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Healthy Relationships

A few days ago I posted a picture about what healthy relationships look like on my Instagram account (@hostombe.counselling). it is so succinct and important i feel inspired to dig a little deeper on the topic. Importantly, when I talk about healthy relationships, I am not just referring to romantic relationships. We’re talking about family, children, friends and even relationships with our colleagues and aquaintences. Relationships are a cornerstone to human thriving. We are designed to live in community and I cannot stress enough how finding one’s tribe is a potent factor in long-lasting and satisfactory recovery. Of course, with such power comes great turmoil (or so the saying almost goes). Unhealthy, neglectful or hurtful relationships can be very damaging to our psyche. This applies acutely to children since they are forming their attachment styles and learning how to relate with the world. Fortunately, even those who haven’t been modelled healthy relationships growing up can still learn new ways of relating; the pattern can be broken.

So, what are the signs of a healthy relationship? What are we aiming for?

You support each other

Knowing someone has your back is such an under-rated feeling and offers so much security. Obviously, this only applies if your goals are for your benefit; I think the sentiment here is to lift each other up and want the best for one another. This can apply to the big or small; your partner is gunning for a big promotion? Fantastic, maybe you could offer to listen to their proposal before they present it at work (give your TIME! Time is such a gift!). Your friend’s parent is really sick? Would they like a lift to the hospital and the opportunity to chat. Your little brother wants to go as a hobbit to national literature day? Cool. Don’t underestimate how supportive your mere presence can be. Showing up and creating a space that is accepting no matter what the other person is showing up with is a powerful action of support.

You trust each other

There are quite a few layers to trust. The obvious one is I tell you a secret and expect you to keep it to yourself. Keeping schtum is a skill which takes conscious effort; I don’t think all loose-lipped people spread information intentionally or maliciously. Bear in mind the friend that you think is great fun because they always share the gossip is probably just as indiscrete about anything you share with them too.

Next to that I think an important way trust is expressed is by becoming someone who is dependable, someone who does what they say they are going to do. Then they continue to do this consistently. A personal favorite value of mine is integrity and this is the same thing. Life is unpredictable enough without flaky actors taking part. A dependable character is like a safe haven in a storm.

Active listening

Have you ever been speaking to someone and they’re checking their notifications and turning to look at the person who just walked in, then interrupts you to tell you about a completely different topic? This kind of behaviour can make us feel unimportant very quickly. To practice active listening, turn everything off. Phones away. Find a quiet, comfortable space. Eye contact. Non-verbal cues to indicate you’re really listening (nodding, leaning in..). Portion out a sizeable amount of time if necessary. Many people don’t need to hear solutions, they simply need to be heard. If someone isn’t willing to give you this degree of attention at least some of the time, don’t give them yours.

It’s safe to be vulnerable

Like trust, you have to know the other person isn’t going to share your private thoughts at the water cooler. But being vulnerable is deeper than that; it requires assurance that whatever you share you won’t be judged for it. In a healthy relationship both parties accept the other’s intrinsic value during thick and thin. We learn to see the person as a whole entity and not critique them based on one fact or feeling.

You work together, even after difficult conversations

If you want a healthy relationship, you must BOTH be willing to work for it. If only one person is willing to put the effort in, you’re setting yourself up for a whole lot of resentment further down the line. (*people pleasers take note*). Sure, there will be times when one party will be picking up the slack and making more of an effort but we should be aiming for overall balance. The real challenge is to continue to do so after a disagreement, however petty. To continue to work together after falling out or friction requires both people to take a step back and see the bigger picture, foregoing petty victories for the health of the relationship in the long-run.

It’s safe and honest

Sometimes, we’re going to have to say things we’re frightened the other person won’t like and hear things we would rather not be aware of. But think about it, would you rather know today that your colleague despises the nickname you innocently and affectionately pronounced over them last week, or eight months down the line when you finally find out why their eyes deaden when you come to their desk. Awkward conversations can save relationships and are frequently less painful than we expect them to be. So often we have rehearsed conversations in advance so many times, anticipating the reactions and resultant feelings that we have already flushed our body with negative emotions multiple times before we’ve even uttered a word. Often, if the other person is someone who wants a mutually healthy relationship with you too, they will be able to see your good intentions and receive what you have to say in the manner with which it is intended.

There are boundaries

In a healthy relationship both parties know that no means no. Respecting boundaries is extremely important; many people will end up doing what they don’t really want to in order to please someone else hoping that this will win them praise or acceptance. These can be behaviour patterns are often instilled from childhood. However, in doing so we lose authenticity and distance the relationship to our true selves, ultimately causing stress, resentment or burnout. Setting boundaries can take a lot of forethought, you may never have even considered what you want or what is good for you before, having always put other peoples needs first. Not only setting boundaries clearly but also communicating when someone is crossing yours is a skill; a good way to develop this is to practice non-violent communication (NVC).

There is mutual respect

This last one is necessary before any of the above points can be possible. Before a relationship can grow each person must acknowledge that the other is a whole and valuable being, irrespective of likes or differing opinions or behaviours. A very dear mother-like figure in my life told me when I was very young how she loved someone but she didn’t like them much. This blew my little mind and has had a profound effect on how I approach all relationships. I interpreted this to mean that sure, she didn’t approve of the person in questions behaviour, or certainly wouldn’t have acted that way herself, but it didn’t mean she valued or respected them any less. Pretty bold stuff, no? This sort of unquestioning compassion is hard to achieve but I firmly believe it’s a solid aspiration that we should try to introduce to all our relationships.

Some warning signs that you're in an unhealthy relationship include feeling like you need to alter who you are or make consistent sacrifices at the sake of your wellbeing. Indeed, preassure to conform to the other persons attitudes or beliefs is a red flag. You may feel that the communication is poor, either lack thereof or misunderstandings, that there is a power dynamic where there should be equality or you feel judged and resist sharing your genuine thoughts and feelings. Some of these issues will be one offs but if they persist you may want to consider addressing the problem with the other person. You could consider introducing a third person to the conversation to mediate or even seek professional help .

Healthy relationships require effort from both sides, regardless of the nature of the relationship. With all the best intentions you cannot plead or force another person to change unless they are willing to. If your partner is not interested in doing the work, you can still seek help for yourself and should focus on cultivating your support group outside of this one specific relationship. Ultimately, if you find any relationship more troubling than rewarding, and they show no signs of wanting to change over a period of time you should consider cutting your losses and walking away.

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