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Debra Fileta: The Markers of a Healthy Relationship

Love is in the air this time of year, thanks to a certain upcoming holiday on February 14. Whether you’re happily in love, crushing on someone hard, or recovering from a messy break-up, we could all use some relationship reminders on how to be healthy in sharing our love.


This article is part of our New You series, produced in partnership with Unite Health Share Ministries.

Relationship expert Debra Fileta wants us all to have healthy relationships. And she believes that the key to healthy relationship is being a healthy you. From setting boundaries to practicing honest communication, Fileta shares the markers of what a happy and healthy relationships should look like and how to achieve it. You can hear our conversation with her on the latest RELEVANT podcast episode or read our interview with her below.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

RELEVANT: When people think of resolutions they realize there’s maybe something that just needs to change, maybe a bad habit. What are some of the bad habits that we tend to fall into when we date, and what are some commitments we can make to change that or make it better?

Debra Fileta: We’ve kind of entered a season where things look a little different than they looked before with regard to how we do relationships. COVID and quarantine and isolation — all of that has really affected us. Many people are struggling with fear and uncertainty. They don’t trust people as much and we don’t have as many real life interactions. Things have kind of shifted a little bit, but when I look at the past mistakes that people have made, some things do come up to the surface.

We focus on the health of the other person before we focus on the health of ourselves. I always say that healthy people make healthy relationships. We tend to attract people and engage with people on our level of emotional health. So one of the best ways for us to recognize unhealthy relationships is to kind of tune our radar into what’s healthy or what’s not healthy, instead of just by going through profile after profile or date after date. Turning the radar inside of us means making sure that we are emotionally healthy, dealing with our past trauma and our wounds and our hurts. You know, we’re going to date based on what we believe we deserve. If we’re believing unhealthy things about ourselves, we’re going to date in that way and end up dating unhealthy people. We need to resolve to be healthy standing alone.

We all want a healthy relationship, but for a variety of reasons that’s really hard to define. What are the markers of a healthy relationship?

I think the first and primary marker is reciprocity. A relationship has to be made of give and take and I think we look for other things — feelings, a certain level of attraction, hobbies and interests — and we try to figure out if this is a good match or not. But I think even more important than those things is reciprocity. Am I giving as much as I’m receiving in this relationship? I always say that a healthy relationship is like a healthy plant. So, imagine a plant with me. The problem with this is many times we underwater the plant. We don’t give it enough water, and in the end the plant dies right, But the other problem is we can overwater the plant, and when you give something too much water, it also dies. You can kill a relationship by giving too little, but you can also kill a relationship by giving too much. 

I think many of us are in the habit of trying so desperately to keep this relationship, wanting it to work so badly, that we give and give and give with no limits, no boundaries, no expectation to receive. And I think Christians are especially bad at that because we think selflessness means we just give and give and give with no limits and no boundaries. We end up in these one-sided unhealthy relationships. 

How do we recognize when it’s finally time to step away from that relationship? 

That is the hard part you know. It’s going to look different for different people. I think the healthier you are, the faster that last time comes. Like “three strikes, you’re out bud!” rather than thirty strikes. I think the healthier you are, the less tolerance you’re going to have for relationships where you’re not seeing the mark of growth, the mark of give and take. It’s fine to make an excuse for someone in the beginning — a one time thing, maybe a two time thing. Life is hard and things come up. But then this becomes a pattern you’re starting to see: I’m the one that’s always texting. I’m the one that’s always initiating. I’m the one that’s always sharing. I’m the one that’s always asking the questions. I’m the one that’s always checking in and reaching out first. You’ve got to back up a little and get a good idea of what’s actually happening objectively.

I think what’s hard is that some of us are so used to giving and giving and giving that we don’t even recognize that we’re doing it to a toxic level. So pull back and look for patterns right at the beginning of the relationship. What you see in the first few weeks is probably what you’re going to see in the next few years. People show you who they are. It’s just a matter of whether or not you want to believe them.

How can we set a firm foundation in the beginning of a relationship?

I think a healthy relationship is kind of built in seasons. It’s not like a once and done thing. There is constant work. Going back to the plant analogy, if we’re cultivating a healthy relationship, I don’t just water it one time and then hope it just continues to grow. I’m going to have to keep investing in conversations. I’m going to keep having to work on the conflict that comes up and figure out how I handle conflict. Do I handle it in a healthy way? Do I shut down? Do I go super desperate and try my best to fix it at the moment? What is my conflict style? And how do I handle conflict? How do I handle communication? How do I handle my emotions? 

Another thing, too, is the boundaries that we set. That’s another thing that keeps our relationship healthy. Do I respect myself enough to have boundaries physically, emotionally and spiritually, or do I kinda let people be very free with me? Boundaries are important, conflict and communication is really important. And like I said earlier, that pattern of give and take. It’s not just a once and done thing. It’s something that you have to keep working on and you also want to be with somebody who sees the relationship as something that they want to keep working on too, so that you don’t end up in the pattern of giving and giving and giving and not receiving anything in the end.

You know, we all set boundaries and we think that we’re doing really well until something happens and that boundary gets pushed back. And it’s really hard to get back to that boundary. How do you reestablish a boundary after it’s been broken?

I think the key is having the why for your boundary. A lot of times we just have the what. This is what I want to do. Here’s the boundary I want to set. But there’s no why. Why am I actually motivated to keep this boundary? Is it just because I’ve been told I should have this boundary because my parents or my church told me, or because I truly believe this is for my good? The why has to be established if you actually want your boundaries to stay strong. I think we have a tendency to focus on physical boundaries in the church while neglecting emotional boundaries and spiritual boundaries. But any healthy relationship has to have boundaries in all of those areas. 

Boundaries are kind of like the swimming pool. You don’t jump in the deep end before you’ve learned to swim. You’ve got to start in the shallow end when it comes to learning to trust somebody and seeing what you can trust them with. And if they cross that boundary, that’s a sign that maybe they can’t be trusted in the way that you thought. Trust isn’t a gift that you just give to people. Trust is something that they have to earn with time, and with that give and take of a relationship.

Secondly, realize that this boundary is for you. It’s for your health, your safety, your protection, your respect. It’s empowering you to have control in the relationship because you’re saying, “Hey, this is what I’m comfortable with. This is what’s healthy for me and I want to stay here.” I think it’s important to see boundaries in those ways. And if a boundary does get crossed, it’s not a matter of just resetting it and starting over. It’s a matter of understanding, Okay, this boundary got crossed. That means that I need to be firmer with this boundary. Maybe I need to invite people into my life who also respect the boundaries that I set for myself, instead of putting myself in those same situations with those same people who keep crossing the lines and disrespecting my boundaries, and what I’m trying to do to keep myself safe.

It’s not just a matter of blindly resetting the boundary, but backtracking and saying, “Am I healthy enough to keep this boundary and are the people in my life healthy enough to keep this boundary moving forward?”

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