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Foundations of healthy romantic relationships

Why are healthy relationships important?

We are inherently social beings. Across the course of our lifetime, we form a multitude of relationships, be those familial, platonic, romantic, or sexual. However, the process of forming healthy relationships is a subject that many of us have received little to no formal education on. This is reflected in the reforms made to the provision of SRE (Sex and Relationship Education) in the New Curriculum for Wales, set to be rolled out in 2022. The subject will be renamed RSE (Relationship and Sex Education), in order to centralise the discussion of healthy relationships in the teaching of the subject, in line with guidance from the World Health Organisation.

Healthy relationships are massively important in terms of our emotional health and wellbeing. They help us to navigate our problems and stressors, and to overcome challenges and adversities. Everyone deserves and is entitled to healthy relationships. It is vital that we are empowered with the tools and knowledge to be able to discuss and identify healthy and unhealthy patterns of behaviour. This post will focus specifically on the universal identifiers of a healthy romantic and sexual relationship, but the principles can be applied to all our relationships.

Mutual trust:

Healthy relationships are built on mutual trust. A trusting relationship is one where you don’t feel the need to constantly ‘check in’ with the other person or exert controlling behaviour over them. This behaviour may include checking a partner’s phone or social media, incessantly calling or texting them when they’re out, or following them. These behaviours can be a manifestation of jealousy and paranoia, which are rooted in insecurity and mistrust, and are not conducive to a healthy relationship. Jealousy can escalate into more controlling behaviour and may lead to isolation from family, friends and loved ones.

If a partner is behaving this way, this is not love, this is control.

In a relationship built on mutual trust you should feel you have the space and freedom to exist as an independent person from your partner, and in turn you should give your partner this same space and freedom. You should both be able to love the things and people you loved before the relationship, and should both feel trusted and safe.

Mutual respect:

All trusting relationships are built on mutual respect. Respecting your partner is all about acknowledging and celebrating their independent existence. You should be respectful of their time, space, friends, family, work, hobbies, and ambitions; and in return your partner should be respectful of yours. If a partner is constantly belittling you or your achievements, humiliating you or making you compromise or suppress any part of who you are, this is a form of emotional abuse called coercive control. Coercive control is employed by abusers to make you feel insecure and therefore dependent on them and isolated from loved ones.

If someone is behaving in this way, this is not love, this is control.

Simply put, love should feel good. Your partner should make you feel secure, confident, and loved. They should celebrate and allow you to be your most authentic self. A healthy relationship is a source of support and empowerment and you should feel like you and your partner are on the same team.

Boundaries:

Trust and respect are shown through respecting each other’s physical and emotional boundaries. Setting these boundaries is important because it makes it clear to your partner who you are, what you want, your beliefs, values, and limits. Boundaries are incredibly individual and will vary based on each person’s experience, circumstances etc.

When your boundaries are being respected, you will feel comfortable with the pace at which intimacy is progressing in your relationship.

Whilst people will have different boundaries, a universal boundary in sexual relationships is ensuring that all sexual acts are consensual for all individuals involved. Affirmative consent is ‘a knowing, voluntary, and mutual decision among all participants to engage in sexual activity’. Consent can be given through words or actions but these words and actions must make it clear that the person is giving explicit permission to engage in sexual activity. It must be given every time you engage in sexual activity. Just because a person has consented to engage in sexual activity before, does not mean you can assume their consent for future sexual activity. It must be given and not assumed. If your partner ever tries to manipulate or coerce you into engaging in unwanted sexual activity, this is sexual assault. In a healthy relationship, you should be able to say no, without fear of consequences.

Communication:

Open and honest communication is fundamental to healthy relationships because it’s the way you let your partner know what your boundaries are. In a healthy relationship you should feel comfortable and safe communicating your feelings, needs and wants to your partner, without fear of repercussions. What makes a relationship healthy and happy, to an extent, will be based on your own and your partner’s specific boundaries. These boundaries may shift and change over the timeline of a relationship, and that’s why it’s so important to engage in an ongoing, open dialogue with your partner.

If there is ever a time that you are finding it hard to trust a partner or feeling that a partner is exhibiting possessive or jealous behaviour, you should be able to have an honest discussion with them. If you ever feel your partner is behaving in a disrespectful way, you should be able to communicate this with them.

In every relationship it is inevitable that there will be disagreements, arguments, or moments of conflict. It is how you respond to and work through conflict that is important. If, when expressing your feelings to a partner, they try to minimise your feelings, accuse you of overreacting, lying or ‘acting crazy’, this is gaslighting.

Gaslighting is when an individual attempts to make you question your sanity, in order to gain power over a situation.

It is a form of emotional abuse and an indicator of an unhealthy relationship. If they express volatile, aggressive, or violent behaviour, this is also a form of abuse. In a healthy relationship you should be able to navigate these moments of conflict together, calmly, and rationally. It involves listening to how the other feels and being willing to accept accountability, apologise and modify behaviour.

Equality:

Ultimately, a healthy relationship is one based on equality and shared power, where neither person has authority over the other. The need for power and control is a characteristic shared by all abusers and motivates unhealthy and abusive behaviour. In a healthy relationship you should feel that, even though you are in a partnership, you still have ultimate autonomy over your own life and body. You should be able to make your own decisions about how you spend your money and your time, and you should never feel pressured or forced to fit your partner’s ideal of who they want you to be.

A healthy relationship will only enrich your already full life, and should make you feel happy, safe and loved.

If you recognise any unhealthy patterns of behaviour in your relationship, you can access support from Cardiff Women’s Aid.

– Call us, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, on 02920 460 566.

– Text us, Monday to Friday 9am – 7pm and weekends 9am – 4.30pm on 07727 462 793.

– Our webchat is available Monday to Friday, 9am – 4pm, at rise-cardiff.cymru

– You can arrange a convenient time for a video chat by emailing reception@rise-cardiff.cymru. You can also use this email address to access support via email if you’d prefer.

– Access to peer support is available via our online survivors’ forum. To request to join, email SHOUT@cardiffwomensaid.org.uk

– Join our free SHOUT workshops for women, to find out more, email SHOUT@cardiffwomensaid.org.uk

Author: Bethan Gilson, CWA volunteer blogger

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