How To Make Sure Your Relationships Are Functional, Not Dysfunctional

An 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).

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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

Are Your Relationships Healthy?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 problems."

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 manner

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 irrevocable damage.

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 following:

* "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 attainment."

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 equitable relationship.

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.


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 a relationship.

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, credibility

Unhealthy Relationship

Attacks, rage, hysterics, control, rescuing, distrust, dependency, placating, dishonesty, cheating or philandering, withholding, multiple break-ups, desire to win or blame, unreliability.

©1996. Reprinted with permission of the publisher,
Fairview Press.

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If This Is Love, Why Am I So Lonely?  by Helene C. Parker with Doreen L. Virtue. If This Is Love, Why Am I So Lonely?
by Helene C. Parker with Doreen L. Virtue.

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About the Authors

Helene 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.

Doreen 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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