Relationships are associations that bind people together. Whether intimate, platonic, positive or negative, relationships affect our lives in profound ways. Although it’s possible to live without close ties, many find the comfort and strength of having someone with whom they can share life’s ups and downs. The benefits of healthy, supportive relationships are well documented—they can add years to your lifespan, improve the quality of your life and help you cope with stress.
A relationship can be any kind of association between people, but is most often used to refer to a romantic relationship (i.e., emotional and physical intimacy, commitment and monogamy). However, it’s important to note that a relationship can take on a wide variety of forms, from marriage to casual dating to ethical nonmonogamy. The need for human connection seems to be innate, but the ability to form stable relationships is learned, and may begin in early childhood as an infant develops a trusting attachment with its primary caregiver.
Healthy, close relationships are characterized by mutual respect and a deep level of affection, trust and empathy. They also involve a balance of individual and shared responsibilities. People in these kinds of relationships feel safe to talk about difficult issues and they are able to resolve conflicts in a constructive manner. They don’t feel compelled to “keep score” or “have it out,” but rather, do things for each other because they genuinely care.
It takes a lot of work to maintain a good relationship, but the payoff can be immense. For example, a study has shown that people in happy relationships live longer than those who are alone or unhappy in theirs. Having strong ties with others can also make it easier to deal with loss and disappointment, and keep you motivated to pursue your goals in life.
In the earliest stages of a relationship, it’s common for feelings of intense passion and attachment to dominate. But over time, these emotions decline and a sense of compassion, trust, intimacy, and commitment become more important. This is when a couple truly becomes a team, sharing work responsibilities, household chores and raising children. They learn to balance their time together with the needs of each other and themselves, and they enjoy spending time in meaningful activities like sports or volunteerism.
Relationships can be messy and stressful, but they’re worth the effort. Life is full of waves—kids grow up and move away, obnoxious relatives join monasteries, jobs change, health problems arise—and you need to be there for each other when they come crashing down. That means riding the highs and surviving the lows—even when it feels like you’re talking to a brick wall.
It’s also about learning to communicate effectively and keeping clear boundaries that protect each person’s self-worth. Then, when the rough patches arrive, you’re able to stay resilient, focus on your strengths and appreciate the support that you receive from those who love you.