There are many self-help books on recognizing a bad relationship, repairing a struggling marriage, or recovering a broken one. Social media is filled with tips on how to spot a narcissist, how to notice the red flags in a new partner, and how to avoid old toxic relationship patterns. This shift to making mental health tools and relationship tips more accessible to anyone with a smartphone is an amazing thing and has helped countless people avoid and heal from toxic relationships.
However, as a couples therapist, I struggled to find a tool for my clients that focused, not just on the red flags of relationships, but that laid out clearly from the beginning how to seek and create a successful healthy relationship from day one. I wanted to find a guide map, a clear guide as to -not what would make one particular woman or man happy in a relationship- as we know, one size does not fit all, but something that laid out the basic tenets of a healthy, equal, modern relationship.
After doing a bunch of research, I broke the elements of a healthy relationship into a simple acronym: STRONG. These are the essential elements of modern healthy love.
SAFETY — without safety in a relationship, you don’t have healthy love. Sometimes love can be toxic! And the saying “all you need is love” is better as a song than as relationship advice. I’ve broken Safety down into four “essential S’s” that I use with clients to focus on skill building and tangible ways to embody safety in a healthy relationship. These S’s are Stability, Self-Regulation, Self-Expression, and Self-Awareness. Show up with these 4 S’s of Safety and you will show up as a safe and capable partner.
TRUST — trust issues are the core of so many dysfunctional couple’s issues. I would say that 80% of couples who present to couples’ therapy struggle with some form of betrayal or lack of trust in their partner. Trust is a major component of a healthy relationship and is the glue that holds couples’ together. However, trust is easily broken and hard to rebuild. Also, over time, it can create “emotional scar tissue” in a couple’s bond. Learning how to be a trustworthy partner will again, help you create a healthy, long-lasting love.
RESPECT — respect in a relationship is often a matter of negotiating boundaries and needs. However, many people do not have the skills or tools to talk about what they need in a relationship. This leads to crossed boundaries, miscommunications, misunderstanding, and needless and unproductive conflicts and power struggles. When you can talk about your differences, and be respectful of them so you can find a mutually respectful middle, love can thrive even through conflict and repair.
OPENNESS — change is the one thing that will be constant in a long-term relationship. When you are open to change, you will see opportunities for growth no matter what stage of life you are in. Resisting openness leads to stagnation and lack of curiosity, which will lead to boredom, restlessness, and can damage a relationship from the inside out. Couples who have stopped growing together often end up growing apart.
NURTURING — love is a garden that needs to be watered. So many people end up in a relationship that is starving for lack of attention and care. Our relationships are sometimes the one thing in life that we take for granted. We expect that they will continue on “autopilot” when instead they are atrophying from lack of nurturing. When a relationship dies, more often than not, there is no bringing it back. I’ve seen so many couples try to do a Hail Mary at the last minute and it’s often just too little too late. Nurturing your relationship from day one will keep it thriving and growing and expanding through the years.
GENEROSITY — this is the “magic ingredient” of a healthy relationship, but it is not the main ingredient. Sometimes when I look around at relationship tips on social media or random posts, I see the “golden rule” as the be all end all of healthy relationships. *If you’re not familiar with the golden rule, it’s the “do to others what you would want them to do to you.* However, you cannot start with generosity and form a healthy love from there. Starting with generosity sometimes sets people up to be taken advantage of or to end up in co-dependent cycles if the foundation isn’t there. Healthy love starts with a foundation of Safety and Trust and Respect. Generosity is like the cherry on the top. It makes everything sweeter, but you can’t exist on it alone.
This is what a STRONG love looks like. These are the green flags you can be and look for in a partner. When you show up as safe, trustworthy, respectful, open, nurturing, and generous, you will stand head and shoulders above any other option. You will be the highest value partner that anyone could ask for, and you will have all the skills and tools to have a healthy love, and build a long-lasting relationship.
Kristal DeSantis, LMFT, CCTP is the author of STRONG: A Relationship Field Guide for the Modern Man (available for pre-order November 2022)
Follow my instagram @atxtherapist or on TikTok @atx_therapist or visit my website: www.strong.love