How to improve your relationships: Behaviors to avoid and how to foster a healthy relationship

Relationships are often full of joy and new experiences. However, they can also be challenging, as they will always have to balance the thoughts, emotions, and experiences of two different people. However, there are certain things that can quickly increase negative thoughts and behaviors in a relationship, as well as practices that can foster positivity and happiness.

Read on to see what behaviors can serve as relationship red flags, as well as what practices you can do to help improve your relationship.

What Is the Hardest Stage of a Relationship?

The hardest stage of a relationship is largely different in each relationship and based on factors within the relationship, making it something unique to each person’s experience. Some people find the hardest stage of a relationship to be initiating the relationship, while for others, it’s the most exciting stage. However, many people might identify the lead-up to the end of a relationship to be the most difficult.

A model of interactive stages developed called Knapp’s Stages of a Relationship is commonly used to represent stages of a relationship. These stages include:

  1. Initiation
  2. Experimenting
  3. Intensifying
  4. Integration
  5. Bonding   
  6. Differentiating
  7. Circumscribing
  8. Stagnation
  9. Avoiding
  10. Terminating 

Leading from the beginning to the end of a relationship, these stages are a loose roadmap charting the different stages a relationship can go through. Not every relationship will go through every stage, and each couple might find a different stage to be the hardest one to endure.

How Do You Develop a Healthy Relationship?

A healthy relationship is a positive, mutually conducive, influential, and committed interpersonal partnership. Healthy, quality relationships are one of the best predictors of a happy life. 

The development of healthy relationships requires a few fundamental qualities, such as:

  • Respect: You can show a person respect in many ways, like doing what you say you’ll do, showing sincerity, and taking responsibility for your actions — especially the ones that trigger hurt in others.
  • Effective communication: Communication is an important form of conveying information, exchanging ideas, sharing feelings, and attaining knowledge, both verbally and nonverbally. You can show effective communication by being an active listener, making your wants and needs clear, and keeping your tone and words nonaggressive, even when in a negative mood.
  • Commitment: You can show commitment to your romantic relationship by avoiding attachments with other potential romantic interests, whether in real life or in your mind. For example, staying away from old flames, especially when the relationship is rocky.
  • Appreciation: You can show appreciation by expressing gratitude to the person you are with—for example, for their responsiveness to your needs—and telling them what you appreciate about them. You could even share two things with your partner that you appreciate about them daily.
  • Honesty: You can show honesty by sharing true, factual statements with them, exhibiting a sincerity of character, and showing a consistent and predictable tendency toward truth and trustworthiness. 

These qualities are excellent building blocks for any relationship, creating an atmosphere of trust, love, and respect that, when nurtured, can weather almost any challenge.

What Are Red Flags in a Relationship?

“Red flags” in a relationship are warning behaviors or events that signal to an individual that there is reason for concern. 

Having red flags in a relationship often shows growing evidence of a problem. If you start to see red flags within your relationship, it may be helpful to pause and consider your situation. Give special consideration to your intuition as well as the feedback of people who care about your best interests, but also make sure to distinguish any perceived red flags from inadvertent or accidental associations to past trauma. 

Some examples of red flags in relationships include:

  • Friends and family not liking your partner
  • Your partner wanting to control your behaviors
  • Your partner frequently being jealous and distrustful of you
  • Untreated mental health issues causing emotional strain and discord
  • Your partner showing violence towards you, your loved ones, or animals

These are all major, noticeable red flags. They can also be more subtle, but sometimes that makes them hard to notice until they culminate as one of the above issues.

What Are Signs of an Unhealthy Relationship?

Dr. John Gottman, author of The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, uses these six signs to predict divorce in married couples.

  1. The Harsh Start-Up. This refers to discussions that start off negatively—like with criticism or sarcasm. Dr. Gottman believes that you can predict the outcome of a conversation between partners based on the first three minutes. Starting off a conversation with negativity can show a tendency toward that in the relationship as a whole, if the negativity comes out at the start and not just during the heat of discussion.
  2. The Four Horsemen. This refers to four kinds of negative interactions that impact a relationship: criticism (not complaints), contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling (tuning out). When occurring regularly, these behaviors are a sign of discord and unhappiness within a relationship. 
  3. Flooding. Flooding refers to a person suddenly being overwhelmed by negative or intense emotions. They are “flooded” with emotion and express it in an overwhelming torrent, often happening as a result of pent-up feelings or unexpressed emotions. It can happen when things, often arguments or small disagreements, have gone unresolved.
  4. Body Language. This refers to the physiological responses caused by flooding.  Flooding can cause a notable bodily reaction—for example, increased heart rate and blood pressure. It can also release large amounts of adrenaline. All of this happening within one’s body makes it very difficult to have a productive conversation and solve problems effectively.
  5. Failed Repair Attempts. A “failed repair attempt” is an unsuccessful attempt by the couple to decrease tension during moments of escalation. This means that the tension they tried to resolve was not actually dealt with, leaving both parties with unresolved emotions and sometimes resentment toward the other person.
  6. Bad Memories. “Bad memories” is a phenomenon in which a deeply unhappy couple “rewrites their past” in a negative way. They see every event in their relationship in a negative light, even the things they used to find joy in. This can be an indication that their relationship is near its end.

At its best, unhealthy relationships can be occupied by two or more “good” but incompatible people whose neutral traits and characteristics can trigger maladaptive responses within that dynamic. However, it’s important to recognize unhealthy signs that can lead to more negative behaviors. Each relationship will have its issues, but responding to them in a healthy and empathetic way will help restore things after conflict rather than allow them to get worse.

Overcoming Common Relationship Challenges

Disagreements, arguments, and raised voices aren’t inherently indicative of problems within the relationship. Think of you and your partner as a team. If you chose this person to be your teammate and your goal is a committed fulfilling relationship, there are some important components that will help you be proactive against common relationship challenges: self-awareness, communication, and compromise.

  • Self-awareness: By being knowledgeable about your thoughts, feelings, abilities, needs, and wants, you can make your actions more purposeful. Once you share them, your actions and reactions will also make more sense to your partner, lessening arguments by decreasing the employment of defense mechanisms such as denial or projection.
  • Communication: By using good communication skills like being present, watching your tone, maintaining respect, being clear, and saying what you mean, you are more likely to successfully navigate an uncomfortable situation while maintaining respect for each other. 
  • Compromise: By consenting to a mutual compromise to settle differences, a couple is better able to overcome common relationship challenges. Sometimes, it’s helpful to see whether you might be holding your ideal outcome as, instead, an automatic expectation, and recognize that relationships will undoubtedly have less-than-ideal moments—for both of you.

Though the other important pieces we’ve mentioned are things you and your partner should work on together, these are things you can work at and improve on all on your own. When both partners can hone these skills themselves and use them to come together in conflicts, they give themselves a great chance of problem-solving in healthy and effective ways.

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How Can I Make My Relationship Stronger?

Strengthening a relationship requires understanding, respect, trust, and warmth. 

You can foster understanding by becoming more knowledgeable about your partner. This can be achieved through structured or unstructured discussions, shared pleasant experiences, and collaborative activities.

Trust is increased when you show that you are reliable within your relationship. The more dependable you are, the more confidence your partner will have in you. This will grow over time through experiences such as doing what you say you will do, making decisions that yield more positive outcomes, and avoiding unnecessary risks.

Warmth is increased through actions that the recipient communicates is comforting. The Five Love Languages is one way of conceptualizing the ways couples show and experience love: physical touch, quality time, compliments (words of affirmation), gifts, and acts of service. 

By cultivating these qualities, you can create a solid foundation for your relationship to continue to grow from. If you continue to see negative patterns and aren’t sure how to fix them, consider seeing a mental health professional, either in couples therapy or individual therapy. They can help guide you through the process of discovering the root of the issue and give you tools to work through the conflict together (or individually).

Table of contents

What Is the Hardest Stage of a Relationship?

How Do You Develop a Healthy Relationship?

What Are Red Flags in a Relationship?

What Are Signs of an Unhealthy Relationship?

Overcoming Common Relationship Challenges

How Can I Make My Relationship Stronger?

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Laura Harris, LCMHC in Durham, NC

Laura Harris, LCMHC

Laura Harris is a Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor (LCMHC). She specializes in anger, anxiety, depression, stress management, coping strategies development, and problem-solving skills.

Kate Hanselman, PMHNP in New Haven, CT

Kate Hanselman, PMHNP-BC

Kate Hanselman is a board-certified Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (PMHNP-BC). She specializes in family conflict, transgender issues, grief, sexual orientation issues, trauma, PTSD, anxiety, behavioral issues, and women’s issues.

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Hannah DeWitt

Hannah is a Junior Copywriter at Thriveworks. She received her bachelor’s degree in English: Creative Writing with a minor in Spanish from Seattle Pacific University. Previously, Hannah has worked in copywriting positions in the car insurance and trucking sectors doing blog-style and journalistic writing and editing.

We only use authoritative, trusted, and current sources in our articles. Read our editorial policy to learn more about our efforts to deliver factual, trustworthy information.

  • Knapp’s relationship model. (2023, September 8). Communication Theory. Retrieved February 14, 2024, from

We update our content on a regular basis to ensure it reflects the most up-to-date, relevant, and valuable information. When we make a significant change, we summarize the updates and list the date on which they occurred. Read our editorial policy to learn more.

  • Originally published on September 13, 2013

    Author: Jon Negroni

  • Updated on February 14, 2024

    Author: Hannah DeWitt; Laura Harris, LCMHC

    Reviewer: Kate Hanselman, PMHNP

    Changes: Updated by a Thriveworks clinician in collaboration with our editorial team, adding sections on the hardest stages of relationships, strategies for developing a healthy relationship, how to improve relationships, signs of an unhealthy relationship, and how to overcome common relationship challenges; article was clinically reviewed to double confirm accuracy and enhance value.

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