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Friday, November 2, 2018

A Portrait of a Healthy Relationship

If you want to scale Kilimanjaro or Everest, you might spend some time looking at images of others who have succeeded in the process, and reading books describing how they went about doing it. If you want to create a garden, you might begin by looking at glossy gardening books to get a feel for what depicts that which you have in your heart, or you might get some advice from a landscape gardener, and sign up for some practical classes. If you plan to move to a new country next year, and wish to be fairly fluent in its language by the time you arrive, you might start by taking some classes, by watching some films in that language (perhaps with subtitles in your own), in order to acclimatize yourself to the sounds of its words.

With healthy relationships, we can do a bit of the same. Most of us have not had wonderful role models in the relationships we have observed over the years – whether in our own families, or with friends and acquaintances - so it makes sense to look to some ideas and guidelines in order to form a vision in our minds and hearts about how a healthy relationship behaves. I might also mention that occasionally a celebrity couple that I am able to observe over a number of years from a distance, and that ticks all the seemingly right boxes with respect to having a healthy relationship, may, however, suddenly go through major events that trigger emotions in one or both parties. At this point then, you can truly see – assuming you understand some of what I will relate in the rest of this article – how poorly many people react – who, on the surface may appear to be well adjusted – when in the throes of emotions that they have not yet learned to regulate, especially if they have not yet begun the process of truly getting to know the self.

So let’s attempt to describe a healthy relationship. And please know that wherever either of you could arbitrarily be placed on the continuum of emotional maturity, is not nearly as important, as that you both currently find yourselves somewhere on it. Typically, the one who has walked further (not necessarily the one who is chronologically older, or even the one with a higher degree of education) is able to help the other partner navigate this continuum – not as a teacher, therapist, mentor, elder, or preacher – but rather, as a companion on this path. “Watch out for these loose pebbles; careful, there’s a branch in your way – don’t let it hit you in the face as you pass; the creek’s depth at that place there in the middle is deceptive – you might think it’s shallow, but it’s actually rather deep; I had a hard time climbing this part of the ascent myself – it’s quite tricky.” You get my point?

Here then, are some major elements required to make a relationship healthy, in no particular order:
  • Both partners are invested in personal growth.
  • Therefore both are able and willing to look at the self when issues arise, even if this inner process is still in its infancy (no matter the age of the person), and is still often very difficult, and may be quite painful.
  • Healthy boundaries form an integral part of the relationship (your partner respects yours, and you respect his/hers). That means, for example, that when having a conversation about something either of you considers an issue, your partner actually helps discuss it, rather than attacking or blaming you. I.e., if the man says he’d like to discuss how hurt he gets when the woman doesn’t show affection, in an unhealthy relationship she would blame him for something that may be totally unrelated in order to take the focus away from her, as opposed to openly looking at the issue.
  • Having healthy boundaries also implies that both are actively working on loving the self. It is nearly impossible to have good boundaries if you do not yet love yourself.
  • Both partners understand that learning how to self-regulate (thoughts, emotions, actions, reactions, self-dialogue, etc.) is paramount to the health of the relationship and are therefore committed to growing in that direction every day.
  • Both know that remaining aware, conscious, and present at all times is key to every point listed here.
  • Equally, both understand that growing into emotional maturity is a priority, a goal of utmost importance. Also see my July 2018 newsletter: How Your Degree of Emotional Maturity Influences Your Partner Choices.
  • Both recognize that the relationship is one of their most valuable tools for self-growth. In other words, it is precisely the issues that arise within the relationship that allow such growth to take place. This is only possible if both look at it from that point of view, and actively work at resolving all the personal and inter-personal issues that arise.
  • Of similar importance is the fact that neither partner feels a need to conform to the other partner’s idea of how they should be.
  • Both partners freely take on the responsibility for their own inner well-being and happiness, recognizing that this is not something that they should expect from the partner. This includes, of course, celebration with your partner, when he/she achieves something, just as your partner would celebrate with you. There is no sense of jealousy about the other’s successes, or if there is, such feelings are examined as part of the growth process.
  • You honour each other’s desires, needs & opinions, which requires that you both communicate very respectfully until you find a resolution that satisfies both parties. It therefore implies the tremendously important fact that neither of the partners determines that his/her position be the only validated one.
  • You both have a life apart from the relationship, which may include some friends, activities, hobbies, or sports. This strengthens the relationship, as opposed to one where you both try to do everything together, resulting in one or both giving up people, interests, or activities.
  • Independence (differentiation): this is a large topic that ties in with many of the other ones mentioned thus far. Healthy couples are differentiated. I.e., they do not depend on each other in some fundamental ways. In the words of David Schnarch, author of Constructing the Sexual Crucible, who actually put the term differentiation as I’m using it here on the map, differentiation is basically the ability to balance humankind's two most fundamental drives. One is our urge to be connected with other people, and the other is the urge to be free and autonomous and direct the course of our life. So both wanting to be in a relationship and wanting to be our own person are the two most fundamental drives and the two fundamental problems that couples have in emotionally committed relationships. So differentiation is the ability to have both: to be very much involved in a relationship and also be able to be your own person within that relationship. When you can do that, you basically have the best of both worlds, including the kind of relationship everybody wants to have.” This is, as stated in one way or another throughout this article, only possible if both parties are on a growth path.
  • You are both on the same page with regards to children, religion, and finances. By that I don’t mean that you both believe exactly the same thing, but that you have agreed to honour and respect the other’s position in these matters, and, that you have agreed prior to making a commitment how these matters will be dealt with in the relationship. If you are already in a relationship where these matters were initially left in the wind, you would now address them.
Don’t believe that because you are currently only able to tick a few of the above boxes in your current relationship (or perhaps not even one box), your situation is hopeless. Get your partner to read this. Get yourselves on the same page, and begin to work at simply one of the points illustrated above. You might want to get some books, or find a therapist or counsellor to help you manage the first steps, but more than anything, it is about getting yourselves on the same page. Both of you need to be invested in this process. If that is the case, you will get there. I promise you.

And if you are single or newly-separated or divorced, again, don’t despair. Work on yourself as you can, and when you cross the threshold to what might be a new relationship, be observant and very aware. Is this new person invested in a similar process? If not, tread warily, carefully because a lack of investment in such a process might simply lead you into another relationship of the kind you just ended. But if they are invested in a similar process, walk on over that threshold. You just might be taking one of the best steps of your life.



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