When it comes to ranking the quality you most want in a mate, what’s at the top of your list? Research posing a version of this question to both men and women revealed the same answer: kindness. How to have a more healthy relationship begins with knowing what you want to receive but also benefits from knowing what you are willing to give. Each person enters a relationship with personal limitations, beliefs and boundaries. Finding healthy ways to negotiate your and your partner’s needs becomes the key difference in developing a happy lifelong love affair or having a fling that ends by the third date.
The science behind how to have a more healthy relationship
In the arena of love, there are three major neural systems that affect the health of any relationship: attachment, caregiving and sexual desire. How these modes operate within each partner – and synchronize between you – can either strengthen or weaken the union.
Attachment in love operates as an extension of the attachment style we develop as children. The secure style produces a well-balanced individual capable of both expressing his needs and recognizing (and filling) the needs of others. People who develop an anxious style of attachment are oversensitive and often clingy. The avoidant style of attachment produces individuals who protect themselves against painful feelings by suppressing them, effectively disconnecting themselves from the needs of others.
Caregiving offers the roots for providing a secure base (a sense of safety that frees up energy for tackling challenges and taking risks) for your partner. In the context of romance, this comes in two forms: creating a sense of protection for your partner and offering a safe refuge from which your partner can explore the world.
The neural wiring for desire differs between men and women in significant ways. For example, brain imaging reveals that arousal in men gazing at a picture of their beloved lights up the visual-processing centers of the brain. In women, this same activity lights up the centers for memory and attention. In the area of sex, low-road subcortical regions (those parts of your brain that are driven by instinct and emotion versus rational thought) tend to dominate romantic interactions in both sexes.
Recognizing that you have attachment, caregiving and desire in neural systems, plus how you can increase your connection in each area, can help you learn how to have a more healthy relationship at any stage of commitment.
Daily practices for how to have a more healthy relationship
According to marriage expert John Gottman, how well you and your partner meet each other’s most significant neural system needs predicts the likelihood of your relationship’s durability. The foundation for how to have a more healthy relationship lies in recognizing your and your partner’s dominant neural needs and collaborating to make sure each person’s needs are met. Simple ways to do this on a daily basis include:
Honestly acknowledge your own and your partner’s attachment styles.
Are you secure, anxious or avoidant? Identify ways your styles positively and/or negatively affect your interaction with each other. Then open a conversation about what would make things feel more comfortable for both of you.
Create a sense of fluid caregiving.
Let your partner know when, in what way and for what reason you feel the need for care. Then accept that care when it’s offered. Likewise, pay attention to those times your partner seems on edge, frustrated, unhappy, down or disturbed. Imagine what might make him or her feel better and create that experience. Healthy relationships see a balance of offering and receiving care.
Attune to each other’s differing sexual needs.
The differences in the areas of both physical activity and emotional connection can make a relationship exciting when they’re recognized, integrated and balanced. Identify what you each want and how you can offer each other the desired experience in ways that allow you both to feel whole, safe and respected. Making this kind of high-road (utilizing cognitive, decision-making parts of your brain) connection commitment can help to create a loop of personal space and attachment that keeps desire strong.
For both men and women, how to have a more healthy relationship relies on two integral traits. First, developing empathy allows you to better anticipate and experience the feelings of your partner. Second, exercising compassion allows you to be more (emotionally) available, sensitive and responsive to your partner’s needs. To have a more healthy relationship, you don’t need to be a mind reader. You just have to see that there’s a human being standing before you, someone who has needs – just as you do – and who potentially will be better able to salve your needs if you are doing the same in return.