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What every teen needs to know about healthy and unhealthy relationships

Teaching teenagers how to identify the difference is just as important as the mechanics of sex ed


Alison Macklin
March 28, 2019 8:00PM (UTC)
Excerpted from "Making Sense of 'It': A Guide to Sex for Teens (and Their Parents, Too!)" by Alison Macklin, Vice President of Education and Innovation at Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains (Viva Editions, 2018). Reprinted with permission of Viva Editions.

Healthy Relationships

A healthy relationship means that you have respect for the other person and the other person has respect for you. Respect means that you value each other, listen to each other, compromise, help each other, and treat the other person like you want to be treated. A healthy relationship means that both of you are equally invested in the relationship. It doesn’t mean you don’t fight, but it depends on how you fight. Do you listen to one another’s points? Really listen and not just try to think of what you’re going to say in return? Do you both make compromises? Do you forgive each other and not hold a grudge? Fighting is totally normal in a relationship and fights are never fun, but if you and your partner have a healthy relationship, you will both grow from the disagreement and you will both work to see each other’s point of view, forgive each other, and talk things out calmly and respectfully. People involved in a healthy relationship don’t hit each other when they fight. They do not disrespect each other by calling each other names or putting each other down.

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Respect in a romantic relationship also means that each of you recognizes that you both have valid feelings and can have different needs, and that those needs are equally important and valued. It means that when you need space or time apart, you get it (and give it). A healthy romantic relationship means that you support each other and build each other up, not tear each other down. A healthy relationship is one where you respect and honor each other’s boundaries, including sexual boundaries.

A healthy relationship is also one in which you and your partner trust each other. But what does that mean, to trust someone? Well, do you feel safe with the person? Do you feel like they believe in you (and you believe in them)? Keep in mind, relationships don’t instantly have trust. Trust is something that is built over time. Sure, you might have a gut instinct that you can trust a person (and often that gut instinct is right on), but trust is built over time. In order to say you’re in a trusting relationship, it must be something that both of you feel and are invested in.

When you’re thinking about your relationship and trying to assess whether there is a foundation of trust, think about whether or not you feel heard and supported. Is your partner there for you? Maybe not physically, but emotionally? Do they have your back? What about you? Are you there for them? Do you support your partner? If your relationship is healthy then you can rely on them to be a safe and supportive person no matter what.

Building trust can happen by talking (and listening) to each other. It is linked to respect, because you can respect each other’s points of views and trust that, the other person won’t judge you or belittle you for your views. Trust is developed after going through various experiences together and demonstrating your respect in various situations. If there isn’t trust in a relationship, partners can feel insecure and/or jealous. Sure, these types of feelings are pretty normal to have, even in a healthy relationship. But be wary, if that jealousy or insecurity is pervasive, or it starts to impact how you relate to one another, that can be a warning sign that something unhealthy is happening.

In order to build trust in a relationship, you and your partner need to be honest with each other. Honesty means that you tell each other the truth. You tell them what you like and don’t like in a respectful way. You’re up front about things, you don’t make your partner guess. While telling the truth can be intimidating and scary, it shouldn’t be something you’re afraid of. You shouldn’t fear that your partner will hurt you or make you feel like less of a person. If you tell the truth and your partner isn’t receptive (as in they react violently or become emotionally of mentally abusive) don’t ignore that red flag as it could mean that your relationship isn’t healthy.

Honesty also means that you admit when you’re wrong or make a mistake and know that your partner will forgive you (not hold it against you for later). I know, it’s hard to admit when you’re wrong or make a mistake. But if you don’t own it with your partner, it’s going to mean that your relationship isn’t built on honesty, and it will erode the trust in your relationship. No one is right all the time (even though we would like to be). Be humble enough to admit it.

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Another foundation of a healthy relationship is equality. Both you and your partner should be showing up equally to the relationship. It should be 50/50. Sure, that balance might shift if one of you is going through a rough patch and needs a little extra support, but in order to have a healthy relationship, both of you need to come to it equally.

Decisions should be made with both of you providing input. This goes for decisions that are small, like where you’re going to eat or what movie you’re going to see, or bigger decisions, like those that involve sex. Is it okay if your partner wants to surprise you with a date they planned? Of course! But there are times when surprises aren’t okay—like when it comes to being sexual. Defining what you’re going to do together sexually is for both of you to decide—equally. Same goes for contraception and STI transmission prevention. You and your partner need to come to a decision together on what method(s) you’re going to use. You are both equally at risk, so take on the responsibility together. Additionally, people in healthy relationships know how to compromise and live with that compromise.

Not all of these things are easy. In fact, they can be really hard. Good communication is critical. You have to be able to talk about, well, all the things. A healthy relationship is one where you can talk about your feelings and work through disagreements. Especially when it comes to boundaries and sex. You might be ready to do one thing sexually but your partner isn’t. In a healthy relationship, you might be upset or disappointed that you aren’t both ready to do the same things, but you respect that you are at different places with regards to sex and together work to find a compromise—something you’re both comfortable doing. People in a healthy relationship don’t guilt their partner or make them feel bad (or force them) to do something sexually if they aren’t ready.

Suggestions to Make Your Relationship Great

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  • Be confident in who you are. You are great. Truly. Show yourself some love. When you love yourself, you are able to be a better partner to another person.
  • Help your partner know how great they are (and expect your partner to do the same for you). Seriously, you really like each other, right? Let them know!
  • Talk about sex. Talk about what you like, what you don’t like, how you’re going to stay safe, and what your boundaries are.
  • Listen to each other. Especially when you’re expressing your feelings. They are both important and valid.
  • Be honest with each other.
  • Don’t be afraid to spend time apart and have independent activities and friends. In fact, this can bring some diversity to the relationship and make it exciting
  • and interesting.
  • Forgive each other.

Unhealthy Relationships

You’re in an unhealthy relationship if you’re not being respected, or if you are being physically or mentally abused. No one tries to start an unhealthy relationship. Why would they? If the person you were thinking of getting into a relationship with treated you badly at the start of the relationship, why would you get into a relationship with them?

The lack of respect and poor treatment typically starts very slowly and usually in a way you might not notice, or would easily forgive. It might also begin with you second-guessing whether “it was really that bad” (whatever “it” might be). Likely your partner will be immediately remorseful or feel bad about what happened and assure you that it will never happen again. It might even feel good that someone could get that passionate about you or that jealous or upset over something that involves you! And if this happens on occasion, it’s probably not an unhealthy relationship—no relationship is perfect. But if you see this as a repeated pattern and it happens in conjunction with some of the following behaviors, you want to talk to you parents and friends about it—they can help you figure out what to do.

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Unhealthy relationships are often also referred to as abusive relationships. But don’t get hung up on the vocabulary; think about how the relationship makes you feel. If you don’t feel good about yourself when you’re with the other person, it probably isn’t healthy. Abuse is often thought of as something physical that happens, and being physically hurt is never okay. If you have been or are being physically hurt by your partner, get help. But abuse isn’t always physical. It can be mental and emotional.

Emotional and mental abuse can be much harder to pick up on because they are often subtler. This type of abuse can show itself in many ways. You know how we talked about it kind of feeling good when a partner gets jealous? Well, that can be taken too far. Like if a partner doesn’t want you to spend time with anyone else because they only want you to be with them. Or they need you to be there for them all the time. You turn into their only source of, well, anything. Like, if you want to break up, they threaten to kill themselves or, if you want to go out with your friends (without them), they say that you have ruined their night because they won’t have any fun without you.

Someone who is emotionally or mentally abusive will also belittle you and your feelings. Saying things like, “you’re just too sensitive!” or, when something is going wrong, you “just need to get over it!” If it was a healthy relationship, your partner would support your feelings and help you process them, not make you put them aside or say they don’t matter.

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We already talked a little bit about the fact that a partner who is controlling might demand all your time, but they will also want to check your phone, know who you’re talking to via phone or text, question where you are, and check up on you to make sure you’re where you say you are.

Another sign of an unhealthy relationship is that you’ll find that your partner is slowly changing who you are. For example, if your partner doesn’t like your friends, you may find that you stop seeing your friends. Or maybe you have always played basketball and now that you’re with this person you stop playing because they say it takes too much time away from them. Remember, if it’s a healthy relationship, your partner will celebrate and support your interests, not make you stop being who you are.

Finally, if you’re in an unhealthy relationship, you may find that your goals in life begin to change. If you want to go out for an activity at school, your partner should be encouraging you and helping you achieve your goals. An unhealthy relationship will put you down, tell you that you shouldn’t try, and basically try to control what you do through what seems like advice but is really unhealthy manipulation.

Like I said, one or two of these behaviors, on occasion, is probably okay. People are human, after all, and learning how to be in a relationship takes work. But if you’re seeing a pattern or your friends or parents bring it to your attention that they think you are changing or are worried about you, pay attention. You might want to think about ending the relationship. Often people think they can change the person or that the situation will get better on its own. It won’t, and they won’t change unless they recognize there is a problem and they make the decision to change. Here's more information on how to get help with an abusive relationship. Remember, it’s not your fault. You do not deserve to be treated badly. No one does.

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Alison Macklin

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