Relationship Checkup
by Spring Cascade
Originally published in Loving More #21 in 2000

For the past month or so I've been asking people how they would identify a healthy relationship. What is a healthy way of relating? Sometimes I see relationships that I wouldn't want to be part of, and that would be unhealthy for me because they don't fit me, but which seem perfectly fine for the people involved. So what's healthy for one person may be unhealthy for another. But perhaps there are still some common factors.

Here are some of the elements of a healthy relationship that came up in my discussions:

What would you add to this list?

I've listed the ideas the sound good to me, omitting some suggestions that I disagree with. Since I like these ideas, let's look at how they translate into a living relationship.

Zhahai and I have been together for some 24 years with a philosophy that is not widely accepted, but which we think is very healthy. We each are determined to remain true to ourselves. We are not willing to compromise that which is truly important to us. We will face the issues that we are afraid could cause us to break up. Our commitment is not to stay together no matter what, but rather to try to keep the relationship healthy, to work on any issues together openly and lovingly and honestly.

What does this mean in a practical sense?

One aspect is the way we've handled other relationships. We enjoy other relationships because they help us expand our horizons, learn about and experience new things, strengthen our relationship skills, have fun and have more intimacy.

Our guidelines for other relationships have changed a lot over the years. Within my previous marriage I needed outside relationships to get my emotional needs met. So when I first had other relationships after Zhahai and I were together, I tended to follow the old pattern and withdraw from him. That wasn't healthy for us, and we had to talk about it and find a way to remain connected to each other while also being close with other people. As we've gained more experience, we've become more comfortable trusting that the other will choose reasonable partners and will stay emotionally present, so we've given each other more flexibility to follow the flow of the moment.

Zhahai and I both feel a strong need to have integrity in our other relationships. That means honoring and valuing them, and not taking them lightly. If Zhahai or I were having a crisis, such as a sudden illness, the other would certainly drop plans with someone else and do whatever was needed to be supportive. Likewise, if another friend or lover were having a crisis, we would gladly change our plans together to help in whatever way we could. A key element here is the desire to care for each of the people we're involved with, and help them through any difficult situations. This flexibility in our planning works for us because we have a common sense of what a crisis is. It wouldn't work in a situation where one partner is frequently having a "crisis" because s/he doesn't really want the other relationship to exist.

Having integrity in our other relationships also means that neither of us will suddenly ask the other to cut off another person. We could together decide that we need to concentrate more energy on our own relationship, and that it would be helpful to be sexually exclusive for some period of time to create safety and more energy for working through our problems. In our decades of practicing polyamory, this has only come up once; it would only happen if the need were very important. In the meantime, however, the friendship and emotional relationship with the third person could continue.

We feel that openness is vital to a healthy relationship. Many times people will avoid talking about certain feelings or issues which they feel might threaten the relationship. Some counselors even discourage people from talking about an infidelity, for example, because that would just be a burden on the partner. But how are we to be close and grow together when something important is kept secret? Our sense is that we have to share what's important to us, and we have to deal with the issues which are threatening.

Zhahai and I can talk about most of our issues relatively easily, and can adapt and compromise without feeling any threat to our relationship or our internal integrity. However, a number of times we have chosen to risk our relationship by saying difficult and scary things, when we didn't know how the other would react. Once we have talked openly and honestly, with love and caring, we've come to a place where we understood each other and were in agreement. Our relationship was stronger for having dealt with the issues that put it at risk. If we had found that our core values were different, or that one of us would need to compromise our integrity to stay together, then we would probably have split up.

Is that healthy or unhealthy? I feel it's very healthy, because to be healthy I have to be true to myself. My partner(s) and I are more important than our relationship. I think that when people are unwilling to take that risk, the problems may start to eat at the relationship. A distance is created because of the unspoken and suppressed truth, and the relationship may slowly and painfully start to disintegrate.

Another important part of a healthy relationship is meeting our individual needs and desires. When I can ask for what I want, I don't have to worry about whether my partner can read my mind. I need to be ready to hear no, but strangely enough, when I feel good about asking for something, it's more often ok if I don't get it than when I'm hesitant about the request. And I certainly ask for it in a way that is more comfortable for both of us. When I'm not sure it's ok to ask for something, I'm likely to be whiny or edgy, and my partner will unconsciously sense that energy and respond accordingly.

When we're both open and clear about what we want, it's also easier to be loving and giving and feel good about doing things for and with each other.

Being polyamorous has been part of our growth and learning. While sometimes painful, it has also been exciting and fun. It helps us maintain a balance between independence and togetherness. It increases the vitality of our relationship, encourages our desire for closeness and gives us opportunities for connection and for exploring more aspects of ourselves. We bring back new ideas and betters ways of treating each other. In short, being polyamorous has been a healthy part of our relationship.