How to Build a Healthy Relationship Without Good Role Models

lover's quarrelQ: How do you create a healthy marriage when you have never seen one and don’t know how it is supposed to work? – Karen

Dear Karen,

how to create a healthy relationshipMy usual approach to these questions is to consult the professional literature. But professional journals sometimes disappoint on practical matters like this one, so I decided on a strategy that cannot fail: asking people who are smarter than me. The following are a few ideas from some of my brightest colleagues. They have offered their accumulated wisdom free of charge, so pull up a couch and enjoy.

Insight and self-knowledge are going to be key in your journey, and Dr. Justin Ross commends your ability to recognize the shortcomings in your relationship training. “Although modeling is a powerful force in our development, it does not necessarily mean you are doomed to repeat similar relationship patterns that you have witnessed in your past. Your insight surrounding your history will be a great asset to your success in a relationship.”

Poor modeling within your family doesn’t necessarily mean you have never seen a healthy partnership. Dr. Ross guesses that you know several people who have successful partnerships. Watch and learn, and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Happy couples often enjoy discussing their relationships.

There are other ways to find role models, too. As Dr. Rebekah Markheim points out, even television and movies can help you identify ideals, goals, and standards to shoot for. But be careful with ideals, Dr. Markheim cautions. “With ideals there will be some disappointment. But learning how to be flexible and modify are tremendous coping skills.”

And while we’re on the topic of standards, there was consensus among my colleagues that you shouldn’t settle for bad behavior in a relationship. It may sound like an obvious point, but it is painfully common to see couples who believe that mistreatment is the norm. It may be normal in some families, but it isn’t healthy, nor is it necessary.

Dr. Jonathan Lipson advises that in the absence of good role models, it’s vital to keep a few standards in mind. “Go back to the basics of healthy societal interaction; respect, courtesy, reliability, just to name a few.” And, as Dr. Markheim advises bluntly, good relationships don’t involve violence or lying. That’s not as obvious to some of us as you might hope. Don’t settle for it in your relationship.

So where should you start if you lack good role models? Dr. Tziporah Rosenberg suggests that you may know more than you think. After all, you have had relationships in the past and probably have developed some sense of what works. You can use and apply that knowledge. She says that the cornerstones of a healthy relationship are:

1. Understanding your own needs and the needs of your partner.
2. Taking the risk of discussing each partner’s needs.
3. Discussing your ideas of a healthy relationship.
4. Developing a system for correcting yourselves if you get off track.

I couldn’t agree more. It’s absolutely vital to identify the destructive, repetitive patterns in your interactions and change course whenever they begin to reappear. I sometimes recommend that couples use a safe word to signify a timeout.

The timeout rule is simple: the instant either one of you senses that you’re starting down a destructive path and utters the safe word, you go to separate corners for a predetermined amount of time and reassess the situation. Humor can derail a budding argument, so I prefer odd sounding words like haberdasherysnorkel, andmanila folder. As Krusty the Klown aptly noted, words with K sounds are funny, but feel free to improvise. The point is, things may look different after a break, and it may prevent you from saying something you will regret.

Dr. Rosenberg also advises that you capitalize on your creativity and resourcefulness. After all, you have experience relating to other human beings and you may be more capable than you realize.

No matter the level of skill you bring into a relationship, there will be a learning curve, and Dr. Sarah Burgamy believes that each partner must be willing to take a few lumps along the way. “Nothing takes the place of practice and the willingness to keep standing up and putting one foot in front of the other.… Even if we are blessed with the most perfect model of a healthy relationship, we have to go through the process of building our own. No shortcuts.” Fortunately, she says, you won’t need to go through this alone. A good partner is one that will learn and grow along with you. If your partner isn’t willing to participate, then your development is bound to suffer.

Dr. Burgamy also points out that yours is the perfect question for couples therapy. I agree. Why reinvent the wheel when you can learn from the accumulated wisdom of successful couples? A skilled therapist can help you identify and improve the patterns that you and your partner bring into your particular relationship. Couple therapy is a wise investment.

I’d like to thank my distinguished panel of psychologists. They are all skilled couple therapists in addition to their other specialties, which are listed below. I would only add one additional piece of advice to theirs: as difficult as it is to admit a mistake, sometimes being “right” at any cost means losing our partner’s respect. It is difficult to recover lost admiration. So when it’s your turn to apologize, step up to the plate and deliver like a champ. Deference never hurt anyone except Neville Chamberlain, and earnest mea culpa is sometimes the quickest route to the coveted makeup sex.


Sarah Burgamy, Psy.D. is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Denver, Colorado. She extends a particular welcome to those clients struggling with challenges related to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender/gender variant identities.

Jonathan Lipson, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Lakewood, Colorado. His practice includes psychotherapy and psychological evaluations for adults.

Rebekah Markheim, Psy.D. is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Denver, Colorado. Her specialties include adjustment to illness, aging, GLB issues, and transition process for transgender individuals.

Tziporah Rosenberg, Ph.D., LMFT is an Assistant Professor at the University of Rochester Medical Center and international woman of mystery.

Justin Ross, Psy.D. is a licensed psychologist and a founding member of MindBodyHealth in Denver, Colorado. His clinic stresses mindfulness and an integrated approach to mental and physical health.

And then there’s yours truly. My specialties include eating and avoiding painful accidents.