5 Steps to a Healthy Relationship

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Even something as maddening as falling in love has a logic all its own. Learn the steps connecting ‘just met’ and ‘soulmates’ in the face of modern society and technology.

The process of building a healthy relationship can be confusing, frustrating, intimidating, and discouraging at times. Yet in therapy, it’s possible to map the flow of successful relationships and point out common stages, or steps, that couples go through on the way to long-term, mutually satisfying commitments.

I like to think of these steps as physical steps in a staircase. This image suggests that they are relatively fixed, and meant to be taken in a specific order, and at an even speed. I won’t deny that some successful couples describe histories that diverge greatly from the steps below, and yet I will insist that if an endeavor such as romantic love can be planned about at all, a good plan includes all of the following steps in the following order.

Step Zero: Discovery

So many people feel defeated before they even begin their quest for a mate. I describe this initial step as “step zero” to emphasize how effortless it can be. Step zero is simply becoming aware of the potential romantic partners around you.

In our hyper-networked age, this step is technically easier than ever before, yet often emotionally daunting. There are seemingly countless dating and socialization-specific sites, not to mention the standard social media outlets like Facebook and Google+. Friends and family can also lend a hand, but only if you let them know you’re looking, and even better, what sort of person you’re looking for.

Try Online Counseling: Get Personally Matched

Despite a desire to be in a relationship, people avoid step zero for a number of reasons. One of the most common is being emotionally attached to another person who, on deeper reflection, isn’t anywhere on this stairway, but nevertheless blocks the thought of looking elsewhere. For serious seekers, step zero is a broad searchlight sweeping across the dating landscape to highlight as many potential suitors as possible.

Step One: Making Contact

It’s no secret: this step can be a tough one, but it doesn’t need to be. If the object of your affections is a friend of a friend, or otherwise part of a common social network, name-dropping isn’t tacky, it’s reassuring to all concerned. Sometimes technology helps as well. Email, IM, or text messages are more impersonal and thus feel less risky. If it takes a smartphone to get a courtship off the ground, so be it.

At the same time, technology makes it possible, if not comfortable to get stuck on this step. Couples often text for weeks or months without meeting and this pattern has some serious drawbacks. When contact is mediated by screens, a lot gets lost in translation. Not only does this open the door for misunderstandings but it also plays into the natural human tendency to assume the best in our prospective romantic partners. Without more information, we can end up falling in love with a fantasy instead of the real person. That’s what makes it essential to move up to step two as quickly as possible.

Step Two: Face to Face

Because phone and computer-mediated communication are so pervasive, modern couples often delay meeting in person. Unfortunately there’s no way to assess the interpersonal chemistry essential to good pairing in an online chat session. Attraction is irrational, primal and perhaps even hinges on pheromones, necessitating a face-to-face encounter.

Meeting for the first time need not be so harrowing. Going out in a group or meeting as part of a social club can reduce the tension and maintain safety. The good news is that chemistry is usually immediately apparent. The popularity of speed dating is based on the ability to settle the question of attraction rapidly and before either partner has invested much into the relationship. Outside the speed dating circuit, it still makes sense to meet sooner rather than later.

Step Three: Deepening and Broadening

Past the first date, interested couples are in the business of learning as much as they can about each other. Successful relationships are bundles of shared interests and values that bind a couple together for more than drinks and dancing.

Much of premarital counseling is making sure this exploration has been done fully and honestly so as to minimize negative surprises down the line. I have yet to meet the perfect couple. Understanding the mismatches may be as important, if not more important, than knowing the ways in which two people match.

Step Four: Two Hearts, One Commitment

The understandings of step three ideally give way to a shared vision of how the relationship will move forward: perhaps towards sharing a home, or getting married, or having children. Making any of these milestones a reality requires a shared commitment between the partners. Even though reality has a way of confounding even the best plans, beginning with shared goals and agreements allows a couple to move forward together. In time, plans, goals and values will no doubt be questioned, reassessed and revised, yet the skills of making and keeping agreements is essential to any long-term relationship.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Pat Orner Oliver on .

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