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Are Your Relationships Healthy?
by Helene C. Parker, Ph.D.
with Doreen L. Virtue, Ph.D.
unhealthy relationship tears the partners down, a healthy relationship
stimulates both partners' individual growth. A functional relationship acts like
a human greenhouse, encouraging and nurturing a person to flourish and grow. A
functional relationship is not a fairy-tale type "they lived happily ever
after" scenario; it is subject to the same stresses and challenges inherent
in any human partnership. The important distinction between a functional and a
dysfunctional relationship is this: the former encourages personal growth
(constructive), while the latter discourages personal growth (destructive).
Below are the signs of a functional relationship:
1. Encouraging one another to develop new skills and interest
Healthy relationship partners delight in seeing each other's happiness and
excitement. They feel stimulated and intrigued by their partner's growing
knowledge and confidence. They find each other's new experiences fascinating,
and they encourage each other's continued growth. In a healthy relationship, the
two partners promote the development of each other's potential.
2. Emotionally supporting one another's goals
Forty-seven-year-old Lorraine has decided to complete her bachelor's degree,
now that her three children are grown and on their own. It was a difficult
decision for Lorraine, given her age and her competing desire to travel. Her
husband, Sean, fully supports Lorraine's decision to return to school. He will
be there to encourage her during the inevitable moments of doubt, frustration,
and stress -- as well as during her moments of excitement and happiness. (Sean
will also be there during summer breaks, as they travel to Europe together).
3. Not feeling threatened by a partner's outside interests
When Chris told his wife, Ada, that he wanted to buy a Harley-Davidson
motorcycle, she was surprised at first and a little confused. Ada had no
interest in motorcycle riding -- the thought of riding on the back of a bike
scared her enormously. The couple discussed the situation, and agreed that:
Chris would take a motorcycle safety course; Ada would not be pressured to ride
the motorcycle or participate in the Harley-Davidson group activities; Chris
could enjoy his motorcycle without Ada; and Ada would take responsibility for
filling up her time apart from Chris. By discussing and negotiating their
separate interests, neither Ada nor Chris were resentful or reluctant to pursue
their own pleasures.
4. Trusting one another
Trust is having the confidence in your judgment to trust yourself to trust
your partner. I distinguish between earned trust versus blind trust. Children
blindly trust their parents to provide for them. As adults, we learn to trust
through self-awareness. Our mates earn trust by demonstrating they are
trustworthy. Their actions -- not just their words -- are consistent with
behavior we know to be healthy. Trust is central for a relationship's health. In
a functional relationship, both partners trust themselves to trust each other.
They know their partner will
• remain loyal and monogamous
• not be abusive, emotionally or physically
• keep their promises, and be reliable
• pull their own weight in meeting the couple's goals and obligations
• be honest and not lie or mislead
• not intentionally inflict pain on the other partner
• openly and directly share their feelings, thoughts, and opinions with
the other partner
When you trust your partner, you will be safe. You know you won't be hurt,
betrayed, or ridiculed. In this setting of trust, you can let down your guard
and really be yourself with your partner, allowing a feeling of safety to flow
through the relationship. You don't need to censor or edit your conversations,
or alter your behavior (as long as your words and behavior are kind and
courteous). You can open your heart to the other person. This deep trust and
mutual vulnerability forms the core of lasting love. It is the essence of
intimacy: "I can deeply trust myself to feel safe with you."
5. Responding to problems with the goal of negotiating solutions
Whenever two people spend time together, there are bound to be occasional
differences of opinion. The way these differences are resolved can mean the
difference between a functional and a dysfunctional relationship. Carole, for
example, felt her husband, Darren, was spending too much time at his law
practice, and not enough time with her and their two young children. The
children asked, "Where's Daddy?" so frequently, that Carole decided to
negotiate a solution with Darren. The couple discussed ways that Darren could
fulfill both his career and his family responsibilities. They hit upon a
creative, workable solution: Carole would pitch in to help Darren meet his
deadlines. This would give the couple time together, as well as free up Darren's
weekends so that the family could enjoy pleasurable leisure time.
6. Taking responsibility for one's role in any relationship problems
When one partner says, "I would like to talk about something," the
other partner in a healthy relationship is open and available. If necessary they
will schedule an appointment and then adhere to the appointment. In a
dysfunctional relationship, "We need to talk" is usually met with
defensiveness, such as "I didn't do anything wrong!" or with
distancing, as in "Oh, honey you know how much I hate to talk about our
7. Fulfilling one's own needs and wants
At age forty-five, Chuck had a deep yearning to perform volunteer work with
the disadvantaged and homeless people his community. He found deep satisfaction
in working at the soup kitchen and performing fund-raising activities. His wife,
Sarah, respected Chuck's volunteer work and emotionally supported him, although
choosing not to personally participate.
Another couple, Cindy and Frank, had a similar experience. Cindy had always
dreamed of being a professional potter, creating mugs and vases in her backyard
and selling them in an in-home pottery boutique. But through the years, Cindy
had ignored her dream and had, instead, built a successful career as a bank
manager. On her thirty-fifth birthday, Cindy underwent a personal crisis in
which she questioned her career and her life's work. She made a decision, and
created a plan to fulfill her dreams: Cindy would work on her pottery at night,
with the goal of easing out of her banking job and supporting herself gradually
with her pottery work. Cindy took responsibility for meeting her own wants and
dreams in a realistic and achievable manner. Frank used the time to work on some
of his unfinished projects.
8. Not blaming the partner for your own unhappiness
"Something is missing from my life" -- it's a thought most of us
have from time to time. It's a normal thought that can propel us either toward
growth and fulfillment, or toward destructive blaming patterns. Functional
people take action to resolve their feelings of dissatisfaction. Dysfunctional
people, in contrast, blame their partner for their unhappiness. Functional
people says to themselves, "What am I doing, or not doing, that is
contributing to my dissatisfaction?" Dysfunctional people say, "I'd be
more satisfied if only my partner would change."
9. Openly sharing feelings with one another in a responsible, non-abusive
Tricia and Steve rarely disagreed with one another during their six-year
marriage, until the birth of their son, Andrew, two years ago. Now, Tricia and
Steve are having difficulty seeing eye to eye on child-rearing practices.
"Steve wants to raise Andrew with this controlling, disciplinarian
method," Tricia complained to her counselor. "I think we should raise
Andrew in a setting of loving acceptance, where we're encouraging him instead of
yelling at him."
In a dysfunctional relationship, the couple would try to resolve their
differences of opinion with screams, threats and name-calling. The couple would
use "tactics" such as yelling, guilt trips, or manipulation to get
their way. These tactics don't resolve situations in a satisfactory manner.
Contrast those tactics with the healthy measures Tricia and Steve used. They
discussed the basis of their child-rearing philosophies. Steve said he was
raised by strict parents, adding "I turned out fine, didn't I?" Tricia
talked about the hands-off policy her own parents had used during her childhood.
In discussing how to raise Andrew, both Steve and Tricia discovered something
important: neither of them really liked the extreme parenting style they'd been
raised with. They mutually decided to enroll in a parenting class held at a
nearby adult education class.
10. Having regard for one another's feelings
In the heat of an argument, it's important to attack the issue and not the
person. Even when emotions run high avoid hurling insults. Those words can
fracture the delicate balance of trust within a relationship, and can cause
Even in the cool of normal, everyday interactions within a relationship,
healthy partners know the importance of treating one another with respect and
kindness. It's sad, but we sometimes afford more courtesy to strangers than to
our own mate! Long-term, fulfilling relationships are constructed upon a solid
foundation of mutual respect and the golden rule. Treating our partners with
respect doesn't occur by accident; it's a choice and a decision.
11. Respecting and encouraging the partner's individuality
When Natalie told her husband, Richard, that she wanted to attend church
regularly, he was entirely supportive. Natalie explained that she'd been craving
spiritual enrichment and stimulation, and knew that attending church would
fulfill this desire. Richard discussed how he respected and supported Natalie,
and appreciated her not pushing him to go with her. He explained how he'd felt
forced to attend church as a child. As an adult, he preferred to pray outside a
church setting. Richard explained that if he reconciled his feelings he would go
to church with Natalie. In the meantime, both partners supported the other's
position. Richard would support Natalie's desire to attend church, and Natalie
would honor Richard's decision to stay home.
It's unrealistic to expect our love partner to be our identical twin. He or
she is bound to have priorities that differ from our own. The way those
differences are handled is one distinction between a healthy and an unhealthy
relationship. In a unhealthy relationship, differences are viewed as threats or
a sign that "this isn't my dream lover after all." In healthy
relationships, differences are discussed, negotiated, and supported.
12. Maintaining one's boundaries
Both partners in a healthy relationship know that the partnership is only as
healthy as the individual partners. A person with healthy boundaries knows the
• "I am an individual separate from you."
• "I have the right to my own, separate life."
• "I have the right to maintain secrets, as long as I'm not being
dishonest or harming you in any way."
• "I am responsible for meeting my needs."
• "I am responsible for expressing my wants and negotiating for their
13. Maintaining one's integrity and self-respect
Taking care of yourself is an investment that pays dividends in your love
relationship. Self-respect is earned by acting in accordance with your beliefs
and values. If you act against your deepest beliefs, you will lose respect for
yourself. If you act as you believe (something only you can decide for
yourself), you heighten and maintain self-respect.
Have you ever been in a relationship with a person who has lower self-esteem
than you do? Most of us have; and as you've probably already discovered, this
type of relationship is doomed from the outset. A healthy relationship requires
two partners with healthy levels of self-esteem. Each partner has an obligation
to continue doing whatever is necessary to maintain their individual integrity.
14. Being willing to invest time and energy toward helping the relationship
At the first sign of problems or conflict, a dysfunctional person will run
for the hills. A healthy relationship takes effort and some emotional elbow
grease, it is something that requires a commitment from both partners. This is
not to say a healthy relationship is one, long prison sentence of continuing
conflict. Actually, a long-term healthy relationship is much less stressful than
a series of short-term, dysfunctional relationships. The former is
growth-producing; the latter shreds people's lives apart.
Individuals must make their own decisions about this issue. What is your
choice when dealing with problems or conflicts within the relationship? If your
partner is non-abusive, and is healthy and compatible with you, will you stick
it out through the hard times? Is a fulfilling relationship enough of a prize
for you to pay the price of some effort and occasional discomfort, in order to
nurture and maintain the partnership? I want to stress that I'm not talking
about playing the role of a Martyr or a Victim. We've already seen the futility
and unhealthiness of playing those roles. I'm talking about facing problems
head-on, negotiating solutions, and then doing the necessary follow-up work.
15. Maintaining honesty and credibility
Cassandra and Mark, who have been dating for two years, are discussing the
possibility of moving in together. Cassandra is having some doubts because she
believes living together outside of marriage is both immoral and unwise.
"My parents are dead set against what they call living in sin,"
Cassandra told her best friend. "But Mark says he won't be ready to get
married until we've first tested how compatible we are together. I'm afraid if I
don't go along with him he'll break up with me."
This couple is already in trouble. Cassandra and Mark are neither ready to
either live together, nor ready for marriage. The fact that Cassandra isn't
honest with Mark about her fundamental beliefs is a hallmark of a dysfunctional
relationship. In a healthy relationship, Cassandra and Mark would openly discuss
their feelings and beliefs. They would negotiate a solution such as:
• They could attend premarital counseling, to explore whether or not
their wants, values, and goals, were indeed compatible.
• They could set a future wedding date, and wait to live together until
after the marriage ceremony.
• They could move in together, with an agreement that they will live
separately if they aren't married within a set period of time.
• They could decide they aren't compatible, and break up.
16. Being giving, in healthy ways
What do men and women long for, more than anything else? Not expensive
presents or trips (although those are certainly appreciated). What men and women
really want is a thoughtful, loving partner who is willing to negotiate an
Examples of giving in a healthy manner:
• Each respects the other's values and style.
• Each tries to understand their partner's point of view and will
support the other's right to hold differing opinions.
• Each strives for equality in the relationship; neither assumes a
superior role such as that of a parent and a child.
• Each remembers the other's special and unique pleasures.
• Neither patronizes nor placates the other with insincere compliments.
Additional Signs of A Healthy Relationship
17. Being monogamous and loyal
A relationship cannot survive when the partners are putting their energy
into other sexual or romantic partners. Although I've worked with many
couples who have salvaged their marriage after one partner admitted to an
affair, the relationship is always threatened by such an event.
18. Being willing to confront dysfunctional or unacceptable behavior
Nobody enjoys conflict, except the unhealthy person who views fighting as
an exciting and dramatic sport. It's equally unhealthy, however, to be so
conflict-phobic that all confrontations are shunned and avoided.
A healthy relationship is built on a mutual agreement to bring problems
to the table for discussion and negotiation. Much like a business meeting
where partners look for ways to increase profits, healthy love partners
discuss ways to increase fulfillment.
19. Being intimate with the partner and the relationship
A healthy partnership is a safe haven where both partners are free to be
themselves without censor or worry. They are thoughtful and kind toward one
another, but they don't pretend to be someone other than who they are. This
is called intimacy, the ability to trust your relationship.
20. Pulling one's fair share and negotiating responsibilities
Both partners assume responsibility for fulfilling the couple's mutual
needs and wants, such as a clean house, sufficient income, keeping cars in
proper working order, and eating nutritious meals.
21. Showing thoughtfulness and common courtesy (calling when late, etc.)
We don't have to be stuffed-shirt or formal around our mates, but they
are still human beings. And every human being deserves thoughtfulness.
22. Using active-listening skills
Active listening is more than hearing the spoken words. It is actively
letting the other person know you are interested in what they have to say.
23. Taking action to overcome problems
Action is always necessary to overcome problems that inevitably arise in
24. Committing to a long-term relationship
A healthy couple is committed to working together. Both partners realize
that togetherness necessarily means having some differences in opinions.
Healthy partners are ready to negotiate those differences, rather than turn
away from them or compete to win.
25. Working together toward mutual goals
Healthy people have goals. These goals may involve raising a family,
building a corporation, buying a certain type of house, or saving toward
their retirement. Healthy couples intertwine personal goals. They work
together for mutual fulfillment.
A Comparison: Healthy Relationship
Kindness, emotional support, understanding, vulnerability, respect, trust,
courtesy, cherishing, honesty, monogamy, consideration, continuity, equality,
Attacks, rage, hysterics, control, rescuing, distrust, dependency, placating,
dishonesty, cheating or philandering, withholding, multiple break-ups, desire to
win or blame, unreliability
article is excerpted from If This Is Love, Why Am I So Lonely? ©1996,
by Helene C. Parker with Doreen L. Virtue. Reprinted with permission of the
publisher, Fairview Press. http://www.FairviewPress.org
About the Author
C Parker, Ph.D.,is a well-known psychotherapist who specializes in relationship
therapy. She has treated many individuals and couples in premarital, predivorce,
and postdivorce therapy. She has received many awards for her work, including a
tribute from the state of California for her counseling work with female
prisoners who have committed crimes of passion.
L. Virtue, Ph.D., is the author of the best selling Yo-Yo
Syndrome Diet and Yo-Yo
Relationships. As a psychotherapist, she also has
extensive background in relationship therapy. Her writing has been published in
Woman's Day, TV Guide, Women's Own, Y. M., Your Health, and Woman magazines.
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