Guide to relationships. Drawings of diverse range of young people in front of a heart

A Comprehensive Guide to Relationships

In this guide to relationships I’ll give you kinds of education that you won’t get at school. You learn about: what we mean by relationships; limits; how you should be treated; romance; trust; and break ups.

I’ve been teaching, advising, and supporting young people (and adults) about their relationships for well over 20 years. (You can read more about my work in the About Me section.) Because relationships education in school is mostly non-existent, people have been asking me for advice that actually works for them. Here are some resources for you which I think are the most important aspects of starting and maintaining a really great relationship.

Short version

Learn from one kind of relationship, like a friend, to help you with another, like a romantic relationship. Consent and limits are really important. To try to be clear and honest about what you want and what you can give. Don’t try to neg people into giving you what you want. You should feel part of a team, like someone who is your best friend.

It’s actually okay to argue so long as you don’t try to hurt each other. Be careful about doing everything with just one person. Remember that you have a relationship with yourself. Lastly remember that there are often good reasons why relationships should end. We see being in a relationship as being better than single, well it’s not. It’s certainly better to be single than be in a bad relationship.

That’s the summary, read on for my best advice.

What are relationships?
Treat ’em mean, they should dump you
Argue, but do it properly
There’s a U in couple
Be fair
Break Ups

If you’re not in a relationship and want to be, here’s my advice on how to get a girlfriend / boyfriend / themfriend.

What are relationships?

In my experience, lots of people worry about the word ‘relationship’ because it sounds heavy. Hook ups, FWBs, seeing each other, dating, going out, boy/girlfriend, engaged, partnered, married are all relationships, just different types. Going even further than that: friends, family, classmates, teammates, colleagues are all relationships too. How we feel about ourselves is also a relationship: I mean, even having a pet is a relationship.

The point is that there is a lot in common with all different kinds of relationships. So you could learn about what works for you in one relationship when you are having problems with another one. If you’re going out with someone who puts you down all the time you could ask yourself ‘if this was a mate, would that be okay?’ They are just different kinds of relationships and there is more than one kind of love. Thinking about your own relationships this way then you can make your own guide to relationships to work out what works for you.

Set and respect people’s limits

Pressuring or forcing your partner to go beyond their sexual limits is VERY BAD. As is pressuring or forcing someone into being a parent, or get married, or to say they love you. If someone is pressuring you into going beyond your limits then you could maybe dump them.

consent is not just about sex - bish guide to relationships

Consent is just as important in relationships as it is in sex. So as well as setting limits and respecting other people’s limits. You should try to make it consensual where there aren’t clear limits. For example, give people options about what they would like to do. Make this more than just an option of ‘shall we do this or not do this’. Also keep paying attention to how the other person is feeling and check in with them to make sure. There are lots of reasons why people find it hard to state what their limits are in relationships. For an example read power in relationships.

I’ve written a book about this called Can We Talk About Consent? by the way. It’s available worldwide and there have been several translations.

Treat them nice, not mean

I’ve heard a lot of people (lads mostly) say to me over the years “Justin you’ve got to ‘treat ‘em mean, keep ‘em keen’”. I just laugh and shake my head and tell them how wrong they are. The best and most long lasting relationships aren’t a battle, or a ‘game’. Be like a really good mate. Encourage rather than make them feel small. Be generous with your time and resources. Support them. Work together as a team. You should expect to feel this in return too.

However, it is also possible to be a bit much sometimes. Some people like someone to be there for them a lot, others like a bit of distance. That doesn’t mean that you should just play it cool all the time just in case, but it does mean that you should probably have a conversation about it. It can be hard chatting about relationships (and I’ve got that advice about how you can talk about talking). One thing that might help is my relationship venn diagrams idea — so that you can work out how much you should share in a relationship.

relationship venn diagrams - bish guide to relationships

Arguments are useful if you do them properly

Take it from me, arguments can be really upsetting, particularly if you are in a new relationship and haven’t had one before. It can be scary because it might make you think that the relationship isn’t meant to be. This means that people often try to avoid arguments but that is a bad idea. Being able to say that you are unhappy with someone, and to be able to hear that they are unhappy with you, is an important part of relationships. Relationships can improve hugely after an argument (and why people feel closer afterwards). So long as you both really listen to each other and agree a course of action afterwards.

So good arguing isn’t about winning and losing, it’s about communicating. About what’s wrong and what’s upsetting you and listening to what your partner is saying to you. This is easier said than done. There’s a difference between having an argument and a row (a yell, not a row as in rowing a boat). Rowing can be an important way of telling people that you are pissed off and that they should take you seriously. However, it’s hard to be clear when you are rowing and it’s really hard to listen to other people (which is an essential bit).

argue but do it properly - bish guide to relationships

Noticing feelings

So try to notice your feelings when you are in the middle of an argument and own them. If you notice that you are angry then you should just say to yourself, ‘I’m angry’. The other person can then tell you what their feelings are and you can then talk about how you are going to do this. For example, it might be a good idea to have a time out so that you can calm down. This is especially a good idea if anger is danger of turning into aggression. Then you can talk about how you are going to have the argument (rather than have a row).

Here’s more about emotions and how to feel them

I think it’s important to remember that there are feelings (where we feel things in our bodies), emotions, thoughts, and actions (the things we do). It’s important to notice the feelings and then to learn how to work with them so that you can deal with them rationally (emotions and thoughts). Then when you are having an argument you won’t do something you regret. There’s more about this in my article about Self Esteem and how we feel about ourselves.


Something I’ve found useful is to spend 5 minutes listening to each other. This gives one person enough time to clarify what it is that is annoying them (and also to calm down as a result). Then the other person can summarise what they just said to show that they were listening. This way we can help to understand what each other is feeling. Then change around so the other gets their say.

You could also try having a text exchange, or putting it all in a google doc and getting them to respond (which is very trendy and really works). If things are super difficult you could try and find someone who could be a go between: someone who knows you both equally and who can step in and help you communicate. If you do this you should really do something nice for them afterwards, because that is a hard job.

Relationships don’t have to be romantic (or extravagant)

Not everyone likes doing romance or even romantic relationships (just like there are asexual folk there are also aromantic folk). If you really want to do romantic relationships and do romantic things then that can be nice. However, it’s important to do be consensual and be romantic with someone rather than at someone. Some people like big romantic gestures, some people like surprises, some people really really don’t like either. So, again, try to talk about what kind of romance you might both be up for.

I really don’t think you don’t need loads of cash to do lovely romantic things. Long walks, picnics in the park, random museum trips, joint selfies, swapping jumpers so you smell each other when they aren’t around, making them playlists (or mixtapes) and cards, candle-lit burgers. I’ve got a few more ideas for how to be romantic on a budget (which I pull out whenever it’s Valentine’s Day).

However being romantic is also about just being there with them, giving people your undivided attention. Not looking at your phone all the time. Being able to be vulnerable with someone. Looking into someone’s eyes for ages and feeling all tingly and smiley.

Being on the same page

If one person really wants all of this romantic stuff and the other just wants to shag, it might be a sign you aren’t on the same page. However, being romantic and sexual are not the same thing anyway. Some people want sexual relationships without romance, some people want romantic relationships without sex. We can also have super romantic times with our mates – and sometimes we should put mates before dates. You might also want to think about why people have romantic relationships and think about what you want from them too.

There’s a ‘U’ in couple: remember yourself

remember there's a u in couple

Make sure you still spend time doing you and also tending to your other relationships. I think all relationships need a bit of distance for them to work but how much of this is up to you. Some people like to feel close and part of a double act: you know those couples who are always referred to jointly rather than separately. That can feel nice, but other people can feel like that’s too much. Again, the relationship venn diagrams will help you here.

It’s often a sign of a bad or unhealthy relationship if one person isn’t happy about the other person having their own friends, their own interests and their own plans for their future. There have been lots of times when someone tells me that their partner (who they’ve only known for like two minutes) is really jealous and angry of their friends. For me, this is when there are alarm bells and in those situations I’ve supported that person to help them understand what is going on.

It’s important to stick to your own game plan about what you have planned for your future. This is because a) relationships often end and b) it makes your relationship stronger if you grow as individuals too. If you’re in a relationship and the other person is very controlling and doesn’t let you have any life outside of the relationship then it might be a good time to think about whether it is an abusive relationship or not.

Be fair to each other, you and everyone else

Everyone has their own ideas about what’s acceptable in a relationship, but I think it’s important to be fair to each other. It’s a good idea to talk about this so that you both know what to expect from each other. For instance, is it ok to see other people? If so, is there a limit on this? Is this fair for both people? (Like, if it’s ok for one person to have other sex or romantic relationships can the other?)

Also make your own rules together about how decisions are made in the relationship that affect you. Eg “Why did you say we were going out on Saturday without asking me first?” This all comes back to consent again. Don’t assume that someone is up for a thing because they’ve done it before. Give people lots of options. Give people an out from doing a thing if you feel like they don’t want to.

Trust is absolutely essential

Lots of people think that trust is the most important element of a good relationship, but what does trust mean?

when can you trust someone

For some people this means 100% honesty. Other people think other things are more important, like: can you trust that they aren’t going to hurt you? Can you trust that they would do the right thing about safer sex? Do you believe what they say? Are you able to be fair, and listen to each other, and try to care for each other? If you both follow the advice on here then you might build trust with each other, but it’s up to you to figure out when you can trust someone. How do you do know?

If someone has had difficult times in relationships with other people in the past then it may be difficult for them to trust other people. If you’re in a situation of you trusting someone more than they can trust you then you may have to be a little more patient. However, if you’re in a situation of finding trusting people very difficult then you might have to think about what kind of relationship might actually be right for you right now.

Read more about trust in relationships

All relationships end and break ups don’t always have to suck

All relationships end, either through someone dying or a break up. Even if you follow this guide to relationships, it will end.

However a relationship ends it’s important to remember that they can suck for both of you. I think that it’s good to be as good and nice as you can about a break-up. For more about this visit my post about breaking up. If you are sure that the relationship has to end: be clear, be honest and avoid giving mixed messages. If you’re having big thoughts about your relationship then perhaps give yourselves a relationships check up by looking at the relationships graph.

Okay so this sounds weird, but I think that it might be a good idea to talk about how you might want to break up. Like, do you want to have these conversations in person or via text? Do you need someone else to intervene and help you break up (who might be able to help collect stuff or relay messages)? How do you tell people about it? Are you going to follow each other on social media? Do you want to have contact or do you want to have a break for a bit? It’s likely that the reason you’re breaking up is that you can’t have these conversations, so that might not work.

How to stick the landing

The best break ups are when people can recognise that their relationship can’t give them what they need and they both agree. Sometimes these kinds of break ups feel more like a change in the relationship rather than an ending. In those cases it might be that it changes to a different kind of relationship: like going from a romantic relationship to a friendship. That can still be really difficult to do, and it’s not cool to just be ‘let’s be friends’ if you’re not going to be friends. Perhaps you could be more honest and say ‘I don’t know how things are going to be between us, so let’s see how we feel.’ Or ‘I can’t promise to be friends because we’re both changing and growing all the time and I don’t know.’

But if your partner was dangerous, nasty, controlling, deliberately made you feel like total shit or was generally awful: be as bad and as loud as you like and just get out. If you don’t know how you will ever get over them, I’ve got that advice for you too.

I hope you’ve found all this useful! Please comment below if you have any other tips for how to make relationships work. What’s worked for you? If you have any relationships questions for me I can answer them on here in the ‘Ask BISH’ section: just send me a message via the contact page.

Justin (Hancock)

PS If you’re a teacher or a sex educator, thanks for reading but why not check out my teaching resources like Love, Innit that are designed for you. There are also free RSE resources which I worked on at DO…. which are also reviewed in this academic article on relationships education.

Please leave a (nice) comment below if you like or ask me a question here.

© Justin Hancock, 2024 Find out more about me and BISH here.

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I’ve been a sex and relationships educator since 1999 (with a background in youth and community work). In that time I’ve taught and given advice about sex and relationships with thousands of young people in person and millions online. I’ve worked with many charities, local governments, schools and youth organisations facilitating training and workshops. My two books, Enjoy Sex (How, When, and If You Want To) and Can We Talk About Consent? are widely available around the world. I’ve been on the telly and the radio and have written articles for newspapers and magazines. I’m also a member of the World Association for Sexual Health. Read more about me and BISH here. Find out about my other work here Justin Hancock

If you’re over 18 and would like an advanced version of BISH check out my podcast Culture Sex Relationships. Also I’ve written a sex advice book for adults with Meg-John Barker called A Practical Guide to Sex available wherever you get books. We also did some zines to help you to figure out what you want from sex and relationships. They are at our website.

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