don’t need a lot of people in our life to build strong social support networks.
- Having healthy relationships is good for our mental and physical health and typically results in solid social support networks.
- Benefits of healthy relationships include:
- Personal growth
- Developing a sense of purpose
- More agility coping with stress
- Stronger social support network
- Being more resilient in the face of adversity
- There’s no strict definition of a healthy relationship. However, there are 6 characteristics that distinguish a healthy from a toxic relationship.