Frontline Initiative: Supporting Healthy Relationships

Heart of Relationships


Katie Thune is an educator, speaker, author, and founder of Sexuality for All Abilities and Mad Hatter Wellness. Katie is from St. Paul, Minnesota. She can be reached at

On a date night with my husband, Dusty, we sat at a booth talking about what is important in a healthy relationship. We are both educators who work with people with disabilities. One of us said, "Relationships are complicated! Kind of like puzzles. If a piece is missing, it's not complete." A light bulb went on and Dusty frantically started drawing out a puzzle on his napkin (this is not an unusual thing to happen when you are with Dusty). We started brainstorming. We came up with the five pieces of a healthy relationship: The Heart of the Relationship image you see here.

Katie Thune and her husband, Dusty, sitting at a restaurant table. Dusty is sketching on a piece of paper.

If we think about these five important pieces to a healthy relationship, we can begin to explore the relationships in our lives to discover if there is anything we need to change or work through. There is not a numbered order because we need all five of these pieces to have a healthy relationship.

Relationships are like puzzles – and sometimes it’s difficult to figure out if a relationship is healthy or unhealthy – especially for people with disabilities. Healthy relationships are fun and make you feel good about yourself. Healthy relationships can be with anyone in your life – family members, staff, friends, people you date. Unhealthy relationships are not fun and might make you feel bad about yourself. Unhealthy relationships can be with anyone in your life – family members, staff, friends, people you date.

The heart of relationships can be a great tool for direct support professionals (DSPs) to use with the people they support. We know that DSPs help people navigate many situations in their lives. This tool can be used to help talk through the different relationships people have. The heart of relationships isn’t just about romantic relationships. It can be used to think about all types of relationships. It can also be used when someone is struggling with a relationship and they aren’t sure why or what next steps to take. This can be a useful tool for anyone wanting to strengthen their relationships. Here are some discussion questions that DSPs can use to discuss the heart of relationships with the people they support:

 In my relationships, I get to be myself.

  • What is something unique about you that you would want to share in a relationship?
  • What can you do if someone in a relationship tries to control you?

We take time to get to know each other.

  • How long do you want to know someone before you are romantic with them?
  • Why would taking time to get to know someone in a relationship be important?

There is compromise in my relationships - we take turns making decisions.

  • What are some ways you take turns and compromise in your relationships?
  • How can you talk with a friend or romantic partner if you are not sharing in decision-making or taking turns?

We get along and have fun together.

  • Name some things you like to do with people in your life.
  • What can you do if you start to argue more often with a friend or partner?

Boundaries are respected - I can say no in my relationships.

  • Why is it important to be able to say no in relationships?
  • What are some boundaries you have with people in your life?

The Heart of Relationships is for YOU.

Please use it to support the people in your life (or yourself) and their relationships.