It’s no secret that building and maintaining healthy, long-term relationships is not always easy. Once you’re past the early, heart-fluttering phase of your romance, you’re going encounter difficulties — every couple does — so it’s important to develop healthy strategies for dealing with conflict. And because every partnership is unique, so too is the manner in which you have disagreements, so what works for some couples might not work for others.
In fact, some habits might even appear to be toxic, but that doesn’t mean they are. I spoke to relationship experts about it, and here are the relationship habits that everyone thinks are toxic, but that are actually perfectly healthy.
Fighting in front of the kids
It’s no fun when your parents get into a fight when you’re a kid, nor is it fun to be fighting with your partner in front of the whole family. But it isn’t toxic as long as you’re respectful of one another in your disagreements; it could actually be helpful.
Melody Li, a licensed marriage and family therapist associate and relationship specialist, told me, “There are couples that that tell me they do not know how their parents resolved conflict because their parents always disagreed behind closed doors to shield their children from it. I understand the loving intention behind that but as a result, their children miss opportunities to learn healthy conflict resolution.”
So the way you argue can be a model for the kids, showing them to work out disagreements. Li continued, “By showing children that it’s normal and healthy to disagree, and by modeling negotiation, compromise, and sharing needs and feelings, the couple not only strengthens their own relationship but also sets up the future generation for relational success.” But if you resort to excessive yelling and screaming, name-calling, and threats, that’s toxic all the way.
No one wants to be on the receiving end of a laundry list of complaints by anyone, let alone their partner, but you should make room in your relationship for both making and receiving complaints.
Heather Seguin, a licensed marriage and family therapist, told me, “Complaints are a way of letting our partners know the things that matter to us. This is different from criticism; criticism attacks your partner’s character, but complaints indicate behaviors they can change. For example, ‘I’m upset that you didn’t take out the trash like you said you would. Can you please take care of that now?'”
The important thing here, for Seguin, is that complaining allows for a grievance to be aired, and subsequently fixed. She notes that, “Complaints can be repaired, while criticism is destructive.” That means the disagreement can be resolved, reasonably.
Taking time apart
No one wants to hear the dreaded words “I need some time to myself.” It can make you anxious that your partner is thinking about splitting up, or that they’re just interested in doing things without you. But there’s nothing toxic about people needing a little room to breathe on their own.
Tina Wilson, a dating and relationship expert, told me, “Most people think that time apart can be toxic, but we’ve learned from our Assisted Romance surveys that many people say that they are better in a relationship when they spend the occasional evening all alone.”
This especially makes sense if you and your partner have divergent interests, such as you enjoying a sports event while he opts for board game night. And if you’re introverted, you might just need some time with a good book. But if your partner is talking about moving out or separating, that’s a different situation — a couple’s counselor should be called if that’s the case.
Ignoring a partner’s texts
Since the invention and proliferation of cell phones, we’re more connected than ever before, especially to our partners and families. And though it’s wonderfully convenient, it can also be a distraction from other activities.
Jonathan Bennett, a certified counselor, told me,”We live in an age with an expectation of complete availability and transparency. Consequently, it’s considered bizarre if you don’t make yourself fully available to your partner.” But it can be quite healthy to not always be instantly available. Plus, being too demanding of your partner’s time, or vice versa, can have consequences. “Constant phone access can lead to neediness and controlling behaviors,” continued Bennett. “Ignoring your partner’s texts to focus on your job, workout, driving, or just mindfully enjoying the moment is the healthy habit. Then, when you’re free and ready, you can respond.”
Additionally, being glued to your phone can make you seem less interesting. Kimberly Hershenson, a NYC based therapist, told me, “You don’t want your partner thinking you have no life outside of the relationship either. It is a positive to not always respond right away because you should have other things going on in your life.” So don’t hesitate to throw your phone in your locker.
Everyone has different emotional needs and thresholds, and they’re not always naturally compatible with the needs and thresholds of others. That’s why it’s good to set boundaries for yourself out of the gate.
Relationship therapist, educator, and author Shadeen Francis told me, “We often think about good relationships as having an element of accessibility; that person will be there for you no matter what. However, we all need to set boundaries in our lives, and that can be misinterpreted as toxic behavior.” But boundary setting is anything but toxic when it comes from an honest place.
Francis continued, “Boundaries are the invisible lines between us that keep us safe. Despite caring for others, we may have to be firm, clear, and consistent about our limits in order to maintain our mental health and emotional wellness. Saying no to people you care about is hard, but is important.” So let your partner know what your needs are, from designated time alone to time you need alone together. Barring abusive behavior, this is healthy self-care.
If you’ve ever had a parent or partner who is excessively critical of you, you know how exhausting it feels and how toxic it can be. “In a relationship, having a ‘critical’ partner can be considered toxic, especially if feelings are hurt,” noted Bennett. And while that kind of criticism is not healthy, some criticism can actually be helpful for you and your partner.
He continued, “Honest criticism, done correctly, can actually be good for the relationship. Bad judgment from one partner can have major consequences. While it’s important to keep a calm, empathetic, and non-threatening tone, there are times when one partner’s behavior might need to be called out. A few examples are financial mismanagement, drug use, or a refusal to deal with an out of control child.” So as long as you’re not needlessly harping on your sweetie, there’s room for important critiques.
Running away from a fight
Sometimes, if you and your partner are fighting, you may find yourself overwhelmed and needing to step away. That’s actually not a bad move, especially if the fight is getting dirty.
“It’s never healthy to stay in the same place arguing and getting nowhere,” noted Hershenson. “One of you will have to be the grown up and call a time out. This means taking time apart away from the situation so you can regroup and come back together rational.”
The same is true for afterwards, when emotions are still running high. Bennett told me, “The standard advice is that you should always keep the lines of communication open after a fight. Running off to a room and slamming the door or going out with friends is considered toxic behavior. But, after a fight, your adrenaline is flowing and emotions are running high. Because of that, trying to reconcile immediately can not only be difficult, but can sometimes cause the fight to start again.” So as long as you make the effort to restart communications later, it’s perfectly acceptable to flee.
Going to bed angry
One of the more common pieces of relationship advice is that couples should never go to bed while still angry at each other. There have even been studies that show how doing so could have a negative impact on your relationship. But it’s not always the best option, especially if you don’t have the time or energy to properly resolve the conflict.
Dr. Wyatt Fisher, a licensed psychologist, told me, “While it’s ideal to work through tension before bed, it may not always be feasible. Both spouses may need time to de-flood, process through what they’re feeling, and then re-address the topic in the morning.” So even if one of you sleeps on the couch, it’s totally okay if you’re clear-headed and ready to reconcile the next morning.
Talking during sex
Sex is the most intimate part of any romantic partnership, and is often fraught with expectations and desires. And when you’re newly partnered with someone, the sex is usually fantastic with little effort. But down the road four, five, ten years, it can take some communication to keep your love life healthy and robust. So should you talk to each other during sex?
Dr. Fisher says yes, noting that, “Most people think you shouldn’t talk about what you like or don’t during sex because it will take away the passion and excitement. However, real time feedback is one of the best ways to let your partner know what feels good and what doesn’t to maximize both of your pleasure.” Plus, it can be especially fun if you work it into your repertoire — not toxic in the least!
Having different friends
It’s not uncommon for couples to have the same friends, and to go out together with the same group of folks. But in some cases, there are good reasons why a person might have friends that they don’t share with their partners — and there’s nothing wrong with that.
David Ezell, the clinical director of Darien Wellness, told me, “Cultivating friendships outside of the relationship — both opposite sex as well as same-sex — allows partners to be express parts of themselves that they cannot be in the relationship.” This is especially true if you don’t share the same hobbies and interests. Ezell continued, “If you love theater and your partner is a TV person, having a theater buddy allows you to feed that need (and also reinforces trust between the both of you).”
So as long as your communication is clear and open, and you’re always being honest, it doesn’t matter what friends you do or don’t share.
Communication is key
A lot of toxic habits arise either because one partner is abusive, or because communication isn’t paramount in a partnership. That’s why it’s important to evaluate your relationship habits, and speak to a therapist — or even a trusted friend — if you have any doubt about your situation. Additionally, make sure you’re putting in the work and effort that your relationship deserves, and don’t sweep things under the rug or ignore things that bother you.
Honest and direct communication can go a long way in eliminating toxic behavior patterns, as can regular check-ins with your partner when you’re both calm. A little work goes a long way in making it last!