This coming Friday will be two years since I married the man who is perfect for me. So, quite predictably, I have been taking several trips down memory lane to see where I used to be, and where I am today, relative to my increased understanding of healthy relationships. Recently, I came across an old diary entry that I wrote about the kind of guy I want to marry. I won’t go into the details of the FOUR page long list! Suffice to say, I would still be unhappily unmarried, frustrated and depressed that I am not in a happy, healthy relationship with the man of my dreams!
I wrote that list in 2004. Through education, graduate life, research and experience, I thankfully learned about real healthy relationships. Life in a way helped me shed a rather naive, certainly ignorant view of life. I only wish I had learned the truths about healthy relationships long before 2004!
So here is the truth: Science has known the truth behind healthy relationships for quite a few decades now! Yet, the reality of modern relationships is based on conflict, instability and short-term strategies. The five criteria necessary for healthy relationships are really simple. There are some people who argue that these rules only apply to “Western” cultures and societies. As an immigrant who has experienced multiple cultures on personal and professional levels, I have to respectfully disagree with these experts. It is true that these criteria came out of research in the social sciences on romantic relationships. I think however, that these criteria apply to all healthy relationships across the board – even in the business sector (that’s a soon to be published DCCG blog post!)
Here are the five criteria to create healthy, successful relationships in life:
Criterion #1 for Healthy Relationships: Proximity
This literally means Geographical Nearness. This is probably the most important criterion to establish and maintain healthy relationships. Even with the overabundance of online tools, the longest lasting healthy relationships we all have are with those who are geographically close to us.
This is human nature. Our species’ survival has been successful so far because of human beings’ Need to Belong. Our Need to Belong has evolved us into social beings who are depending on our ability to feel like we are members of social groups. We are also subject to another phenomenon called the Mere Exposure Effect: a tendency that humans have to start liking objects, entities, ideas and people to whom we have increased exposure. How many times have you found yourself surprised that you now like a song that you previously found annoying? This is because of the Mere Exposure Effect!
The combination of our Need to Belong and the Mere Exposure Effect makes geographical proximity critical for healthy relationships. Geographical nearness ensures the most important factor necessary to build healthy relationships: face-to-face interactions. Such real life interactions (as opposed to online), give us access to a whole spectrum of data about the other person that would otherwise be unavailable to us. Geographical proximity increases our exposure to the other people in the relationship, allowing us to assess things like facial expressions, body language, reflexive and instinctive behaviors, and a person’s overall demeanor. These are all very important pieces of information we would miss otherwise.
Research on married couples shows that people are more likely to date and/or marry their long-time neighbors, family friends or classmates, rather than completely unknown individuals. There are also millions of couples who once were or currently are in long-distance relationships who can attest to the importance of proximity for healthy relationships. Even those individuals who use online dating and matchmaking services report having greater preference, liking, and attraction towards potential partners who are geographically closer to them.
Criterion #2 for Healthy Relationships: Physical Attractiveness
This criterion is regarding the objective and perceived attractiveness that we feel towards the other person in the relationship. This attractiveness could be lustful, or it could be completely platonic. Regardless of intentions, the longest lasting healthy relationships have people where the physical attractiveness of both the individuals is more or less equal.
What does this mean? Assume there is a scale of attractiveness from one to ten, where one is the witch, Latrine, from the movie, Robin Hood: Men in Tights, and ten is Mister/Miss Universe. People in healthy relationships fall close teach other on this scale. If they don’t, it is usually due to some other factors which overcompensate for the mismatched attractiveness.
Take Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, for instance. They both match equally in attractiveness. Their relationship makes sense to most people. At least superficially, we can guess that they probably are in a healthy relationship. Now, let’s look at couples like the late Anna Nicole Smith and her partners, or Dennis Rodman and Carmen Electra, or the infamous relationships of Pamela Anderson with her bevy of exes. None of these couples were matched in their physical attractiveness. There were other factors which underplayed the role of attractiveness in this couples, namely, lots of money, publicity, fame and mental issues. We all know how these couples’ stories ended.
Think about you and your group of friends. If you are considered attractive, chances are that most if not all of your friends will be considered about as attractive as you are, more or less. Guess it is true that birds of a feather do flock together!
Criterion #3 for Healthy Relationships: Similarity
While geographical proximity gives the necessary exposure, and attractiveness ensures that there is a spark in the relationship, similarities in values, attitudes, behaviors and philosophies determine the sustainability of healthy relationships. Without similarities in these areas, it is incredibly tough to sustain healthy relationships. This is because of the differences in the kinds of love we experience in our relationships.
According to Dr. Hatfield and her colleagues, people experience two different kinds of love: passionate love — defined as a romantic longing for another person, which if unrequited, leads to heartbreak; and, companionate love — true liking for another person, also known as friendship. Now, with friends, it is obvious why similarities in values, attitudes, behaviors and philosophies are healthy and necessary. With friends, we mostly experience only companionate love.
With romantic partners, our situations get a little more complicated due to lustful or passionate love. Over the course of time, passion declines in the best of relationships. Companionate love however, increases from the beginning of a relationship throughout the course of its lifetime. How much our relationship can sustained is determined by the degree of companionate love we have for the other person. How much companionate love we have is ultimately dependent on how similar we are to the other person.
Criterion #4 for Healthy Relationships: Reciprocal Benefits:
No one gets into any kind of relationship if they are gaining absolutely nothing in return. From a purely economic or finance perspective, our investments in a relationship are based on the relationship’s projected ROI (Return on Investment). We gain something in some way: either financially, intellectually, or in terms of social status, independence, sense of belonging, or security.
Regardless of the type of gain, healthy relationships are those in which the individuals understand the mutual benefits and advantages, and deliver said benefits to each other. Evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology call this “reciprocal altruism“. This adaptive mechanism has ensured the survival and reproductive success of our species. Social psychology calls this the Reward Theory of Attraction. The theory posits that we tend to be attracted to relationships which either are or will be beneficial to us in some aspects of our lives.
In long, successful marriages we often hear individuals say that they bring out the best in each other, or that they complement each other really well, or that they are inspired by their spouses to be better versions of themselves. This is reciprocal altruism and reward theory in action! To put it in colloquial terms, if we want our relationships to prosper, we have to scratch each other’s backs quite often!
Criterion #5 for Healthy Relationships: Equity
The final criterion for all healthy relationships is the degree of equity perceived in the relationship. In this context, equity means fairness. The fairness of giving and receiving in our relationships determines how healthy they are.
The study of equity in relationships was derived from Adam Smith’s Equity theory, and brought over to relationship research by Dr. Hatfield and her colleagues. What they found was that people were the most satisfied, the happiest, and the most optimistic about the future of their relationships when everyone involved gave and received exactly as much as they FELT that they deserved. When one or more people felt that they were either giving or receiving too little, or too much, people’s happiness levels, satisfaction levels, and positive outlooks on the future of their relationships decreased significantly.
So, in order for our relationships to be equitable, the people involved have to feel that they are being treated fairly. Equity in this perspective has nothing to do with equality, equal division of chores and responsibilities, or even the equal division of our assets and liabilities. When we support our relationships in the ways they feel they deserve, and this is reciprocated back to us, we achieve an incredible amount of equity, happiness and sustainability in our relationships.
Every relationship we have can be assessed for its health using these five criteria. When we evaluate our relationships, we might find that we are lacking in some of these criteria. This does not automatically mean that our relationships are doomed. This just means that we have to implement a variety of techniques to improve our relationships’ health and stability. There are many, many ways in which long-term stability can be learned and practiced, but, more about those in a future post!