What does a healthy dating relationship look like?
When it comes to measuring physical health, doctors and nurses do all kinds of tests. They draw blood. They throw in a head-to-toe assessment. And they ask lots of questions.
When it comes to assessing the health of a dating relationship, here are three questions you can use—for your own relationship or to help a friend—to gauge how it’s going.
1. How do you handle conflict?
You might think that a healthy relationship is a conflict-free relationship. But that’s just not true. Jumble together our God-given human complexity, romantic sparks, and a whole bundle of expectations and you have a perfect recipe for conflict. Date long enough and be honest enough with each other and you’ll find out this truth.
Conflict is unavoidable in relationships. But there are healthy ways to handle conflict.
In Difficult Conversations, a group of experts from Harvard Law School make the case that one of the key elements to peacefully resolving conflict is to talk about “contribution” instead of “blame.”
Here’s how it works: Imagine you and your boyfriend or girlfriend are experiencing conflict about how much time you spend on the phone with each other every day (a common experience in long-distance relationships). In a healthy relationship, you try to figure out how you each are contributing to the problem. You might own up to your slightly unreasonable expectations. They might own up to their selfish use of time. You as a couple work together to get on the same page and resolve the conflict.
When couples get entrenched in playing the blame game, however—when every conflict becomes an exercise to find who is at fault, and when pointing fingers replace open hands—that’s a clear sign that a relationship is unhealthy.
How did you handle your last conflict? Do you tend to talk about blame or contribution?
2. Who else do you hang out with?
Every couple has moments where they just want to be alone, to gaze into each other’s eyes and let time slip away. But the Christian life is life lived in community. Whether you’re dating, engaged, or married, you need a company of friends around you if you’re going to flourish.
Having friends in common shows that you like and get along with some of the same people. It shows that people are willing to hang out with you as a couple. And it helps you get to know the person you’re dating at a deeper level.
This last idea is very significant. C. S. Lewis explains it well in The Four Loves:
In each of my friends there is something that only some other friend can fully bring out. By myself I am not large enough to call the whole man into activity; I want other lights than my own to show all his facets.
There’s a side to the person you’re dating that will only come out around other people. You can’t bring it to the surface yourself. Whatever it is may be beautiful or it may be ugly, but it’s hidden from you as long as your relationship exists in isolation.
On top of this, the person you’re dating should bring out good and beautiful elements of your personality. Your friends should enjoy hanging out with you together because your boyfriend or girlfriend brings to the surface a part of you that the rest of your friends don’t always get to see.
If you don’t have friends in common, watch out.
When was the last time you hung out with other people as a couple? How did it go?
3. Where are you headed?
Every relationship is headed somewhere because every person is headed somewhere. You’re headed somewhere. The person you’re dating is headed somewhere. Have you thought about it?
The possibility of marriage hangs in the air whenever Christians date. We are a commitment-making people. But it can feel uncomfortable to talk about this when you’re dating. You don’t want to rush things. You don’t want things to get too serious too quickly. You don’t want to put pressure on the person you’re dating.
I understand that. Take your time. Enjoy the moment.
But pay attention.
In a healthy relationship, a couple will make sure, as the relationship continues, that they’re still headed the same direction. Big plans get talked about. Dreams get shared. You get included and you include. This is what it means to truly be together.
This common direction extends beyond the typical pre-marital conversations about how you spend your money and how many kids you’d like to have. It extends into your spiritual life as well.
Healthy couples are headed in the same direction spiritually. You don’t have to agree on everything, but if you want a healthy relationship, you have to agree on the big things: faith and Jesus and his role in our lives. If you’re headed toward God—growing in love for him—and the person you’re dating is headed a different direction, your relationship may not be healthy.
Where are you headed? Where is the person you’re dating headed?
A Better Relationship
What if you ask these questions and your relationship doesn’t do so well?
Get out of that relationship.
That sounds harsh. But getting out of that relationship doesn’t necessarily mean breaking up. It might mean replacing “that relationship” for a “healthy relationship” with the same person. Maybe you just need to work on it.
Or maybe you do need to break up.
If that’s the case, don’t be afraid. Pursuing health in your dating relationship will pay off for the rest of your life. It will deeply impact all of your other relationships, even your relationship with God. And what could be more important than that?
Steve Tamayo serves as the Associate Director of Strategy for LaFe, InterVarsity’s Latino Fellowship, and as a Digital Media Specialist for InterVarsity's Multiethnic Initiatives. He’s married to Amy and together they have four children and lots of adventures. You can find him on Twitter at @yostevetamayo.