Written by Lupita Lance, Student Advocate at Ashford University
We engage in conversations with people every day. It happens casually with our loved ones, more formally with co-workers, and randomly with people we meet throughout our day. Many of these conversations are part of our effort to feel connected. With a relationship that we care deeply about, such as a parent, partner, or child, this becomes especially true.
Nonetheless, we often forget to pay attention to the type of relationship we are fostering through these interactions. Meaning, we can lose focus of whether this is a healthy relationship for us or not. But how do we know when we are engaging in a healthy relationship, how to maintain a healthy relationship when we’re in it, and what is a healthy relationship is to begin with? Let’s start with looking at our history for some examples.
Reflecting on Past Experiences
Researchers agree that as children, we develop coping mechanisms as a means of protection from harm or pain, and we continue to use those same coping skills through our adult life (Brown, 2017). With this in mind, it makes sense that I often think about my experiences growing up and what I’ve learned about relationships throughout my life. Our challenge becomes figuring out which of these learned behaviors are still working in our favor, and which are now preventing us from creating and maintaining healthy connections. To help me with filtering these experiences, I asked myself an important question, “What is a healthy relationship to me and what feelings can I associate with these relationships?”
What is healthy?
The National Domestic Violence Hotline (NDVH) provides some helpful information on how to identify a healthy relationship. They also provide a definition for healthy relationships that we can use to create a shared understanding. According to NDVH, “Healthy relationships allow both partners to feel supported and connected but still feel independent…If something doesn’t feel right, you should have the freedom to voice your concerns to your partner.”
To build on the information from NDVH, I viewed Brene Brown’s presentation about Trust, Self-Compassion and Heartfelt Apologies, with Kristin Neff, Ph.D. and Harriet Lerner, Ph.D. Within this presentation Brown shared her belief that, “Without trust, there can be no meaningful connection between people. This is true in every part of our lives – as a partner, parent, colleague, leader, or friend.”
This piece about trust truly resonated with me. Trust is one of the most important pieces in creating a healthy relationship in my life. It’s about understanding expectations that we have set up as part of our relationship, what is an acceptable behavior, and the reliability of the other person in honoring this agreement. So, while there’s likely to be crossover in our unique definitions of a health relationship, such as boundaries and communication, we all need to consider what is important to us in the development of our most cherished relationships and to define what we consider to be a healthy relationship for us moving forward.
Consider some self-assessment
Like many other students reading this, you may already be online looking for a checklist of healthy and unhealthy characteristics that you can use to review a current relationship, be it with a friend, a romantic partner, or a family member. I’ve listed two categories below that you can use as a jumping off point.
Communication: Because communication is often how we express our feelings, take note of whether the following factors are evidenced in the relationship:
- Treating each other with respect
- Speaking openly to one another about thoughts and feelings
- Feeling heard when expressing feelings
- Listening to each other and compromise
- Avoiding criticizing each other
- Supporting doing the things you each like, together and on your own
- Celebrating each other’s accomplishments and successes
Boundaries: Each person should express to their partner what they are and are not comfortable with, when it comes finances, sex life, family, friends, personal space, and time. In a healthy relationship with boundaries, both partners:
- Allow each other to spend time with friends and family
- Do not abuse technology to check on a each other
- Trust each other without requiring a “check in”
- Do not pressure the other to do things that they don’t want to do
- Do not constantly accuse the other of being unfaithful
As long as we are willing to challenge ourselves to become aware of these dynamics within our relationships we can figure out what we want to change, what is getting in our way to make those connections, and how we can begin to move towards fostering healthy relationships in our lives.
What if the relationship is toxic?
Equally important to having or engaging in healthy relationships is our willingness to look and learn to identify unhealthy behaviors, including our own. We don’t usually think about how certain learned behaviors can be considered unhealthy because we grew up in environments where we saw or experienced these behaviors as part of the relationship. Many of these behaviors are how we learned to show love and affection from a young age. So, as I mentioned above, our struggle can be to decide whether we want to continue to have these same behaviors as part of our future relationships or not.
As we work on identifying those behaviors in our current relationships, we can use the Power and Control Wheel, which is also used by many agencies to help identify abusive behaviors amongst victims of violence. It’s important to recognize that this is a sensitive topic and can trigger any number of feelings and responses. Yet, it is only by learning and teaching each other about these topics that we can become aware of what our needs are for a healthy relationship and how to reach out for support to achieve those goals.
- Family Justice Center Alliance – The Family Justice Center Alliance, a program of Alliance for HOPE International, focuses on developing and supporting multi-agency collaboratives and multi-disciplinary models where victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, elder abuse, human trafficking, and other forms of violence can come to one place. familyjusticecenter.org.
- Camp HOPE America – a program of Camp HOPE America, a program of Alliance for HOPE International, is the first nationwide camping and mentoring initiative in the United States to focus on children exposed to domestic violence. Camp HOPE operates in collaboration withFamily Justice Centers and community-based domestic violence and child advocacy agencies across the United States at no cost to the camper or their families.
- National Coalition Against Domestic Violence – NCADV is the voice of victims and survivors. We are the catalyst for changing society to have zero tolerance for domestic violence. We do this by affecting public policy, increasing understanding of the impact of domestic violence, and providing programs and education that drive that change. http://ncadv.org/.
- National Domestic Violence Hotline – Our highly-trained advocates are available 24/7 to talk confidentially with anyone experiencing domestic violence, seeking resources or information, or questioning unhealthy aspects of their relationship.http://www.thehotline.org/.
- org provides legal information and support to victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.
Military Family and Service Members Resources
- Family Advocacy Programs (FAPs) provide education and awareness programs for all members of the military on the subjects of domestic violence and child abuse. They also provide support through victim advocates who work with victims confidentially to help victims get the care they need while deciding what to do next. To find the closest FAP near you please visit DoD Military Instillations Service Locator. You can also visit the Family Advocacy Program for a complete list of prevention programs and victim advocate services.
- DoD Safe Helpline provides sexual assault support for the Department of Defense community. Operated by RAINN, this service is confidential, anonymous, secure and available worldwide, 24/7 by click, call (877-995-5247) or text—providing victims with the help they need anytime, anywhere.
- Stateside Legal provides information and resources for individuals affected by MST.
- VA Military Sexual Trauma Support provides information on MST and how Veterans can get assistance.
Brown, Brene, Ph.D., Trust, Self-Compassion and Heartfelt Apologies, with Kristin Neff, Ph.D. and Harriet Lerner, Ph.D. PESI.Com. Online Course. Accessed October 3, 2017.
Brown, Brene, Ph.D., Shame Shields: The Armor We Use to Protect Ourselves and Why It Doesn’t Serve Us. PESI.Com. Free 60-Minute CE Online Couse. https://catalog.pesi.com/sq/bh_001195_brenebrown_email-15258. Accessed November 10, 2017.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline, accessed November 3, 2017.