Is It Possible to Have a Healthy Relationship?
Maria entered my office crying. She just ended her five year relationship and was understandably upset. In retrospect, she recognized numerous 'red flags' that she tried to overlook throughout the relationship. As she spoke of her anger, hurt, and disappointment, she asked, "Does anyone ever actually have a healthy relationship? I mean, is it even possible?"
Many people who enter therapy are struggling with relationship issues. Whether they are lesbian, gay, bi, trans or straight; whether they are in a relationship, ending a relationship, having difficulty letting go of a past relationship or want to be in a relationship, relationships are the number one issue I have experienced in my practice.
What is a healthy relationship?
Keeping in mind that what one person wants in a relationship can be quite different from another, ask yourself these questions:
Does your relationship support your growth? Do you feel better about yourself being with this person? Can you really be yourself? Are your needs as an individual, separate from your partner, supported? Are your needs within the relationship accepted and supported? Do you feel secure, needed, and wanted? Do you trust your partner? Does s/he trust you? Are your friendships respected? Do you feel listened to? Are your thoughts and feelings important to your partner?
How would your partner answer these questions about you?
If these are basic tenets of a healthy relationship, why would anyone settle for less?
For one thing our relationships can only be as healthy as we are. If we feel unimportant and undeserving, we will find a relationship to support those beliefs. If we respect ourselves,feel lovable and deserving of love, we will find someone who mirrors that.
Obviously, our past relationships--family, friends, exes--are a factor in who we will choose as a partner.
As Maria examined her relationship with her ex, she began to realize that her partner, Jenna was emotionally unavailable and it seemed the more Maria needed Jenna, the more she pulled away. It was a classic "pursuer-distancer" relationship. Jenna was rarely home and when she was, Maria experienced her as cold and distant. Then Maria found out Jenna was having an affair.
During our work together, Maria explored her relationship with her "cold, distant" father and overprotective, critical mother. She wanted closeness with him and tried to distance herself from her mother.
As an adult, Maria was turned off to anyone who was truly loving, caring, and present because she felt threatened and feared losing herself. She became more aware of how she was drawn to the promise of love, but totally unfamiliar with experiencing love without feeling trapped. She started recognizing this pattern had existed in all of her previous relationships.
In relationships, we often wind up repeating patterns in the hope of having a different/better outcome. The needs we have as children, when unmet, never go away. So, we find a partner who we hope will meet those needs and help heal our wounds. However, we often choose someone who is a lot like the parent who wounded us. Some people are hooked by the challenge of getting love from someone who withholds it. Unfortunately, it often recreates the pain of not having the need met.
Just realizing the pattern doesn't make it go away. Maria still found herself attracted to women who were similar to her ex. The difference was she wasn't willing to give herself up for someone else. Now that her eyes were open to the "red flags" she denied in her last relationship, she was able to extricate herself before she made a commitment. After working on her issues, she finds herself more attracted to emotionally available people.
Signs of an unhealthy relationship
There are obvious signs like physical and verbal/emotional abuse, but there are more subtle problems that may be rationalized or minimized.
Jai came to see me when he was in the process of transitioning. He was considering top surgery, but his partner, Ellen would not engage in a conversation with him. She had difficulty when Jai started hormones and became increasingly distant over time. Jai was conflicted as he loved his partner, but could not be himself. he had to make a painful choice, but knew he needed to be loved for the man he was becoming, not the woman Ellen wanted him to be. Being accepted for who you are is key for a healthy relationship.
Jim and Lee came to see me because of "a breakdown in communication", an issue that brings many couples into treatment. However, it wasn't so much a communication issue as it was a difference in their wants and needs. Jim needed Lee to support his goals and dreams to be an actor. Lee felt Jim was wasting his time and money. He needed Jim to get a "real job" because they needed money. He often put Jim down, belittling his efforts at finding roles and criticizing his talent. Jim began to feel less sure of himself and his goals. He sunk into a depression.
When a relationship leads you to feel in some way diminished as a person, it isn't healthy. Conversely, if you are with a person who loves the parts of you that you love in yourself as well as the parts of you that you don't love so much, you will have a healthier and happier relationship.
Over time, Lee was able to see how diminishing his partner's dreams added to Jim's low self-esteem and depression. He began to understand why it was important to support and nurture his partner's dreams. Together they were able to able to forge a healthier relationship.
The answer to the question, is it possible to have a healthy relationship, is a resounding yes. By working on our individual issues, we can bring our healthier selves into a partnership. That way, when conflicts arise in a relationship, we are better able to own the part we play.
By Patti Geier, LCSW *all names have been changed.