In Our Shoes: What is considered a healthy relationship?

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — No one gets along all the time, said Colleen Clark Lay, a licensed clinical social worker and therapist who runs a private practice in Steamboat Springs.

But what constitutes a healthy relationship? And what are the warning signs a relationship is not healthy, or even dangerous?

Even in argument, there are healthy ways to communicate, and addressing disagreement in a relationship is crucial, Clark Lay said. It does not benefit either party to let discontent and differences fester, build and become attached to other issues.

“It’s always important not to avoid an issue,” she said. “Ignoring issues does not mean they go away.”

Being able to explain how you feel and what you need can be far more effective than blaming and being defensive, Clark Lay said. 

And when it comes to listening, Clark Lay said it helps to learn how to “sort through and get the pieces of information you need in order to meet your partner’s needs.”

Clark Lay sees every partnership as having three components: you, them and the relationship.

“It isn’t all about one partner, and it isn’t about only the relationship,” Clark Lay said. “All three components need nurturing and attention. If you get into a relationship and lose yourself, it creates more conflict and unhappiness.”

Balance must be found, she advised, and time and energy spent on all three components.

Graphic by Bryce Martin

There are basics for healthy relationships that cross all relationships, said Marnie Christensen, program director and volunteer coordinator for Advocates of Routt County.

Christensen said, in a healthy relationship, each person should be able to express what they are and are not comfortable with — and not just when it comes to sex.

Things that should be omitted from arguments, Clark Lay said, include name-calling, physical threats against one’s self or their partner and threats to end the relationship with no intent to follow through.

If it gets heated, take time to chill out and revisit the disagreement later, advises Christensen.

“Both sides need to allow for that to happen,” she said.

Red flags, Clark Lay said, can come on a spectrum.

A person’s need for control is one of the biggest of those red flags, and that can manifest itself in a variety of ways.

This may come in the form of someone telling you how to dress or act, said Clark Lay, or telling you that you can’t spend time with friends or go places.

“There are signs long before someone grabs you by the wrist or punches you in the face,” she said.

Typically, sexual abuse and assault are more about power and control than sex itself.

“Sex is the tool used to gain power over another person,” writes Lyn Yonack, a psychoanalyst and psychotherapist, in Psychology Today.

Both Clark Lay and Christensen point to the “Power and Control Wheel” as a valuable tool to identify when this might be happening in a relationship.

“An unhealthy relationship can be very narrow and isolating,” Christensen said. “If one side is feeling jealousy or feeling threatened, they need to be able to communicate that in an appropriate way.”

There can also be a lot of emotional and verbal abuse, she said. One person may be tearing down their partner’s self esteem, and making someone feel bad about themselves can make them more dependent, she added.

It’s also important to remember that no two relationships look alike, said Patty Oakland, a forensic nurse who also serves as social change advocate for Advocates of Routt County. 

“Healthy relationships look different in different cultures,” Oakland said.

To reach Kari Dequine Harden, call 970-871-4205, email or follow her on Twitter @kariharden.

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