How To Have a Healthy Relationship
“I feel safe and comfortable raising a concern I may have – something as simple as ‘can you clean your dishes?’ I am happy to be on my own and have a balanced social life that doesn’t just involve a significant other (friendship or partnership). I feel happy and heard when I am with someone – my battery is not drained by being around them.”
– 24, cisgender queer person
From friendships to intimate partners, family, chosen family, work friends, mob, kin and community, there are many different types of relationships that are going to play important roles in your life, and the type of relationship you have with a person may change over time.
In queer communities, these lines are sometimes blurred. For example, your friends might play a more family-like role in your life or you may have a friend who you also have sex and romance with, but they are primarily a friend and not considered a partner. One great thing about being queer is that you get to create relationships that are less bound by heteronormativity. However, a lack of education and healthy queer relationship role modelling can leave one asking: “How do I have a healthy relationship?”
Everyone’s relationship history is different, some people will have many short flings in their late teens and/or early 20s, some will have one long monogamous relationship that lasts throughout their 20s (and maybe beyond) and some people won’t have any intimate relationships during this time. Some people will stay close to their school friends while others will move around, perhaps stopping in places where they know no one and have to make new friendships. You will likely start new careers and have to navigate professional relationships, looking for like-minded people in strange new work environments. Chances are that family relationships will change dramatically for many people in their late teens and early 20s, as they go from being a dependent child to their own independent adult.
This time in your life will be exciting and nerve wracking, as every new thing can be. Remember these are formative years – a time in our life when we will, without a doubt, make many mistakes and hopefully learn many lessons.
This page is here to help you reflect on important themes around relationships, and to give you some insight into how to practice healthy behaviours and build healthy habits in all of your relationships.
Understanding and Valuing What You Want
Understanding your long term wants and needs vs short term wants and needs can help you gain a good perspective of what sort of people you want to have relationships with and what sort of people won’t be compatible for you.
For example, achieving your career aspirations may clash with your relationship – what is more important to you in the long run? Keep checking in with yourself and your partner, as what you want in life will inevitably grow and change, which could require some changes along the way or potentially mean that you grow apart at some stage. Maintaining healthy communication is essential to ensure you’re both happy in (or out of) the relationship.
Spend some time thinking about your wonderful self! Reflecting on what your wants and needs are will help you better understand what you want and don’t want in a relationship. The longest relationship you’ll ever have is the relationship you have with yourself, it deserves some one-on-one time. During this time, be honest about what you want in a relationship and what values you want to be respected by future partners.
It can be hard when you haven’t been in a relationship before. Maybe look at relationships that you think work and find out what it is about them that you like. Are they affectionate? Do they laugh a lot? Do they say only good things about their partner?
Do the same for any relationships you know of that you don’t want to have, and ask yourself what it is about that relationship you wouldn’t want. Do they fight all the time? Put each other down? Cheat?
Values are essentially your standards and beliefs which guide the way you want to live your life. For example, your values may be commitment and honesty. Look for people with similar values in all relationships you have, whether romantic or not.
Taking some time out to think about what your values are and assessing whether your values compliment your relationships can really help you see whether your relationships are healthy and enabling you to be your best self. Some values you will already be clear about – you may have picked these up from your family or school – while others may become clearer through life experiences. For example, if you get hurt one day by someone lying to you, you could make a promise to yourself to always be honest. If you live by that and it’s important to you, honesty then becomes one of your values.
Your values don’t have to exactly match those of your family, friends and lovers, but you do need to be mindful of how a clash in values may impact you. For example, if you have a relationship with someone who really values non-monogamy and you really value a commitment to just one person, think about how that could affect you both. What decision could you make that is right for both of you?
“You need to feel safe on all the levels (physical, mental, emotional, etc.) so you can talk about stuff. And you need to know how to trust and take care of yourself so you aren’t making the other person do all the heavy lifting all the time”
– 25, bisexual non-binary person
Boundaries are emotional, physical and spiritual limits between yourself and someone else. The purpose of asserting your boundaries is to take care of yourself and ensure your safety. For example, you may have certain physical boundaries that you need to communicate to anyone that you’re going to be intimate with and you’ll need them to be understanding and respectful of that. Regardless of what your boundaries are, it’s important to date people who have an understanding of boundaries and are willing to communicate with you.
Remember, when navigating boundaries, you can strategise to ensure both people feel like their boundaries are respected (e.g. dating people outside of the relationship, “outness”, length of time you want to spend with one another, public displays of affection, etc.).
Sometimes, it is hard to hear your partner assert their boundaries and say “no” to you. That’s probably because we feel a sense of rejection or maybe even shame when this happens. There’s another way to look at it: If you know that your partner knows their own boundaries and is confident enough to assert those boundaries, and if you can work through negative feelings that may arise when boundaries come up, you may actually feel a great sense of relief.
The reason being that then you know that when your partner says yes to you, they really mean it. It can feel safe knowing that your partner understands their own boundaries and, as a result, you do too. As a result, you are less likely to cross those boundaries and accidentally hurt the person you care about. Don’t feel bad when someone asserts their boundaries – take it as a sign of safety. If you struggle with the emotions you feel when someone asserts their boundaries, it can be really helpful to work on that with a professional. Compromise on how boundaries are communicated, not the boundaries themselves.
Learn more about setting boundaries here.
The only feelings, behaviours and attitudes you can affect are your own and you can’t rely on anyone changing for you. You can’t save people and you can’t expect someone to start or stop feeling something just because you want them to.
Sometimes we can find ourselves staying in a relationship because we think the person is going to change or come around to our way of thinking or finally understand us better. However, we need to understand our personal limits in relationships. Knowing when your partner isn’t going to meet your needs and understand you can be tricky, so it’s important to know your limits and how long you’re willing to work with them.
“My partner doesn’t understand my non-binary identity one month into our relationship.” This may be acceptable for you as it can take people a while to wrap their head around the fact that there are more than two genders.
“My partner doesn’t understand non-binary identities six months into our relationship and isn’t willing to use they/them pronouns.” This may be a deal breaker because by this time you have probably spent a lot of time and energy trying to educate your partner and they are still resisting, and therefore impacting your wellbeing.
“They don’t hold you back and let you be yourself, they are your equal, (they don’t look down or up to you) and you aren’t entirely dependent on them for your happiness.”
-16 year old, questioning person
Non-Negotiables in a Relationship
Building an understanding of what you’re willing to negotiate on in a relationship and what you’re not willing to negotiate on can help you ensure that you don’t engage in relationships that aren’t going to be compatible for you.
For example, you may be polyamorous but you had a partner that was not polyamorous and that caused a huge problem in your relationship. From that experience, you may decide to make it a non-negotiable that the next person you’re with would have to either be open to polyamory or polyamorous themselves.
Know What Is Out There
Research the Australian LGBTQA+ community and find events, social support groups and other opportunities where you can connect with other people from our community. Our community is pretty diverse: We have social groups for people who like sport, art, video games, politics, reading, and any other range of hobbies. We have groups for different ages, different cultural backgrounds, different sexual interests, even groups for how much body hair you have! You can find these groups on Facebook, via web searches or in the free LGBTQA+ newspapers like Star Observer and Curve. It’s also handy to know what LGBTQA+ friendly services and support are available around you or online.
Consuming LGBTQA+ Media and Education
If you don’t have many LGBTQA+ role models in your life, seek some out. Even if it isn’t in the flesh, many people in our community share themselves and their experiences through podcasts and online media, public events like forums and workshops, or even film and television. Of course, engaging in media is no substitute for real-life relationships, but hearing true stories can help when you feel like you’re the only one who lives like you do. Additionally, a lot of queer media can be very educational.
There are many myths about romance that lead us to think that there is only one person out there for us. However, that is likely not the case.
Part of having healthy relationships is figuring out what you do and don’t want through life experiences. By ending relationships that aren’t working, you are essentially collecting information that will help you figure out who you are and what you want in relationships. It is important to get to know yourself and your wants and needs better before getting into another relationship.
Look at the relationships around you and take the best and the worst from each. Humans always compare – as social animals that is how we learn and grow. If you think a friend’s relationship is great, ask yourself why? What about that relationship is great? If you think a friend’s relationship is not the sort you would want, ask yourself why and make a note of that as well.
Signs of a Healthy Relationship
“I actively try to spend time with them. I feel like I can talk to them about anything that’s on my mind. I know they won’t judge me.”
– 14, non-binary pansexual, possibly aromantic person
Healthy relationships are relationships that make us feel good, safe, and strong within ourselves. All relationships look and feel different. The ways we behave, relate to one another and ourselves will change and depend upon the people involved, as well as the time and place where the relationship is occurring.
Things that might seem perfectly acceptable and healthy in one relationship could feel wrong or toxic in others. Your friends, family, community, and society will all have opinions on what a healthy relationship can and should look like, but at the end of the day, what makes a relationship a healthy one can only be determined by the people involved in it.
However, there are certain things that are essential in establishing and maintaining a healthy relationship, such as feeling safe and being able to communicate well with one another. In order to find out what others consider important signs of healthy relationships, we surveyed 100 LGBTQA+ people asking them to tell us three signs of a healthy relationship?
These were the top 10 most common responses:
- Mutual respect
- Having enough independence
- Feeling like you can be your full self
- Good boundaries
- Equal power balance
- Feeling safe
But what do those things really mean or look like? Let’s break it down using Alex and Sascha as an example:
Alex 20 (he/him/his) and Sascha 22 (They/Them/Theirs) have been in a relationship for over two years. Below are the signs that they know it’s going well.
What it means:
- Feeling heard whilst being willing to hear and listen.
- You and your partner/friend talk openly.
- Feeling safe and able to express feelings, boundaries and values honestly.
- Not feeling scared to bring up things that are bothering you in your relationship (i.e., you’re able to talk about differences and conflict).
- Being flexible in your interactions by understanding that people communicate differently.
Alex and Sascha have a relationship “check in” every Sunday to give them both open space to talk about any things in their relationship that they feel wasn’t addressed during the week.
For example, one might say “On Wednesday you seemed upset when I came home late, is there anything there that you would like to talk about?”
What it means:
- Feeling like you equal part of the relationship.
- Being able to value the other person’s opinion, values and wellbeing.
- Respecting each other’s space outside the relationship (seeing friends and family, hobbies, and activities).
- Feeling supported in your goals.
- Equal effort in maintaining the relationship.
- The other person doesn’t make choices for you about what you can and can’t do.
Alex doesn’t like Sascha’s best friend, Seb, but trusts that Sascha knows what’s best for them.
Alex knows Sascha’s friendship with Seb means a lot to them and that Seb is a supportive person in their life.
Even though Alex doesn’t like Seb, he doesn’t put any pressure on Sascha to compromise their friendship with him by dictating or trying to limit how much Seb and Sascha see each other.
Sascha respects Alex’s feelings and doesn’t put pressure on Alex to be friends with Seb and ensures that the only times they might hang out all together will be big group events like Sascha’s birthday party.
What it means:
- You know that your boundaries are respected by the other person.
- You know that the other person will communicate openly with you.
- You know the other person won’t share information you want kept private or confidential.
- You feel solid in your understanding of the other person, their boundaries, and how you relate to one another.
- You know that the other person respects you and the relationship you have with them.
- You don’t have to second guess what they tell you.
Alex and Sascha feel comfortable sharing deep parts of themselves with one another and trust that the other person has an understanding of what is and isn’t appropriate to share with other people.
One day Alex tells Sascha about an awkward sexual experience he had with a previous partner. Thinking that the story was funny, Sascha shares this with a couple of their mutual friends. Alex feels upset and tells Sascha that that information was meant to be kept between them.
After talking about it, both of them agree that experiences they’ve had in previous relationships will be kept between the two of them and not shared with any mutual friends.
Having Enough Independence
What it means:
- You feel supported and able to do all the things you want and need for your own growth and wellbeing (e.g. play in a sports team, move away for university, connect with culture, etc.).
- You don’t need to share all of the same interests, hobbies, friends, etc.
Alex likes to play Dungeons and Dragons but Sascha doesn’t. Alex has the space and time to play DnD with his friends and spend time working on his campaigns with Sascha’s support.
While Alex is playing Dungeon and Dragon Sascha is usually practicing their soccer skills.
Feeling Like Your Authentic Self
What it means:
- The other person accepts all the parts of you, including your gender, sexuality, race, religious beliefs, and your quirks.
- The other person supports your self-care and development.
During their relationship, Sascha wanted to affirm their gender identity.
Alex followed Sascha’s guidance and supported them through using their pronouns, researching trans experiences, and referring to them as his partner rather than boyfriend. Sascha says that Alex never made them feel less-than about their gender-identity, never challenged them about it or put them down.
What it means:
- You feel free and safe to express your needs and wants.
- Feel like if you don’t have your boundaries respected that you can leave the relationship safely and with respect.
Alex feels like he needs to spend more time connecting with friends without Sascha.
When Alex tells Sascha, they respect this by asking Alex how much time he wants with friends and with them so they can find a balance. They also decide to make sure that Alex doesn’t cancel on plans with his friends or invite Sascha to hang out with Alex’s friends all the time.
Equal Power Balance
What it means:
- Both people have the same ability to express themselves and maintain their boundaries.
- Having awareness and open discussions of any potential power imbalances (e.g., age gaps, being white and dating a person of colour, being cisgender and dating a trans person).
- Everything is consensual- both parties have the equal ability to say “no”.
Alex doesn’t question Sascha on their experiences as a trans person and is aware that Sascha might face discrimination in ways he doesn’t see or understand, including within their relationship.
When one of Alex’s friends makes a transphobic joke at a party, Alex shuts it down and addresses it later with his friend, making sure Sascha doesn’t have to.
Kindness and Consideration
What it means:
- You partner shows acts of kindness towards you.
- You partner considers your feelings in your relationship.
- You both show each other gentleness and empathy.
When Alex is having a tough week at work Sascha makes Alex little care packages for him.
What it means:
- You’re able to express your feelings without fear of repercussions.
- Your emotions don’t feel minimised or ignored, they feel heard and validated.
After being in a previous abusive partnership, Alex feels extra sensitive around certain topics and being told what to do.
Alex and Sascha discuss this at length and come up with strategies around how they can safely talk about certain topics. They use agreed on code words for when either of them is feeling uncomfortable and struggle to find other words in that moment.