Defining a healthy relationship

August 1, 2012

As the president of an organization focused on maximizing child well being, I pay close attention to trends around marriage and relationships.


With that in mind, I am troubled by cultural forces that seek to make it seem as though there is no difference between a healthy marriage and a healthy relationship.

I was at a conference recently, and a person who was not particularly a fan of marriage said, “Really, it's not marriage that's important.  We just want people to have healthy relationships.”  So, I asked, “What's a healthy relationship?”  

You could have heard a pin drop.  No one said a thing.  And it occurred to me that folks have been using this term “relationship”, but it's undefined.

Interestingly, this is very different from what happened several years ago when the term “healthy marriage” became part of the public lexicon, at least with public policy folks here in Washington.

There were lots of meetings, conversations, and documents that sought to define exactly what a healthy marriage was and wasn't. This made a lot of sense. If we are telling couples to consider heading to a specific location, it's wise to tell them where it is and what it looks like.

At a time when marriage rates across the country are down and out-of-wedlock birthrates are at all-time highs, especially in the African American community, we must stop to consider how this trend of equating marriages and “relationships” is affecting children.

Seven in ten births in the black community are to unmarried women. Even among college educated black women, one third of births are out-of-wedlock. In the white community, out-of-wedlock birthrates have essentially doubled across all education levels in the last 20 years. There is no evidence to suggest that this provides anything but disadvantages to children.  

The reality is that there is an enormous difference between a healthy relationship and a healthy marriage. All couples have to do is have a “define the relationship” conversation and ask a few thoughtful questions, and the differences will become very obvious.

It is time that couples around the country play a game of "20 Questions" with each other.  Here is a list of questions to get you started in figuring out the difference between the two

Consider these questions:

“Should we be monogamous?”

“Should we think of it as a ‘long term’ relationship?”

“Should we share similar views on childrearing?”

“When we run into serious relationship problems, should we seek formal/professional help?”

“Is there a formal way to end the relationship that will protect each of our legal rights?”

What you will find is that in order to have a “healthy relationship,” these questions can be answered any number of ways; in fact, “maybe” is a suitable response for all of them. But if you are in a healthy marriage, there are cultural, legal, and religious standards that provide definitive “yes” or “no” answers to each and every one of those questions, and many more.

When you say, “I do,” you are accepting and affirming the pre-existing answers to these critical questions that govern your relationship. Healthy relationships do not afford this luxury. And, problematically, most people in relationships answer these questions for themselves, but never tell their partners.

Roland C. Warren is president of National Fatherhood Initiative

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