Healthy relationships take work, effort, and commitment. Most of all, they require mutual respect and a willingness to grow with your partner. Nicole Perry, registered psychologist and author of Big-Hearted Boundaries, is an expert on building and maintaining strong relationships.
According to Perry, a key, and often overlooked, aspect of strong relationships is knowing how to set healthy boundaries. “Boundaries are all about turning inwards and listening to your needs and wants,” she says.
Healthy relationships happen when two people work together, support each other, and feel comfortable expressing boundaries. Here are four tips to build stronger relationships this year with the people you love.
4 tips to build strong relationships
1. Embrace boundaries
It’s important to understand that boundaries are a necessary part of a healthy relationship. Perry says that people unfamiliar with boundary setting may think that the practice implies a rigid prescriptiveness, or that people might confuse boundaries with control. Instead, she suggests thinking of them as a living framework that can change over time, “boundaries are personal, intuitive, and flexible. It’s important for both partners to understand that they can change over time.”
Boundaries are key to healthy relationships because they provide clarity in expectations and responsibilities and ensure both partners’ needs are met. Whatever stage of a relationship you’re in, it’s never too late to start setting boundaries.
If you have difficulty knowing what boundaries would serve you best, Perry recommends employing a whole-body decision making process. Whole-body decisions allow the head, heart, and body to work together to help you discover what nourishes you and what you need.
2. Check in with your partner
Having regular check-ins with your partner, no matter how long you’ve been together, is key. Many people mistakenly think the longer you’ve been in a relationship, the more you should intuitively just know what your partner needs. Perry says that although people may have a better sense of what their long-term partners need, they should never assume they know what their partner is thinking.
“When we’re in a close relationship, we think that they’ll understand us really well and be able to intuit our needs, but actually the opposite is true,” Perry says. “It can be hardest to read the people closest to us.”
Nothing is static. Relationships and people change and evolve over time. Life gets busy with work, kids, social engagements, and everything else that requires our attention. What you wanted and needed out of your relationship in the first year may look vastly different from after ten years of being together. It’s critical that you and your partner set aside time to check in with one another, beyond the usual “How was your day, honey?” “Fine, you?” that tends to happen at the end of a long day.
Perry says scheduled check-ins should be intentional and thoughtful. They’re great ways to reconnect with your partner and ensure both partners’ needs are being met in the relationship. You can use a structured format with pre-selected questions, or it can be more open-ended and used as a time to catch-up on anything that needs to be addressed.
3. Articulate your needs
Something Perry regularly sees in her practice is minimization of needs. Meaning, people often fail to name their needs regardless of how big or small they seem. It can be as simple as declining a glass of water, even if you’re actually thirsty. Many people, especially women, are taught from a young age to avoid inconveniencing others. Oftentimes, in reality, it’s not an inconvenience at all.
People who go out of their way to avoid inconveniencing others might think to themselves, “I’m not going to say anything unless it’s a big deal because I don’t want to be a bother.” However, this practice can become a harmful habit in relationships for two reasons. One, when we fail to articulate even the smallest of needs, it makes it that much harder to express needs when they become more urgent. Two, when needs aren’t met, it can foster feelings of resentment and dissatisfaction.
Perry’s advice? Get in the habit now of expressing what you need, regardless of how minor you think it is, so your partner can better help you moving forward.
4. Don’t neglect yourself
One of Perry’s most crucial pieces of advice is a reminder that your relationship with yourself is just as important as your relationships with others. Similar to other relationships, it’s one that requires ongoing check-ins.
Perry advises that you schedule time on your calendar to check in with yourself. Whether it’s going on a walk, journaling, or meditating, regularly carving out a small window of time for yourself is a great way to assess your emotions, thoughts, and needs. “When you give yourself the gift of time to process your feelings and work on yourself, you can then be a better person to others,” says Perry.