For some people, a healthy relationship seems to be an impossibility. For others having any sort of relationship looks impossible.
There are usually distinct reasons behind these scenarios. As is so often the case with emotional and mental health issues, it is something that is formed during childhood years.
Although some relationship lessons are starting in schools now, for most of us our teachers on this vital subject were our parents. If their relationship was not very healthy or even completely dysfunctional – perhaps even an abusive one – then that is what we learned.
These relationship lessons were very thorough as they took place over many formative years behind closed doors. As children, we had to pay attention.
Paying attention to dysfunction
As children, we are all like sponges when it comes to learning, soaking in everything we see in the world around us. When we are children, our parents – no matter how they behave – are almost God-like figures.
So we respectfully pay devoted attention to everything they say and do. Even if we wanted, for most of our childhood we are unable to do anything else as otherwise we simply would not survive.
It means, tragically, that if our father always shouted at our mother, that’s what we learn is a way to behave. On the other hand, if we had a mother who always sulked for days when things didn’t go her way, that’s also a lesson that we learn over usually around two decades until we leave home.
But when we leave a home that’s not where it ends. We take it with us out into the big wide world.
Wired in the wrong way
Most often by our teens, we will have already started our own “romantic” relationships. By then we will have been “wired” in certain ways. All too often, and tragically, the wiring is completely the wrong way round.
So we will repeat the patterns we have been shown, that we have learned over those years. It could be that we witnessed an abusive relationship for two decades.
But just because we were, for instance, a boy who witnessed his father abusing his mother doesn’t mean we will end up being an abuser. If we are more like our mother in character we may find ourselves in similar abusive relationships – but as the abused partner.
We will be deeply unhappy. We know it’s not something that should be happening as we are shouted at, belittled, controlled, or physically abused.
Yet as it is something that we saw and witnessed so often growing up it has a sense of familiarity about it. We may not even realize that there are alternative ways of a relationship existing.
It could be said that we have become an expert in unhealthy relationships. In fact, a great many people in unhealthy relationships could not even define what a healthy relationship is like in any way.
What does a healthy relationship look like?
- Lighthearted moods are the norm.
- There is open communication.
- There is complete trust.
- Physical intimacy is normal – meaning cuddles, kissing, holding hands and sex.
- Each partner has a distinct sense of self.
- Teamwork exists, with both partners equally contributing.
- There is the ability and desire to amicably resolve conflicts.
- There is equal commitment to the relationship.
- One partner has the power: there is only one who makes the decisions.
- There’s unhealthy communication – with one partner never really listened to or allowed an opinion.
- Disagreements are never resolved.
- There are signs of control, such as only one partner having the money.
- There’s no respect for healthy boundaries, so that one partner may feel as if they are constantly walking on eggshells.
- Time spent together – there’s either too little time together or too much, which can indicate one partner is controlling.
- Frequent criticism is aimed at one of the partners as a way to lower their self-esteem or even destroy their sense of self. This is mostly verbal, but can also mean such as eye rolling or laughing in an attempt to ridicule.
- There is emotional, verbal and/or physical abuse towards one partner.
- There are signs of codependency.
- Commitment needs are different.
Because many people in an unhealthy relationship do not realize it is so dysfunctional, they either carry on struggling or at some point, it reaches a bitter end. If the people from such a relationship do not do any therapeutic work on themselves it will be most likely when they find a new partner that the problems will carry on as before.
More often than not these relationships are about two people who feel an aching emptiness and are trying to fill it. But this is something that needs to ultimately come from within.
When children witness an unhealthy relationship between their parents, it leaves them feeling unloved and unlovable. Childhood trauma including abuse frequently leaves someone feeling as if they were to blame, negatively impacts self-esteem and consequently, it makes it difficult for them to form close relationships.
Good therapy will help them find the love that is inside and develop that self-love – to know that they are completely lovable.
As counselor John Bradshaw, author of one of the world’s bestselling recovery books Healing The Shame That Binds You, wrote: “Total self-love and acceptance is the only foundation for happiness and the love of others.”
Compressed torment of generations
For some people, a “romantic” relationship of any sort never seems to really happen, at least not for more than a very short period or even totally eludes them. For many, the tragic truth is that they realize somewhere deep down that the relationship they saw at home between their parents was extremely unhealthy.
This may frighten them from having any relationship. Sometimes it is the case, for example, that the son of a man who was continually abusive to his partner identifies with his father – but is terrified of becoming the same sort of man if he gets into a relationship.
So he will avoid them. If a relationship does start, he will at some point before it can develop too much, subconsciously sabotage it.
None of this should be to blame the parents in an unhealthy relationship for not teaching us well – as it is all usually intergenerational. Most often it is as addiction expert and bestselling author Dr. Gabor Maté says when talking about trauma and addiction, those unhealthy relationships are a consequence of “the compressed torment of generations”.
So it is normally the case that two people who grew up witnessing dysfunctional relationships between their parents will find each other as adults. The dysfunctional relationship pattern persists – and if they have children it is unwittingly handed down.
Thankfully, there are proven successful ways to break this cycle of dysfunction. In the first instance, it’s to simply know the difference between a healthy and unhealthy relationship.
To discover if a relationship is healthy, ask the following questions – and if “yes” is the answer to most of the questions, then your relationship is healthy.
Do we equally give to each other?
Can I be who I really am in the relationship?
Is my life better with my partner in it?
Does our relationship have meaning?
Are we aiming for the same type of relationship?
Am I encouraged to develop and grow by my partner?
Do we share the same vision?