Friday, May 1, 2009

How Can I Tell If My Relationship Is Healthy?

In thinking about our relationships we can readily see the view from our own perspective. We have a lens through which we view the world that we developed during our childhood with our family of origin. We may have witnessed our caretakers discussing issues in a productive way, making compromises and finally coming to an agreement. In this way we learned how to productively negotiate to accomplish our goal within the boundaries of a relationship.

But what if we instead witnessed heated arguments or screaming matches, long lists of past offenses and degrading comments that inevitably led to extended periods of silence with no resolution. Alternately we may have seen one party always allowing the other to have their way with no compromise or discussion. What happens to our interpretation of how to conduct ourselves within relationships, when our ability to learn and emulate is broken by dysfunction.

Children depend on their caretakers to interpret the world for them. They don’t have the ability to interpret or understand their emotional responses on any significant level until about age five. Young children mirror their caretakers facial expressions and body language, thereby emulating the feelings of their caretakers. Additionally, they don’t have the capacity to fully process their feelings into decipherable thoughts paired with words until about age twelve.

If our caretakers are unable to provide a healthy example to us of appropriate behavior in relationships, we may have no other model available for comparison. Since we are young and uninformed, we adopt the patterns from our family of origin, healthy or otherwise. As we grow into adults and enter into relationships of our own, we may unconsciously duplicate these patterns absorbed during our childhoods.

We are initially attracted to our partners because it “feels right” to be with them. We may not realize it but we are like broken jigsaw puzzle pieces, looking for our missing counterparts. When we find a fit it feels familiar. All too often that familiarity is a replay of unfinished business from our dysfunctional childhoods. We have found a partner who’s characteristics gives us a choice. We either have the opportunity to heal from past wounds, or to replay the same old hurtful patterns we lived through as children. How we use this opportunity is up to us.

Virginia Satir, family therapist states that “Feelings of worth can flourish only in an atmosphere where individual differences are appreciated, mistakes are tolerated, communication is open, and rules are flexible. The kind of atmosphere that is found in a nurturing family.”

The same is true in relationships. Nurturing healthy relationships offer partners the ability to be supported while allowing for individual expression. Open communication between partners where both feel free to express themselves in the relationship is crucial. Differences between partners become areas providing opportunity for learning and appreciation of one another’s strengths. Making mistakes is seen as unavoidable and understanding is available to smooth over rough spots. Rules are flexible to allow for individual creativity and growth within the bounds agreed upon by the parties.

Dysfunctional relationships offer no such rewards. Partners often feel suffocated by constraints in communication and inflexibility in rules. Differences may not be tolerated and individuality may be seen as a threat. The unspoken rules in many dysfunctional relationships may be, don’t think (for yourself, don’t rock the boat), don’t talk (about problems or issues), and don’t feel (or at least don’t talk about feelings if you happen to have them). This type of stifling of communication leads to festering of emotions, building walls between partners and turning unresolved issues into feelings of anger and bitterness.

Counseling can provide a open forum whereby partners can express themselves to one another in a safe environment. Having a disinterested third party present can give partners a window into the relationship from a new point of view. Often times all that is needed to get a relationship back on track is a chance for partners to see themselves as others see them. This paradigm shift can be a powerful experience allowing for internal motivation to change.

If partners accept one another’s basic personalities and feel committed to working on themselves and their relationship, there are few issues that cannot be overcome with enough time, effort and love. We commit to practicing using our tools in our daily lives to increase our self esteem. We give ourselves time to reflect and make gradual changes. We allow our partner the dignity of making mistakes and learning from them. We learn the art of apologizing when we falter. In this way we create the relationship that we desire and give ourselves the gift of hope.

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