Life can be difficult and for those who participate in romantic relationships, knowing what is safe versus what could be dangerous is not always clear. Darin Knapp is an assistant professor of practice in the school of family and consumer sciences, each year he teaches a course called FSHD 427: Problems in Adult Development and Relationships. As February is the month of Valentine’s Day as well as Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month, we asked him a few questions about romantic relationships, warning signs and the influence from families.
Q: What is your definition of a "healthy romantic relationship"?
A: A healthy romantic relationship is one in which both partners feel emotionally connected, invested, and committed to each other, and where each partner has their own personal needs fulfilled as well as contributes to the fulfilling of the others’ needs. It’s a relationship in which each person likes who they are as an individual when they’re with the other person.
Too often, people assume that compatibility and a romantic “spark” are the main components to relationship health. While those things are definitely important, I believe that thinking of some of these other factors like commitment and emotional connection helps us remember that relationships are choices, and that we can learn skills to improve them—a “healthy romantic relationship” isn’t just something that some couples have and others do not, it is something that can be achieved by most couples if they are willing to put in effort.
Q: What warning signs should people look out for in a relationship?
A: It is usually a good idea to watch out for aggression in any form (from your partner or from yourself), as aggression in relationships can sometimes lead to unhealthy conflict, stress, and potential violence. It’s also important to watch out for problematic relationship dynamics like toxic fighting that goes unresolved, putting each other down, manipulation and controlling behavior, and forcefulness.
Q: In your class, FSHD 427A: Problems in Adult Development and Relationships, what do students find the most surprising or intriguing?
A: In this class, we talk about a lot of different issues that are extremely relevant for students because we learn about how issues like infidelity, depression, anxiety, trauma, grief, addiction, and more affect relationships. Since so many students have firsthand experience with some of these issues themselves or within their social circles, they are intrigued as we learn about how families can navigate challenges and seek different treatment options. Infidelity in couple relationships is always one of the most popular topics of the semester.
When we discuss infidelity, we do a lot of applied work where we examine case studies of different couples and analyze factors that may have led to an affair occurring, the impact the affair has on the couples’ life together, and how couples can move forward (together or separately) after an affair occurs.
Students have also been very interested to learn about suicide risk assessment and prevention, because many of them have had personal experience with friends or loved ones who have struggled with those thoughts and want to know more about what to do to support those who may be at risk for harming themselves.
Q: Can/How does family affect a romantic relationship?
A: Our families often provide us “blueprints” for what we hope our future relationships look like, and we use those blueprints as we construct our own romantic relationships. Depending on the family you grew up with, your blueprint for a romantic relationship is going to look very differently from another person’s blueprint.
Recognizing that families shape our expectations for and behaviors in romantic relationships is important, because then we can try to emphasize parts of the blueprint that we want to replicate in construction of our own romantic relationships, and leave out some parts of the blueprint that we want to exclude from our own relationship construction. There are many ways in which family affects romantic relationships, and I would encourage any person who is in a relationship or hopes to be someday to take a class about this topic—educating yourself about relationships is a great way to ensure that you have more information to add to your relationship blueprint!
Q: Is there a "right length of time" to progress to different stages in a relationship?
A: Interestingly, I think in some ways it’s easier to talk about the “wrong length of time” to progress to different stages in a romantic relationship. Many couples that I’ve worked with have told me that they wished they had taken more time to get to know each other and deepen their relationship before they made serious relationship decisions, but I have yet to hear any couple say that they wish they had sped things up romantically.
Sometimes people forget that it’s okay to be a little picky about timing in a romantic relationship because they want to please their partners, or because they feel pressure to be in a relationship in the first place. But these relationships are important, so it’s important for each person to feel ready for what’s next! Taking adequate time to examine all the different parts of a relationship is okay, and can help couples feel like they have a really solid foundation from which their relationship can continue to expand. Partners that value each other’s comfort level with relationship progression are likely going to be much better off than those who pressure each other into moving forward. Healthy, open communication is a part of any solid romantic connection, and each person should have an equal voice when communicating about what the “next stage” is and when the couple progresses together.
Q: From your research, what are your top 3 tips for a healthy relationship?
A: While a romantic relationship can look very different from couple to couple and still be very healthy, there are definitely some factors that contribute to a “healthy romantic relationship” across the board, and I’ll touch on three that I have experience with in my own research and my own clinical experience.
First, keep your relationship emotionally safe: it’s important for both people to feel cared about by the other, to feel supported by the other, and to have trust in each other, so that each partner can express personal thoughts and emotions without fear of being shamed by the other. Emotionally safe relationships are ones in which partners value each other and express that to each other frequently, in meaningful ways.
Second, put specific effort into your relationship. Sometimes couples will ease up on showing overt investment in their relationship or their partner once the relationship feels “established” or “comfortable”, and some of the behaviors that were such a big part of bringing partners together may decrease or even stop. However, it’s important to keep on using relationship-enhancement strategies to help your relationship remain healthy. Never underestimate the power of date night, a love note, a small act of kindness for your partner, or showing your affection for your partner in other ways. These kinds of behaviors show your partner that you’re putting effort into the relationship, which often demonstrates how much you value your partner and your relationship.
Third, resolve your conflicts in a healthy way. That sounds cliché, but healthy conflict resolution is an important part of any interpersonal relationship, especially a romantic one. Sometimes people think that avoiding conflict is better than having an argument, but a lot of research shows that the way a couple argues or fights is more influential on their relationship satisfaction than the number of fights they have. So don’t shy away from conflict, and make sure that you’re using your best conflict-resolution skills to reach compromises and find solutions that make sense for both partners.