Oh no!
It looks like you aren't logged in to the Ethel community. Log in to get the best user experience, save your favorite articles and quotes, and follow our authors.
Don't have an Online Account? Subscribe here

Surefire Signs Your Relationship Is for Real — or Not

Find out if your beloved is a keeper.

Comment Icon
gif of man and woman looking at tablet, relationships, love
Robert Samuel Hanson
Comment Icon

We are older and wiser now, right? Yet, often when it comes to trusting someone we love, how do we know? Where’s the magical line demarcating proof that our beloved is a keeper — committed, honest and loyal? Why can’t we just buy a test at the pharmacy for this?

The reality is that there is no surefire manual on how to have healthy relationships. Trust is not something you learn in school. No one issues us a playbook with chapters on differentiating love from lust, trickery from trust, true love from a fling.

As a result, according to the latest statistics on divorce rates in the United States, some 45 percent of first marriages fail, with second and third unions doing even worse. One in 3 women experience domestic violence or sexual assault, usually by someone they trust, according to the nonprofit No More. Dangerous and deceptive relationships don’t come with warning labels.

So most of us bumble along, sometimes on Bumble. We lose our heads, our hearts, our wallets. The unlucky keep making the same mistakes. Fortunately, today there are experts who study healthy vs. unhealthy love, and they’ve come up with some outstanding markers.

Katie Hood is CEO of the One Love Foundation and creator of a TED Talk on the difference between healthy and unhealthy love, which has received 9 million views. She makes an insightful point about the illusory way our culture views romantic relationships.

“We grow up with the mythology of soul mates and instant connection,” Hood explains. “Trust is actually a gradual, back-and-forth, iterative process. We get to know each other. We make mistakes. We communicate about our hurt feelings and crossed boundaries. We listen and try to love better. There is no person on earth, no relationship, that is instantly perfect or instantly trustworthy. When we look for this kind of unrealistic winner-takes-all connection, we often, ironically, get trapped in unhealthy and potentially dangerous misconnections.”

As a tool, One Love has developed two lists. One is the “10 Signs of Healthy Relationships.” The other is the “10 Signs of Unhealthy Relationships.” These red flags are simple: Watch out for volatility, guilting and possessiveness. Look for comfortable pace, independence, honesty and kindness.

Yet, these simple markers are far from obvious in the heat of romance, when sexual passion and hope intertwine and overwhelm our early-warning systems. Hood recommends referring to the 10 signs regularly to assess your beloved’s behavior, as well as your own.

I’ll add three more signs, culled from my 40-plus years covering two husbands, at least 30 boyfriends (starting in first grade, ha!) and, now, life as a single, in my mid-50s. First, the emotion evoked by feeling sorry for someone is tremendously seductive, especially for women, with our biologically coded tendencies to care for weaker humans. Beware of the adult who expects you to feel sorry for him or her. Most emotionally healthy people abhor being pitied. Run from someone who thrives on this.

Second, look for someone who does nice things for you without asking for anything in return. It’s amazing how convincingly charming people can be when they are getting something out of the deal. Avoid ending up in divorce court by looking now for those subtle, obvious signs that your partner is generous in spirit and cares enough about you that the primary reward is making you feel secure and loved.

Third, look for emotion that lasts. Both of my husbands, and most of my boyfriends, were obsessively crazy about me for maybe three years. Then the magical connection faded, or they got scared off by the messy feel of intimacy. This is why we should take commitment slowly. Give it time to see if your partner has the sea legs and maturity to commit — and to really love.

I’ve learned so much, culled from my dozens of “love” experiences and research for my relationship books. Most importantly, learn to trust yourself and your gut instincts. The more connected you are to your inner sense of knowing, the more discerning you’ll be in all relationships.

The experts seem to agree: Take love slowly. Stay grounded in reality and actions. Verify hope and wild promises. Listen to your instincts. Don’t ignore warning signs. Accept that when it comes to love, there are no lifetime guarantees. The most important person to trust is not your partner — it’s yourself. Sometimes I think I have a divining rod already: my body. I now remember to seek out a physical feeling of safety in the pit of my stomach. I notice when I feel calm and when my bones tighten and tense. The stakes are too high; I’m not sure, at 56, that I can survive yet more heartbreak.

The other night, before a romantic tryst with my beloved of two years (also a friend for 17 years), I noticed that one of my toenails needed clipping. As Mr. Sexy waited for me in the bedroom, I crossed one of those small thresholds of relationship health. I did not worry about pleasing him. I did exactly what I would have done if we were both not breathing heavily 20 feet apart from each other: I grabbed the toenail clipper.

For me, this small moment was one of many signifying safety, comfort and trust. This is the priceless wisdom gained from decades of painful mistakes. I know who I am and the company I want: a partner with whom I feel totally, utterly myself. That’s the love I want to keep.

Editor's Picks
And this is part of the reason I'm a proud 'boomer zoomer.'
, June 20, 2024
How I learned to embrace a life on my own.
, June 20, 2024