Not all relationships are healthy and some can be negative, empty and destructive and can lead to stress, anxiety and low mood. Learning how to identify the difference between a healthy and un-healthy relationship and developing skills to develop new or build upon the positive relationships can contribute greatly to living a satisfying life.
Characteristics of a healthy or positive relationship:
Feeling accepted and cared for by others can boost our self-esteem and self-image.
Long-term relationships are based on trust. When we trust others, we are more relaxed, comfortable and willing to be ourselves.
Communication is the foundation of a healthy relationship. Being able to express yourself and allowing your partner to express themselves, is an important part of any positive relationship.
Mutual acknowledgement and respecting of each others thoughts, opinions and decisions even if you do not agree.
All relationships are unique and couples can go through various changes both personally and together throughout their relationship. It can be helpful to be aware of the different changes that can occur in long-term relationships often go through to help you consider what factors might be helping or hindering you in moving forward.
Often in the very early stages of a relationship we tend to see our partners in quite an idealistic light. There is generally a strong physical attraction and both partners are keen to please each other and to focus on all the positive characteristics of the other person. As you get to know each other better, you are likely to begin to see the other person more clearly and to notice differences between you rather than just all the things you have in common. We tend to be less likely to focus solely on pleasing the other person.
Conflict may begin to emerge in the relationship, often around differences in personality but also in values and aspirations for the future. This may be more apparent at times when you are considering developing the level of commitment in the relationship for example whether to get married, buy a house, have children etc.
Another issue that can arise at this stage is around beginning to question whether the relationship is still ‘fun’ and whether you can still be yourself and be in that relationship.
Being able to resolve these issues both as an individual and as a couple tends to strengthen the relationship and re-affirm your commitment to each other. Issues are likely to continue to arise throughout the course of your relationship and often what is most important is how difficulties are discussed rather than the difficulties themselves.
Common areas of difficulty in any type of relationship
Compromise is necessary in any relationship, whether you’re at work or with your partner or spouse. Both partners must be willing to make concessions to reach the common good. The best relationships include an equal amount of sacrifice from each partner, so no one feels taken advantage of or ignored.
Adapting to change
Changes in life outside your relationship will impact what you want and need from the relationship. Since change is inevitable, welcoming it as an opportunity to enhance the relationship is often more beneficial than trying to stop it happening.
Inevitably, when we start a new relationship, we will make some comparisons to our previous relationships. It’s useful to keep in mind though that it can be unhelpful to base expectations for a current relationship or partner on experiences from a past one. Every new partner and every new relationship is fresh and unique. Of course some things may be the same but many things will or can be different as well and often this is a positive thing. Expectations can also lead to difficulties if one partner has particular expectations around their partner’s behaviour that do not match up with the behaviour itself. It is important to reflect on the role that both people play in this. It may be that one person is not aware of the other partner’s expectations, which often relates to how well they can communicate them using phrases such as ‘I want, I need’ etc.’ Without this, it is hard to create any kind of compromise between what someone would like, and what the reality of the situation is. A compromise might be each person being willing to adapt their behaviour to meet some of the other person’s needs but it may also be reasonable that they can adapt some of their expectations to fit with their partners behaviour patterns.
Dealing with conflict
Try to deal with individual issues before they start piling on top of each other and become unmanageable. Disagreements in relationships can be healthy and important however it’s a good idea to be mindful of how you discuss issues and what the impact of this is. Expressing your own opinion and also listening to the other person’s viewpoint is vital. Techniques such as taking time to cool off, writing feelings in a journal and talking to a therapist are also healthy ways to deal with on-going conflict between you and your partner.
Trust is a vital part of romantic relationships. A high level of mistrust from one or both partners in a relationship can prevent either person from feeling safe in the relationship and can lead to behaviour such as checking up on the other person or constantly questioning them, which over time can damage the relationship. Trust issues can be present for a variety of reasons, from the individual relationship history of one or both partners, to childhood experiences and experiences of observing the relationships of other people close to them such as their parents. Different people need different things from relationships or communicate in different ways, which can also impact on trust. For example someone who feels that they need a lot of reassurance could find it difficult to be in a relationship with someone for whom this is not particularly important and over time this could lead to paranoia and mistrust.
Low self-esteem can also play a part in finding it difficult to trust your partner. Low self-esteem means having a generally negative overall opinion of yourself and judging and evaluating yourself negatively. We can continue to experience low self-esteem even though our circumstances have changed from the past because of the negative core beliefs we hold.
Core beliefs are strongly held beliefs about ourselves that influence what we think and how we feel. They usually influence us unconsciously and we rarely ever question whether these beliefs are true. Common negative core beliefs are:
- I am not worthy
- I am unlovable
- I am not good enough
- I am not important
- I never get things right
Feeling unlovable or not worthy of love in some way can contribute to finding it very difficult to accept love from your partner. This can lead to mistrust as well as to an unconscious sabotaging of your relationship. At some level you may find it fundamentally difficult to trust someone else or to believe that they love you.
If you feel you or your partner has an issue with trust it can be a good idea to talk to a therapist who can get to the root of these trust issues and can help you work through them as a couple or separately in individual therapy if need be. The good news is that through therapy positive changes can be made to address to core beliefs that might be holding you back.
When one person has had an affair it will generally have a huge impact on the relationship and is hugely distressing for the other person. It is possible however to work through these issues and move on from an affair if this is what both partners want. Initially it can be very hard to cope with the emotions that infidelity can bring up such as anger, feelings of betrayal and worry about what this means about both the individual and the relationship. Until someone feels more able to manage these strong emotions, it can be quite difficult to look at moving forward and it may be more helpful to allow some space and time until both people feel ready to do this.
It’s also useful to think about things that can be done to prevent the situation becoming even worse. When people are feeling betrayed and angry they may do things like encouraging other family members to side with them against the other person, use name-calling and putdowns or try to seek revenge on their partner.
While these things are completely understandable, they only tend to aggravate the situation and make it more difficult to reconcile if that is what you want to do in the future. It can help to think about whether something that feels helpful in the short term like ‘getting your own back’ will actually end up having more unhelpful long term consequences and ultimately lead to more distress overall. When beginning to work through the issues, it’s very important that you both understand why the affair or affairs happened in the first place. This can be a painful and lengthy process but it is vital if you are to move on and repair your relationship. Affairs rarely happen due to just one thing, it is normally due to a combination of factors. Thinking about the different phases your relationship has been through, how you or your partner have changed over the years and your current lifestyle can help you to understand why your partner has been unfaithful.
Only you can decide what to do after an affair and whilst affairs can devastate relationships, they can provide an opportunity for positive growth too.
Communication is a vital part of creating and maintaining all healthy relationships. Learning to communicate more effectively can play a huge role in preventing and resolving difficulties.
- What is communication?
“The process by which we establish contact and exchange information with others” (Insel and Roth, 1996)
- Why is effective communication so important?
o It influences all relationships
o Relationships are central to well-being
o Lack of effective communication can lead to disputes, isolation & misunderstandings, all of which can cause emotional distress
o One cannot NOT communicate (we are always communicating). All behaviour has a message of some sort, whether it’s intentional or not
- Three essential skills of good communication
o Listening to what the other person is saying
o Expressing how you feel and what you think
o Accepting the other person’s opinions and feelings, even when they are different to your own
Divorce and separation
Latest statistics demonstrate the challenges that long-term couples can face. It can be easy to compare yourself and your situation to others if your relationship or marriage breaks down. Going through a relationship break-up can be especially difficult when it involves children and it can be helpful to acknowledge that there is no such thing as a ‘normal’ family and there are huge amounts of different ways in which people live and make their families work. It is important to remember that everybody is different and every family is different and it’s about making your situation work for you.
Going through the break-up of a long-term relationship can be very painful and can trigger difficult feelings such as anger, guilt, regret and sadness. On top of the significant emotional impact of a long-term relationship ending it can also often involve practical changes and upheavals such as moving home, negotiating child-care responsibilities and sorting out the legalities involved in divorce.
The emotional impact that a relationship break-up can have varies from person to person, however generally speaking strong feelings of loss are involved. This is not necessarily linked purely to the loss of your partner but also to the loss of the future you thought you were going to have together. Coping with the loss of shared dreams, hopes, plans, support and shared memories is essentially a grieving process and is something everybody does differently. You might find it helpful to consider whether there are ways to cope with and express your emotions in a healthy way that can help you to heal and move on.
Unhelpful coping strategies
Often when we are anxious, low or stressed, we might use things like alcohol, drugs or cigarettes to help us cope. Although these may make you feel slightly better in the short term, they do not help to address the problem. Additionally, they tend to have longer term unhelpful consequences such as increasing our cortisol level which increases stress and anxiety, increasing feelings of guilt and having a negative impact on pur physical health. In addition, many people are more likely to behave in ways they they later regret under the influence of alcohol and drugs, especially if they are already in a potentially volatile situation such as a relationship break up
If you are experiencing any of these difficulties it is really important that you do not continue to keep trying to cope with them alone. The sooner you can address these problems, the sooner you can get your life back on track. Therapy can help you to explore and identify the problems in your relationship and help you to develop skills and techniques to help you to make positive changes.